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What Will Replace the SUV?

Electrification, autonomy, and Gen Z psychographics will change the shape of things to come

Electrification, autonomy, and Gen Z psychographics will change the shape of things to come

America’s current infatuation with SUVs was either a perfect storm of circumstance or a return to a familiar form. To some, it was a savvy marketing construct to embrace our disused frontier spirit, play off our post-9/11 survivalist crisis, and excuse our migration from unhip minivans and dowdy sedans into something cooler to haul our children to Montessori.

Or, in a longer view of history of transportation, the postwar love affair with sedans and coupes was the exception. As a transportation device, the SUV was what we were supposed to drive all along.

Read more on how and why the SUV has overtaken the sedan:

Crossover mania has been a demographic acid trip. What other vehicle could make both boomers and Gen Xers feel young again—with the bonus of a taller seating height for their aging hips and backs?

Sure, we all wanted to be that kayaker plunging 20 feet into the raging river in that original Nissan Xterra ad, with Lenny Kravitz extolling us to “Fly Away” in our earbuds. But the vast majority didn’t use the SUV for its intended purpose. It became a family hauler.

So, what percentage of SUV buyers has actually taken their vehicles off-road (as in, requiring ground clearance, AWD or 4WD, and a decently articulating suspension)? Automaker product planners say the answer is somewhere between 0 and 5 percent. (Yes, Jeep and Subaru owners, we know you represent a higher percentage.)

Although previous generations relied on automakers’ spirit guides to tell us what Americans should aspire to acquire, the mobility choices of millennials—and even more so of Generation Z—may be informed more by tech and connectivity.

MotorTrend asked an array of future-think experts to share their thoughts on what comes next after the SUV. They explored the influences of everything from electrification to urbanization, from marketing forces to even the sexual proclivities of newlyweds. Why? Because something always has to come next.

Peak SUV

First, the business case. Once crossovers become ubiquitous and commoditized, a retail bloodbath ensues. Such discounting kills the hipness factor for trend-sensitive consumers, not to mention the profit margin for automakers.

“When do we reach ‘peak SUV’? Is there even such a thing as peak SUV?” asked Andrew Coetzee, Toyota Motor North America’s group vice president for product planning and strategy. “The softer social issue of when the SUV reaches its coolness peak is the question that is on our minds. … Automakers are offering crossovers because they are more profitable than the passenger cars they are based on. But the SUV premium has been coming down drastically because the market is saturated. That business side cannot be denied.”

Hoping to read the magic eight ball, strategic planners are looking to the next vehicle shape that will provide strong profit margins. But how much control do they have over any given scenario?

Forward Into the Past

Eric Noble, product strategist and president of The CarLab consultancy in Orange, California, sees larger historical trends—such as architecture—presaging automotive product cycles. He also sees the 1960s–1990s demand for sedans in America and Europe as “a 30-year aberration from the norm” of SUV-shaped transportation, all the way back to pioneers’ covered wagons.

Beginning in the late 1950s, the Prairie School of architecture, launched by America’s flight to the suburbs, enabled a modern garage wide enough to fit a Lincoln sedan—while the sleek, neo-futuristic lines of Eero Saarinen’s buildings influenced vehicle designers to push cars closer to the road, Noble said. But none of that would have occurred without the postwar era having introduced smooth, uncrowded asphalt roads that allowed for vehicles to function comfortably with less suspension travel and ground clearance. Enter the sedan, the coupe, and the station wagon.

 

The upcoming 2020 Mazda CX-30, a close CUV relative of the Mazda3.

But with the past decade, Americans are moving back to the metropolis. Parking spaces are small and at a premium; our roads are crowded and pothole-riddled. Living vertically means shrinking the footprint of the car and raising its roofline to maintain the illusion of interior roominess.

If Noble’s architect-as-seer theory holds true, what do the postmodern stylings of Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry mean for the automobile? Perhaps the rise of styling cues seen in vehicles as varied as the Ford GT, KTM X-Bow, and BMW i8.

