Musings on the Motoring World

Why SUVs are popular, and how MPVs will dominate our roads

To most North Americans and Europeans the Lexus LM might be the most misleading acronym since a bunch of Filipino religious separatists started calling themselves after a porn genre. Though “LM” is generally read as “Le Mans”, one look at Lexus’ new LM luxury MPV would be enough for anyone to confirm that it won’t be gunning for any lap records around Circuit de la Sarthe.

People from regions who are familiar with Toyota’s Alphard and Vellfire luxury MPVs would instantly recognise it as the Lexus-badged, Lexus-equipped versions of those aforementioned models, whereas others hand would deride it. A Lexus MPV? What next? A Ferrari SU…oh wait.

The LM is nothing new to Lexus. Asian dealers have been petitioning for a Lexus version of the Toyota Alphard from as far back as 2014, but plans for such an MPV were always put on the backburner in favour of more “appealing” models to Western tastes – such as the NX SUV and RC coupe – for its North American customers and in their vain attempt to woo the European market. Lexus’ about-face to bring the LM to production, along with Mercedes-Benz’s new V-Class luxury people mover, not only shows there is a significant interest in such vehicles, but it is a possible sign that the future of the car lies with MPVs.  

Unless you were stuck in a cave for the last 20 years, the very notion that one day we will all be riding in boxy MPVs might be a little hard to believe. As of last year, it seems that the entire genre was put into terminal decline with sales shrinking by a million, with the genre being steadily driven to extinction in Europe. All the while the SUV, despite being the subject of constant derision by enthusiasts, seems to be taking an ever bigger share of the market with every passing year.

SUVs are not only wooing over mainstream car buyers, but quickly supplanting MPVs as the choice for families thanks to its size, versatility, and most importantly, styling. Finally, with the SUV there is a way to get the family around without having to look like you have conformed to an emasculated life of mortgages and school runs that would make a eunuch feel pity for. With an SUV anyone can imagine themselves as an explorer, seeking fresh new experiences even if it is at the corner of their local strip mall. What is the popular term again? Same-same but different? Like many things these days, it is all in the semantics. And to many, that is all that matters.

There is no denying that SUVs are hard to resist for anyone who has to put up with Monday morning congestion. It feels good to be the big fish carving through a school of lesser kin, emboldened by the assurance of its impregnability on the road where the rule of the jungle is law. While size matters, we can’t deny that a not-too-insignificant part of the modern-day SUV mythos taps into its ancestral links to purpose-built off-roaders.

You don’t need to look further than the use of words like “urban jungle”, “adventure”, and “active lifestyle” in the marketing jargon often used to adulate these grocery-carrying soft-roaders on the routine school run. Such thematic language elevates SUVs from being a mere means to an end into a facilitator of new experiences, which nicely fits the demands of societies where material wealth and stability has moved it on from commodifying materials towards the commodification of experiences.

An SUV, we are led to believe by both histrionics and marketing, can take you places, projecting with it an image of an intrepid life of non-conformity, even as its own sales figures outs it as the conformist choice. Even Renault saw it fit for their iconic Espace MPV to adopt SUV aesthetics. Like it or not, drivers draw a strong emotional connection with the cars they drive, seeing it as an extension of their being and identity, and contrary to the often-repeated mantra of enthusiasts that no SUV is able to deliver the right experiences, they are mistaken, an SUV only needs to promise them more.

With that all being said, how would MPVs be able to break through the SUVs growing hegemony? Ever since the genre reached the apogee of MPV design with the first-generation 1990 Toyota Estima, there really hasn’t been much in the way of improving its public image. All the while SUVs successfully retained its off-roader image while shedding its clunky mechanicals and adopting some refined appointments and on-road manners.

Although SUVs and MPVs both offer nearly the same sort of interior flexibility and – ironically – geared towards accommodating families and the “lifestyle crowd”, a lot of the former’s success is down to its aesthetic value to drivers. However, if we were to remove the driver from the equation, just as societies and automotive players plan on supplementing humans with machines, the fundamentals of car design would have to shift.

