The SUV boom is a clear trend everywhere in the world. In the first half of this year, these vehicles made up 50% of the European new car registrations, 53% of the sales in USA, and around 47% of the passenger car sales in China. Basically, half of the consumers of passenger vehicles around the world opted for an SUV in 2021.

The reasons for the popularity are also clear to everyone. Higher driving position, more appealing designs, more choices with more affordable prices for the masses, and the general sense that they are safer and more capable. People like them because they are supposed to take you anywhere. However, there is an interesting reality regarding this capability.

SUV registrations by drivetrain type in Europe H1 2022 graphic

The capable off-roads

The current SUVs as we know them are direct descendants of the first off-roaders that the industry started to see in the 1940’s. They were very rough vehicles with four-wheel drive powertrain mostly used by the military. Then these vehicles evolved for civil use by featuring better interiors and more space for more passengers. Between 1970 and 1990, the consumers of these vehicles were mostly millionaires that wanted a safe and capable means of transport.

Their proliferation started in the late 90’s when more modern and appealing designs started to replace the existing boxy-styled expensive choices. As the offer enlarged, the prices decreased. But their soul was the same: capable vehicles thanks to the 4x4 drivetrain.

In 2011, when the small SUVs were not popular yet, the 4x4 SUVs represented 62% of the sales mix in Europe, and 59% in USA. The SUVs were still associated to off-road capabilities.

SUVs for everybody

The mix started to change when the automakers introduced more affordable SUVs. The B-SUVs and C-SUVs started to gain traction in markets like Europe and China rapidly. They were smaller and more frugal vehicles that appealed to many consumers looking for an SUV, but who were unable to afford them until then.

These small SUVs basically share the same platform and parts with their hatchback siblings, but feature a more aggressive design, a higher driving position, and are more expensive. And guess what? They barely feature the 4x4 system.

SUV sales by drivetrain type in USA H1 2022 graphic

Today, most of the SUVs sold in Europe and China are not moved by a four-wheel drive powertrain but by the regular front-wheel drive. According to data from JATO Dynamics, only 23% of the SUVs sold in China between January and June 2022 featured the 4x4 powertrain. In Europe, they represented 36% of the volume.

USA is the exception: the 4x4 SUVs made up 73% of the sales of SUVs through June. The reasons behind are the popularity of the big SUVs, which require this system more than the small ones; A big part of the country deals with difficult weather conditions during the winter; and most important, the consumers in America are petrol-heads and tend to prefer their cars featuring all the options available.

SUV sales by drivetrain type in China H1 2022 graphic

A matter of cost

At the end, there is a cost reasoning behind the popularity of front-wheel drive SUVs. Most of the drivers of SUVs barely drive in rough conditions and need off-road capabilities. The roads are good everywhere and most of the times the SUVs are driven in the cities. Why would you pay more money for a system that you will hardly use?

The author of the article, Felipe Munoz, is an Automotive Industry Specialist at JATO Dynamics.