The spotlight was back on SUVs at the Frankfurt auto show this year, but not just because of new model launches. This time automakers were having to defend them against criticism from environmentalists and politicians, including the mayor of Frankfurt.
The host mayor traditionally gives a speech at the show, but this time the organizer, Germany's industry association the VDA, told mayor Pete Feldmann he was not needed. Feldmann published his prepared speech on Facebook anyway, in which he singled out SUVs for criticism as part of a wider plea for greater focus on green transport initiatives.
"I want to be honest: Frankfurt needs more buses and trains, but not more SUVs," he wrote.
In the run-up to the show, climate groups including Greenpeace and Deutsche Umwelthilfe called for SUVs to be banned to help reduce CO2 emissions.
"As long as SUVs rather than small electric vehicles dominate automotive transport, cars will remain the problem child for us climate activists," the consortium said.
It didn't help that a week before the show, a horrific crash in Berlin involving a Porsche Macan SUV killed four pedestrians, prompting calls for SUV bans in cities.
SUVs were being criticized by environmentalists a decade ago, leading to the London mayor calling for so-called "Chelsea tractors" to be banned from the city. But then automakers started building them on car platforms to improve the economy and make them more appealing to ordinary customers, who liked the higher driving position and more rugged styling.
Sales took off, and in the first half of this year, SUVs accounted for 37 percent of the European market, figures from JATO Dynamics showed.
SUVs were still very much in evidence at the Frankfurt show, most prominently at Land Rover, which revealed its new Defender off-roader.
Land Rover defended the SUV bodystyle, the only one it offers. "We believe in any walks of life we need choice. We live in democracies," Felix Brautigam, Land Rover chief commercial officer, told journalists on the sidelines of the event.
He said that that the drivetrain was more important than the bodystyle in terms of lowering CO2 and reaffirmed Land Rover's commitment to what it calls Destination Zero, reaching zero accidents, zero emissions and zero congestion.
The Defender will next year be offered with a plug-in hybrid drivetrain. "Choosing luxury and niche doesn't mean you have to spoil the environment," he said.
Tougher EU regulations on CO2 emissions are actually encouraging automakers to build larger cars, PSA Group CEO Carlos Tavares said.
"The way CO2 regulations are set, the lighter and smaller the car the more demanding the regulation is," he told journalists. The push for electrification is driving small cars out of the market he argued. "At the same time the regulations are killing small cars, someone asks what about SUVs? They are too big, they have too many emissions. Well, if they are meeting regulations perhaps they are not so bad," he said.
The appetite for SUVs could already be slowing. Growth in European SUV sales was only 0.7 percent in July, the lowest in a long time, JATO Dynamics reported. "SUV demand may be peaking after many years of growth," JATO analyst Felipe Munoz wrote in a recent report.
This could be repeated on a global scale. "Environmental opposition is certainly a potential blow back for the SUV and the larger vehicle globally," Jeff Schuster, LMC president of global forecasting, said.
The future of SUVs and cars in general rests on electrification, VW CEO Herbert Diess said in a speech ahead of the ID3 compact electric car reveal. "Even if there are some people who do not want to see it: The car has a great future ahead of it," he said. "Because it is losing its negative characteristics. It is becoming clean."