Rise thereof

SUVs are popular because they're the most acceptable compromise. Photo: Shutterstock.
SUVs are popular because they're the most acceptable compromise. Photo: Shutterstock.

When the popularity of the SUV first began to emerge around 20 years ago, the common thought was that their primary basis of appeal lay in an improved level of vision beyond the car in front of them.

While that was somewhat true back when cars were common and SUVs were not, it's not actually the reason they have continued to increase in popularity.

The SUV market has grown to the point that almost every maker has to offer at least one, and there's also no shortage of different sizes available, even from a single manufacturer in some cases.

For instance, at the start of the year Mazda, which already had a broad range of SUV models on the market, added yet another size to its line-up by slipping the new CX-30 in between the CX-3 and the CX-5.

So why do people buy SUVs?

It isn't their off-road capabilities in many cases. Yes, some certainly can get off the beaten track with proper all-wheel-drive systems, but many of them are two-wheel drive and riding on lower-profile street tyres, never intending to see anything more challenging than flat gravel or grass, and even then only when they need to park.

One level of appeal for SUVs can still be their height, but beyond the purpose of better vision.

Have you ever witnessed a person with a sore, stiff or otherwise degenerating back attempt to get into, or especially out of something lower to the ground like a hatch, sedan or wagon? It's almost as awkward to watch as it is for them to achieve.

A vehicle with its seats resting at the correct height for them in relation to the ground however, is much easier for them to manage. Not so tall that they have to climb up, but high enough that their hip area doesn't have to go down far in order to sit down.

Similarly, it can be easier for parents to get little ones into and out of capsules when the height is right. They may also find that it doesn't ruin their back in the first place by bending their spine where they shouldn't as they lean in to strap the child in properly (if you use both hands to do their buckle, you're relying on your back muscles to hold you up).

Those little ones also tend to grow up fast, and generally speaking SUVs have more head and leg room than sedans and hatches, even the really cleverly-packaged cars.

These and the other reasons all show the SUV, as a body style, has the capability to be a good all-rounder. The kind of vehicle that does everything owners need, not perfectly, but good enough in multiple ways that are common in domestic use.

In terms of how they drive, they'll never be mistaken for sports cars (as much as some may try) but a number of the designs are based on car platforms, and the suspension dynamics have been refined to the point that most of the newer ones feel like a car when you're driving them.

You'll have to look hard (or at something fairly old) to find one that is difficult to drive, or to park for that matter since it's usually easy to see their corners even if they don't have all sorts of electronic alerts and cameras to help you.

With extra suspension travel comes the potential to be more comfortable. This is the same compromise as any other road vehicle though, with tyre sidewalls contributing as well. But even the tarmac-only SUVs tend to have a higher tyre sidewall than their sedan or hatch equivalents.

Like the wagon, they can be capable of carrying a family and their stuff at the same time. Or more people with a third row of seats. Or just more stuff for that trip when the seating design is flexible.

There are some drawbacks though. If you choose one that's too big it may also be hard to find a spot to park in.

Similarly, by their very nature the extra weight does mean they will use more fuel than the comparable sedan or hatch.

Owners tend to resolve this by choosing a smaller (lighter) model, or buying a variant with a diesel or hybrid powertrain, planning their trips better to reduce running time, or just wearing the extra cost at the servos.

Sam Hollier is an ACM journalist and a motoring fanatic who builds cars in his shed in his spare time.