The car vs. SUV war is over, and guess what? The SUVs won. They started winning skirmishes in the 1990s, gained market share, then lost a battle or two with the 2008 economic downturn. But they were down only for a year or two, and since then it’s been straight upwards.
By the end of 2016, SUVs and light trucks were outselling cars by three million units annually. According to LMC Automotive, by 2023 there will be 180 SUV models on the U.S. market, compared to 118 now (65 mainstream and crossover, 53 luxury). Sales of SUVs and crossovers have more than doubled since 2010, and every carmaker is building them—even unlikely high-performance luxury makes such as Lamborghini, Jaguar and even (gulp) Ferrari.
And, lest we forget, Ford recently announced it will make only SUVs, pickups and crossovers, retaining only the Mustang and a crossover version of the Focus.
I’ve yelled about SUVs until I got blue in the face, but it did nothing to change the preference of American buyers, and anyway my criticism is now somewhat out of date. Today’s crossovers are built on car platforms and mostly get very good fuel economy. They’re indistinguishable from cars where the environment is concerned, but they have the necessary styling--sometimes it's only cladding and big wheels--that tells the consumer, "I'm an SUV!"
Which brings us to today. Have you seen the Bollinger Motors car?
It’s an all-electric American-made SUV with 200 miles of range, designed to be a work truck. When you look at it, you’re going to say, Land Rover Series 1 or early Willys Jeep. Robert Bollinger, who has a design degree from Carnegie Mellon, told me:
People do see influences from those classic vehicles. But when you create an off-road vehicle to be practical and usable, you end up with those shapes. We wanted to do flat metal bends so we didn’t have to invest in expensive stamping, and that leads to the classic utilitarian look we’re all familiar with. Basically, I wanted it to look “not designed.” We said, the fenders have to go here, the hood here, and that led to the decisions we made. We wanted everything to be done for a good reason, not because styling dictated it.
The B1 will be pretty much assembled by hand, though we’re not bending every piece—major components will be coming from suppliers.
Bollinger Motors says its B1—which should have 400 horsepower when the final motor decisions are made—is targeted at farm work, remote construction projects and, of course, off-roaders. That’s the group that’s shown the most enthusiasm for the B1 so far, Bollinger said. The vehicle will be on the market by the fourth quarter of next year, with a price tag to be determined. It won’t be cheap, though—the huge battery pack is 120 kilowatt-hours, and they don’t give those away.
It’s funny, though. SUVs—which out started with the aerodynamics of a brick—have steadily improved, to the point where they look more and more like, well, cars. The new Jaguar I-Pace electric crossover has a .029 coefficient of aerodynamic drag, which is not quite as good as a Toyota Prius, but close. It's darned good off-road, too, with some expertise shared with partner Land Rover.
Where did the boxy SUV shape come from? The history is interesting. The origin story, of course, dates to World War II, when the Jeep (an adaptation of “general purpose" vehicle) helped win the war. Willys got the contract, winning over competitors Bantam and Ford. Willys’ “Quad” was delivered to the Army in 1940, with a 60-horsepower engine boasting a go-anywhere 105 foot pounds of torque. Just 1,500 of those MA models were built, but the MB was made in an edition of 300,000 between 1941 and 1945.
Civilian Jeeps were on the road by 1945, and Land Rover in Britain had its box out by 1948. Obviously, form followed function. These four-wheel-drive vehicles weren’t “styled” so much as they were given the minimum of sheet metal to do the job. Practicality was everything, but of course the design of both the Jeep and Land Rover became “classic,” and for many buyers that trumped newer more streamlined offerings. Today’s Wrangler looks like the old-timers, and buyers get mad when there’s too much change.
The Wrangler still seems primitive to me—doors were not even offered until the CJ-7 in 1976. But it’s viewed as just the thing for frat guys in muscle t-shirts needing to pick up the keg. By 1956 you could get a Land Rover with a closed body, but it remained fairly basic, and a far cry from today’s luxurious Range Rovers. Still, the classic Land Rovers enjoy a strong factory, and the company is even rebuilding them to factory specs. A like-new Series 1 will set you back $85,000 to $112,000.
All that’s in line with the current craze for older SUVs such as the Ford Bronco and Toyota Land Cruiser/4Runner. They’re getting restored as high-end weekend classics, and bringing in big money. I’m seeing new-old 1960s and 1970s Broncos for $30,000 to $40,000, which is kind of crazy.
Here's how my friend Eric Evarts, the acting editor of Green Car Reports, sees the phenomenon:
Americans are seeking out old Broncos, Land Cruisers, 4Runners and Toyota pickups for their off-road ability. As automakers have all switched to building crossover vehicles, very few SUVs with real off-road capability are built anymore. The cheapest is the new Toyota 4Runner, which starts at almost $37,000--more than most people want to spend on a car that they plan on bashing into rocks and brush off road. That leaves used off-roaders as the next best option. There has always been a minority of drivers who do take their SUVs off road. It was never the majority of the market who bought SUVs. But these groups still exist. Off-road-driving theme parks have sprung up around the country to serve their interests in an age of limited access to public and private wilderness areas for driving. Automakers over produced these off-road SUVs through the 1990s, but they've now dialed back too far in switching to crossovers.
How’s this for specs on a 1969 Bronco priced at $55,900?
Ron Davis-built automatic, mirror finish Wimbledon white paint with blue stripe, cowl hood, all NEW Bronco glass tub ($4K), steel fenders, tan bucket + rear bench seat interior, full factory gauges, removable soft top, black tinted window soft top, ceramic coated Flowmaster dual exhaust, serpentine belt system, power disc brakes + steering, Mickey Thompson bead lock wheels with M/T Baja claw tires, Warner locking hubs, dual shocks, steering stabilizer, powder coated frame, HID headlights, aluminum radiator, etc., comes with a 2 thick folder of receipts, look underneath.
The buyer of that Bronco might be a completely different guy than the average Bollinger customer, but maybe not. Bollinger himself imagines a range of buyers, from serious off-roaders enchanted by the power, torque and ground clearance to environmentalists liking the zero emissions to middle-of-the-road customers disenchanted with diesel.
The bottom line is that SUVs are proving invincible, even to high gas prices. I saw tons of them in China and Europe during recent visits—it’s not just an American phenomenon. The classic boxy off-roader is destined to live on, and it’s a good thing that some of them will have zero-emission drivetrains.
Here's a period piece, a 1943 "Autobiography of a Jeep," with some great footage about how it came to be: