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SUVs rule the road and that's a problem for auto makers

It's become an automotive axiom: The sport-utility vehicle is the new standard-issue automobile. Compact SUVs represent the largest vehicle segment in Canada and the United States. Luxury SUVs outsell luxury passenger cars. And, last year, Canadians bought more SUVs of all stripes than they did sedans.

It's a trend that industry pundits expect will keep building – but also a trend that's on a collision course with the overriding imperative of our age: the need to curb climate change by drastically reducing consumption of fossil fuels. To that end, governments worldwide have mandated steep fuel-economy improvements over the next five to 10 years.

Auto makers have countless technologies in their tool boxes to achieve fuel-economy goals – technologies that work on SUVs as much as on conventional cars. However, all other things being equal, SUVs can't help but be thirstier than conventional cars of comparable size. Taller bodies increase air resistance and sturdier construction adds weight, while AWD systems further add a double whammy of weight and friction. Compare, for instance, the Mazda3 and its CX-5 CUV sibling. Both use the same 2.0-litre engine and automatic transmission, but the CX-5's combined fuel consumption is 17 per cent higher than the 3's with FWD, and the CX-5 AWD is 4 per cent thirstier than the CX-5 FWD.

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How to reconcile this apparent standoff between consumer wants and societal needs? One part of the answer comes from market-intelligence company LMC Automotive. Speaking at 2015 TalkAUTO Canada, LMC's Jeff Shuster predicted that most of the SUV growth between 2014 and 2020 will be in small and compact SUVs – especially premium ones.

Shuster also forecasts 70 new or redesigned SUVs coming to market between 2017 and 2020. Already this year, we've seen first-time SUV entries from Jaguar, Bentley and Maserati. Meanwhile, Porsche Canada CEO Alexander Pollich told the Globe Auto Summit in February that SUVs account for 68 per cent of Porsche sales worldwide, and 70 per cent in Canada.

Is Jaguar concerned the F-Pace might cannibalize sales from sister brand Land Rover? "The Jaguar F-Pace is designed for a totally different customer than Land Rover," says Sam Pirillo, sales director at JLR Canada. "It is trying to go after the performance aspect and the driving dynamics. Land Rover [is] traditionally known for off-road and versatility, so we think there is room for both."

Auto makers sing from the same songsheet when explaining the swing to SUVs. Speaking at the Globe Auto Summit, Toyota Canada CEO Larry Hutchinson echoed most other execs in the room when he said, "The consumer creates demand in the market. They're going to make a decision based on their wants, demands, budget, what they want to drive. And they have spoken very clearly that they are moving toward SUVs."

Some might call that disingenuous. Most consumers didn't know they wanted an SUV until Ford created one – the first Explorer – and marketed the heck out of it to mainstream buyers in the early 1990s. If it was really only about utility, buyers could have stayed with minivans and station wagons. But auto marketers pitched SUVs as cool and different, and buyers bought in.

SUVs are profitable for auto makers. Early versions were based on existing pickup truck bones; now most SUVs – a.k.a. CUVs – share much of their architecture with passenger cars. Either way, any extra cost of building an SUV is less than the price premium it can command; that's especially true in the growing-like-topsy premium SUV segment.

But returning to the fuel-economy issue, those margins have an upside. As FCA head of design Ralph Gilles said in a recent interview with Globe Drive, plump profit margins make it easier to absorb the cost of the extra fuel-saving technologies to offset the weight-and-bulk penalties of SUVs. "There's a finite amount of money the consumer is willing to pay for a sedan, and they're typically willing to pay a little bit more for the utility of a crossover, so it gives us a little wiggle room to embed that technology."

Another factor in SUVs' favour: although most SUVs are based on car underpinnings, they are classified by regulators as light trucks and are held to more lenient fuel-economy standards. Larger SUVs would get a further break based on their footprint size. So while a small car might have to achieve 3.5 litres/100 km by 2025, the standard for a large truck might be 7.3 litres/100 km.

Still, ever-smaller SUVs are where the growth is. "I think you'll see a lot of innovation in terms of where we go with SUVs," says Steve Carlisle, GM Canada president. "What consumers are really looking for is more functionality."

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