Be it a supercar, a supermini, or a souped-up pickup truck, every descendant of the Benz Patent-Motorwagen is designed around the driver. Everything from the cabin layout to the placement of its mechanicals is designed around the driver and centred on the primary task driving. No matter how much pundits would like to label an SUV as a new trend, it is no more revolutionary than being a glorified hatchback with a chronic case of gigantism.

Once the user is freed from the menial task of driving and cars adopt electric drivetrains, the traditional layout of two forward facing seats in the front and three in a row in the back would look as quaint as commuting on a penny farthing. Once the steering wheel is removed, designers would be able to revolutionise cabin design. And once a user no longer draws an emotional connection to its driving and aesthetic qualities, then all the image the SUV projects would be rendered, for the most part, moot.

It is in all likelihood that designers would favour the high cabin ceiling, flat floor, and seating flexibility and accessibility of MPVs, and it isn’t surprising that many future autonomous concept cars such as Mercedes-Benz’s Vision Urbanetic are closely resembling MPVs too. Such concepts may be whimsical predictions, but if you need any tangible proof that MPVs have a tangible future, look no further than the densely populated cities of Hong Kong and Tokyo.

These two wealthy megacities might serve as an accurate prediction of things to come for major population centres around the world where traffic congestion is an inescapable reality. Here the rich aren’t folding themselves into traditional sports car or limousine at the end of a long day. Instead, they are stepping into luxury MPVs like the Toyota Alphard, Nissan Elgrand, and Honda Elysion.

These MPVs may be towering condominiums on wheels as unemotional and indistinguishable as the towering skyscrapers of the cities that they inhabit, but inside they are plush and more spacious than anything in its price bracket could offer. Many of these MPVs are used as a mobile office, with some even being retrofitted with widescreen entertainment systems and full body massage seats to serve as a luxury home on the road.

Observers outside Asia might see these luxury MPVs as a purely “Asian trend”, but many owners and observers view these MPVs from a practical perspective rather than an aspirational one. As for why such MPVs don’t have a significant following in European and American cities it is quite simple, for a great many people still need to cover relatively vast distances in their daily commute, and at higher speeds, these MPVs don’t offer the same amount of high-speed refinement as traditional limousines and cars would. That being said, long-distance commutes itself might become a thing of the past.

Human societies are concentrating themselves into urban areas with population densities expected to rise over the next three decades and possibly into the foreseeable future, these luxury MPVs, which were born from the clogged microcosms of Hong Kong and Tokyo where the trivialities of driver desires are of little concern, are perfectly suited for an increasingly urbanised world. Why bend and crawl into your way into a car or climb into an SUV after a long day’s work, when you can simply step into one of these?

While it is increasingly likely that the heyday for the sort of cars enthusiasts prize is long gone, the good news is, that the SUV’s reign would be relatively short-lived as it will be unable to escape the same fate that befell the car it gradually displaced. For better or worse, the vehicle that will replace both would be closer to an MPV in form as drivers become redundant in a world where driving becomes irrelevant. If the LM is an indication of things to come, then it is a compromise we can agree to.

One reply on “Why SUVs are popular, and how MPVs will dominate our roads”

As an american I think we have the right to drive what ever, however I also think it is our responsibility to buy and utilize the most efficient vehicle available. From what I have observed in a great majority of cases the general class of vehicles called SUVs are poorly designed, over priced and under utilized. If an SUV is suppose to be able to be used in the bush, then why build a unibody (I ve been in south america, central asia, etc., where a typical SUV with a unibody sold in the states would fall apart). In the bush, a person does not want leather seats, an automatic transmission, a gas engine or unibody construction (guess what, a majority of SUVs sold in the USA have these features). The simple truth is a majority of SUVs in the USA are used in urban settings. Because SUVs have barn door aero dynamics, less responsive handling and larger parking footprints, they seem like the wrong type of vehicle for daily urban use.

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