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Letter From The UK: Is The SUV Bubble Going To Burst?

  • Does the modern SUV over-promise and under-deliver?
  • Do we really need all that fancy tech stuff in today’s vehicles? 
  • Geoff Maxted goes back to the basis in his latest Letter From The UK.

At the time of writing this, I’m driving my own car for once. No press vehicles for me for a couple of weeks and I have to say it is quite refreshing. The reasons for this are clear in my mind: My own small car is pleasingly devoid of the latest, happening now, this-will-change-your-life technology but it does have some thoughtful and sensible touches applied by me.

To my mind, that’s the important thing.

On My Cloud

For example, there’s a ticket holder on the windscreen. Big deal, you might reasonably say, but you have to admit that it is useful every time you utilise, here in the UK at least, a pay and display car park. No more worrying if it will slip off the dashboard or be carried away to one of those dark, mysterious corners of the car, where small coins go to die, by the draught from the closing door; usually much to the delight of the evil, smirking guy who checks that you have paid your due.

Similarly – and I know this to be true because I use it every winter  – there’s a simple plastic window ice scraper fitted neatly into space beside my driving seat. It works too. It scrapes. I have Bluetooth via the medium of an inexpensive gadget purchased locally and my nine-year-old (with free updates for life) Garmin navigation has never let me down.

Meanwhile other buyers are being sold a massive SUV absolutely bristling with expensive technology, some of which the owner will likely never use. See where I’m going with this?

Size Isn’t Everything. Mostly.

Not only are cars, like the population, getting bigger and heftier but they are also filling up with pointless technology for the sake of it. The TV advertisement here for the new Kia Sportage SUV is a case in point. It says the car is “more fun.” It has “even more tech” apparently. Neither of these items is further defined with added detail and it leaves me furiously shouting at the television from the comfort of my couch with increasing ridicule at all this pointless hyperbole.

This stuff is meaningless!

A car is a car. It is no more or less “fun” than the car next to it. In my opinion a car is only “fun” if it is driven in exciting and sporting ways or, harking back to the golden years, when it was used for, ahem, illicit romantic liaisons.

New Kia Sportage
Kia Sportage. Photo: Kia Motors UK.

Technology Fatigue

For most of my life I am connected whether I like it or not. Folks can get hold of me any time of the day or night via smartphone or tablet or laptop or personal computer. Sometimes they even write an actual letter on paper with an envelope and postage stamp!

Sometimes I stand back in amazement at how many devices I seem to have accumulated without consciously realising it. I own four cameras! Why? At least in my own small city car, unless I turn the Bluetooth on, I have sanctuary. It is my retreat; my place of refuge like a motoring monk. Put on a CD of Gregorian chants and just drive.

Although I can see that having your own mobile hot spot could be useful for business users, in a country as small as Great Britain, just how long would you be out of touch without it? Free Wi-Fi is everywhere, like air. Nothing in the world of work is that important even if they would like you to think it so.

The infotainment (oh, how I hate that artificial word, now in common use, alas) and navigation systems can now do many, many things, not all of them well. Be honest, how much of it is really necessary? How often will you really use that special option that looked so good in the showroom? Mood lighting? Come on! The fact is that once the novelty has worn off the chances are it will languish, forgotten at the bottom of the tech box, like an old, discarded toy abandoned by a child.

2019 Audi A7 Triton blue 3791
The 2019 Audi A7 has over 900 different interior or “ambient” lighting combinations. Photo: Audi of America, Inc.

The End of The SUV?

It isn’t just the technology that irks me (I have an “irk” list. How long have you got?); the Sport Utility Vehicle is getting bigger and bigger but to what end exactly? Most of them couldn’t handle much more than a dusty trail. They are not tough enough to work, like say, a simple F-150 or Silverado is. Seven seats sir? Unless you have an especially fecund relationship with your spouse, how many children are you planning on?

Need to move big, bulky things once in a while? What’s wrong with a U-Haul?

With less superfluous weight, a car automatically becomes faster and/or more economical. For example, we are often exhorted to stop keeping junk in the trunk to lighten the load. The same applies if your new, massive motor weighs in at two tons and is the size of Mount Rushmore.

Wouldn’t it be good if we could order our favoured choice of car without any of the technology thrust upon us? Drive a classic car from our glorious automotive past and you’ll see what I mean. There is nothing to distract you from the pleasure of motoring: no games, just driving.

coupe driving on country road
While the modern SUV is often ripe with technology, there is something about an old car and the open road.

Navigation & Umbrellas

Once, we drivers used to manage with things called maps to get about. They were made of folded paper and, if not in book form, had to be unfurled to read them, sometimes to the consternation of other road users. It’s fair to say that the sat-nav has made things easier but not necessarily more accurate, given the number of heavy commercial vehicles that get stuck in quaint English villages, because the driver believed the “suggested” route without thinking.

You don’t have to specify it on the order book. It is not compulsory. No audio connection? Burn a CD. And so on.

Obviously much of the safety kit available today is good, especially given the sloppy standard of driving we all too frequently witness. ABS, ESP, and all the other automotive acronyms have proved their worth but I don’t really need a klaxon to sound any time I go within six feet of a parked car. I don’t need a heads-up display – I’m not a fighter aircraft pilot. What I want is useful stuff on a day-to-day basis like the “umbrella in the door” option the Skoda brand offers on some of their European models.

How about a head-torch that charges up when the car is on the move?

skoda umbrella
Photo: Skoda UK.

Bare Essentials & Universal Truths

All I really want though is a supportive seat, a quality engine, smart handling, an open road, and my best girl by my side. (That’s Mrs. Maxted by the way before you raise an eyebrow). This is why I like my own car so much. It is small and easy to park. It is economical yet can keep up with average traffic road speed. In short, it does the job.

It is my firm conviction that, no matter how seemingly popular they are now, the SUV bubble will burst. They are simply getting too big and bulky, they are not as rugged as the name implies, and out here in the real world they can’t do any more than your average family wagon, which I think is the preferred option. An SUV just costs more to own and run and repair and maintain.

Sometime soon, Joe Public is going to realise this. And don’t even get me started on “crossovers.”

I’m off now to have a cold shower.

Geoff Maxted is a motoring writer, photographer, and author of our Letter From The UK series. Follow his work on Twitter: @DriveWrite

Letter from the UK