BY: MORGAN KORN, ABC NEWS
(NEW YORK) — Approach, departure and breakover angles: Welcome to the new world of SUVs.
The latest crop of sport utility vehicles can ford a stream (or river), climb over rocks, boulders and hills and nimbly glide down steep, mountainous terrain. Americans’ current fascination with off-roading has been a boon to carmakers desperate to sell new vehicles since the coronavirus pandemic struck.
“People are doing more road trips and staying local … automakers couldn’t have timed this,” Jeff Schuster of LMC Automotive told ABC News. “There’s been more of a focus on an SUV’s capability.”
Spotlighting a vehicle’s off-roading credentials allows carmakers to stand out in a crowded and maturing SUV market, he noted.
“There are SUVs that can be taken on the Nürburgring [race track] and now we have SUVs that go up a 40% incline,” Schuster explained. “No one wants to be left out of a segment. It’s ‘Keep up with the Joneses’ for automakers.”
In September, British carmaker Jaguar Land Rover delivered its 2,000th Defender SUV, a rugged yet luxurious 4X4 that returned to U.S. showrooms this spring after a 23-year absence. Its reputation as a “workhorse” ute always appealed to serious enthusiasts and the latest iteration still holds true to the Defender’s primary purpose: It can tackle 45-degree side slopes and inclines and higher-end trims offer adjustable air suspension and active differential. The versatile SUV also caters to drivers who place import on heated steering wheels and advanced driver-assistance technology.
“This Defender drives phenomenally on the road and can do crazy stuff too,” Simon Turner, product manager at Jaguar Land Rover, told ABC News. “The old one was tough to drive on a highway.”
He added, “It has to accomplish weekly daily needs. I think it will bring new buyers to the brand.”
In reality, a tiny percentage of SUV owners actually go off-roading, according to Karl Brauer, executive analyst at iSeeCars.com.
“Consumers who buy these vehicles love the ‘what if’ idea,” he told ABC News. “That alone will get them to buy these vehicles. Consumers want flexibility and confidence. But few will make that leap from mall parking lot to off-roading adventuring.”
Jaguar Land Rover encourages owners to test their off-roading mettle at the company’s experience center in Vermont. Coaches guide experienced and amateur drivers through various off-roading circuits 365 days a year. About 2,500 people sign up for the program annually with the goal of mastering techniques that can be applied to real world conditions.
“We do try to make the off-road experience relatable,” according to David Nunn, a location manager at the Vermont center. “Learning the pivot point of the vehicle, hand position, throttle control, brake inputs. What the vehicle is like in low traction scenarios.”
Few brands are so closely associated with off-roading than Land Rover and Jeep. Mark Allen, head of design at Jeep, told ABC News in September 2019 that 10% to 15% of customers take their Wranglers off-road. Skid plates, a necessity for challenging environs, come standard on all Wranglers and Jeep Gladiator trucks.
Other carmakers are also reaping the benefits of this popular trend. Roughly 18% of Expedition customers and 12% of Explorer customers take their vehicle off-road, according to Ford. Japanese automaker Toyota has six models that can withstand grueling off-roading conditions, including the Land Cruiser, 4Runner and Tacoma. Toyota claims nearly 20% of all off-roading takes place in one of its vehicles.
Even marques that prioritize opulence, horsepower and speed have built six-figure SUVs that can handle their own against any Land Rover or Jeep. The Mercedes-Benz G-Class, an “off-road legend since 1979,” has to pass extreme testing on the Schöckl, a local mountain in Graz, Austria, where the squarish and formidable SUV is manufactured. A new front axle and independent suspension has improved the SUV’s off-roading chops and handling. Fording depth in water and mud was increased to 27.6 inches and each G-Class comes equipped with three locking differentials and a low-range gear.
Aston Martin’s DBX, the first SUV from the British automaker, has the looks and dexterity to vanquish any off-road obstacle. It can tow loads up to 5,940 pounds and instill confidence in off-roading novices with its all-wheel-drive system, variable torque distribution and height adjustable air suspension. The SUV has five pre-configured driving modes, including Terrain and Terrain Plus.
And don’t discount the $330,000 Rolls-Royce Cullinan. The gargantuan SUV was “tested to destruction all over the planet” before it launched in 2018, according to the British automaker. The Cullinan’s air suspension system was specifically engineered to cushion the blows of any terrain: rough track, gravel, wet grass, mud, snow or sand. The 6,000-pound SUV can also effortlessly scale Wyoming’s Snow King Mountain and withstand seven days in Nevada’s extreme heat.
The excitement and demand surrounding these niche, all-terrain vehicles may have a limit, argued Stephanie Brinley, principal automotive analyst at IHS Markit.
“Off-road means a lot of different things to different people,” she told ABC News. “There are people who want something really good off-road even if they only do it twice a year. But not every consumer wants the same level of capability and not all utility vehicles can handle every off-road situation.”
Jaguar Land Rover’s Turner agreed that auto manufacturers are looking to capitalize on consumers’ thirst for off-roading. The tough, durable and industrial design of the Defender will likely attract motorists who “have a past connection to previous Defenders or for those who like adventure, either in heart or in spirit.” But, he acknowledged, the company does not “want to find out we made it too niche for one type of buyer.”
Schuster said off-roading SUVs are really marketed at consumers with high disposable incomes.
“They’re for people who want something different,” he said. “My SUV can do what your SUV can do — even better.”
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