Psychographically, young Americans are also staying single longer. They hang out in groups, get married later, but once married start a family quicker, Noble said. That means crossovers (or crossover-shaped vehicles) are more coveted than sedans.

As SUVs have essentially replaced minivans and wood-paneled station wagons, could they become this generation’s unhip mom-mobiles? Despite their early embrace of CUVs, millennials could eventually reject their parents’ vehicular values and opt for something else.

Cars like the Audi A7 could redefine the shape of the sedan and make it aspirational again.

That could result in an intriguing side effect to Detroit’s abandonment of sedans in its race to increase SUV capacity. Luxury brands are staying loyal to that old-school shape and style. That could actually help resurrect the sedan (or sedan variants like the Audi A7) as aspirational options for young buyers, posited Tom De Vleesschauwer, leader of the transport and mobility practice for consulting giant IHS Markit in London.

This isn’t strictly an American phenomenon. Although JATO Dynamics sales data show the SUV boom is extending to Asia, being seen in a sedan is still a symbol of status there. As the world’s largest auto market, China will dictate global tastes—American exceptionalism be damned.

Electrification and Autonomy

Electrification will influence design, in terms of moving electric motors to the wheels and energy storage under the floorpan. Fuel economy and emissions regulations will shrink internal combustion engines into irrelevance. With all that underhood space empty, designers can shorten the dash-to-axle ratio and expand the interior lounge space.

“Because internal combustion is out of the game, you have more space on the same or smaller footprint,” said Klaus Bischoff, who has overseen VW’s ID series of electrified vehicles as the executive director of Volkswagen Design.

Also, the plug-and-play nature of electric-vehicle component sets could result in more vehicles riding on a skateboard platform, allowing for more flexibility to the sheetmetal “hat” that rides upon it.

The advent of autonomous driving systems may first be seen in the influence of blind-spot systems and rearview cameras—meaning the greenhouse of window glass could shrink into narrower slits. That’s OK, because today’s kids are looking at their screens, not out the window, Noble said.

As long as autonomous vehicles might require human interaction, retaining steering wheels and floor pedals will impact designers’ freedoms, said a Detroit future-product planner who requested anonymity. (His team is developing potential SUV replacements.)

The Detroit planner noted that the integration of autonomous technology could change the aesthetic for non-
autonomous vehicles—for example, tall roofs required to accommodate sensors could become accepted design in regular cars. “That could change the proportion of the car,” he said.

Regardless of how proportions change, a car still has to look good. “If my car can park itself, I still want it to look cool,” Dave Marek, Acura’s executive creative director, said. “Even with Uber and car-share, the cool factor still applies.” 

Comfort Over Speed

Urbanization means crowded commutes; the passenger is king, said Bernard Campbell, founder of the Campbell Group marketing consultancy, whose long-term assignments have included Hummer and Karma.

“The thrill of driving is fairly unattainable now,” he said. “There will be more focus on comfort like reclining back seats. For those in their 20s and 30s, technology has more sex appeal than horsepower. We’ll see rolling living rooms with glass roofs, big screens, and private audio zones. We’ll see reclining back seats like in the Lucid Air.”

De Vleesschauwer takes the passenger-first thinking another step, noting that in an autonomous framework, driving performance no longer matters—as all vehicles will follow the rules of the road.

“To a car enthusiast, this sounds like a doomsday scenario,” he said.

“But there’s still room and time for other types of cars. Perhaps we’ll see more racetracks where you will store your internal combustion car.”

For those who have “Red Barchetta” suddenly running through their heads, such gloomy prospects for the future doesn’t have to mean sterility of design.

“Cars are not only driven by functionality,” VW’s Bischoff said. “We don’t all want to sit in a telephone box to be transported to work. We expect more, something people can identify with,
and make commuting richer, better, and cooler. There is a vision of freedom that sits in there. It’s in the genetic code of mankind.”