While the ultraluxury brands are preparing to enter the segment, volume and premium brands are stuffing their development pipelines with SUVs. In June, VW brand CEO Herbert Diess announced that by 2020 the automaker would sell 19 SUVs globally and those models would represent 40 percent of the brand’s overall sales. "This will help us defend our No 1 position in Europe and China, build up our brand in North American and lead to a rebound of the brand in South America," Diess said.
Ford will expand the number of SUV models it sells in the U.S to 13 by 2020 from seven now, Automotive News reported in February. Audi, meanwhile, will increase its SUV count to seven by 2019 from four. SUVs currently account for a third of Audi's total global sales, representing 40 percent of the brand’s volume in China and 47 percent in the U.S., the automaker's head of sales and marketing, Dietmar Voggenreiter said in March. "I believe the share of SUVs will further grow," he said. Asked whether SUV sales could reach half of Audi's total in the future, he said that was "maybe achievable."
Few could have predicted that SUVs would become so prevalent on Europe's roads, especially in the mid-2000s when environmental activists and politicians would take turns vilifying them. For instance, in 2004 the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, branded SUV drivers "complete idiots" for choosing vehicles that emitted far more carbon dioxide than car equivalents. He also threatened to charge SUV drivers 25 pounds to enter the city. (He was voted out before that happened.)
The fortunes of the SUV were revived when automakers made them more like regular cars by building them on the same platforms. The change started in Europe with the Nissan Qashqai compact SUV that debuted in 2006. Now in its second generation, it remains the region's biggest-selling SUV. "It draws from all other segments," Nissan Europe Chairman Paul Willcox said. "You have all the practicality, carbon dioxide performance, economy and driver dynamics, but it's much more attractive to consumers than a conventional hatchback."
Since the Qashqai's arrival, automakers have also learned that off-road ability is not a must for the average SUV buyer. Nissan says four-wheel-drive versions of the Qashqai account for just 5.3 percent of the model's sales in Europe. For the smaller Juke, just 1.9 percent of the subcompact SUV's European sales have four-wheel drive. Removing the hardware needed to drive the rear wheels as well as the front wheels cuts weight and reduces CO2 emissions.
The big problem that SUVs have today in Europe is the backlash against diesel. European customers have widely accepted the fuel over the last 10 years, especially for larger cars, as automakers refined what had been a coarse, noisy technology. The 15 percent to 20 percent improvement in fuel consumption over gasoline models allowed the market for SUVs to flourish by masking the penalty for their increased weight and air resistance compared with sedans, station wagons and hatchbacks.
Automakers that sell the most SUVs in Europe also have a high reliance on diesels. Last year, 96 percent of all Land Rovers sold in Europe were diesels, while the share was 83 percent at both Jaguar and Volvo, according to figures from market analysts AID. The trouble is that diesel sales are falling. In Germany, for example, they accounted for 39 percent of overall sales in June compared with nearly half in 2015, figures from the German motor transport authority (KBA) show. "Without a rapid campaign to preserve diesel, market share is going to decline much further," Max Warburton, an analyst at financial research firm Bernstein, wrote in a July report. "SUVs do not work in a European context with gasoline engines – the fuel economy is simply not acceptable to consumers."
The challenge for automakers will intensify starting in 2020, which is when tougher European fleet emissions rules for CO2 start to take effect. Warburton said if the anti-diesel sentiment continues to worsen automakers are going to find it almost impossible to hit CO2 targets without "substantial and expensive incremental electrification efforts."
Volvo has taken a first step in that direction by promising to electrify the powertrains in every all-new vehicle it launches starting in 2019. Most of its future models will pair a 48-volt mild hybrid with a gasoline or diesel engine. Jaguar, meanwhile, will unveil its I-Pace full-electric SUV later this year, and Audi will follow in 2018 with the e-tron battery-powered SUV.