the rise and rise of the 4x4
Sales of sporty-looking off-road vehicles are booming worldwide, even though they're rarely used off-road. As Gavin Green reports, a brand new Land Rover and Mercedes-Benz's first-ever lifestyle 4x4 are set to further stoke demand.

People rarely buy cars for logical, sensible reasons. To prove it, the fastest growing market sector worldwide is for luxury or sporty 4x4s. Quite why millions of buyers are attracted to vehicles that are virtually motoring oxymorons - sports/luxury cars and off-roaders are, after all, motoring opposites - is a subject which still perplexes the world's car makers. These "cars" tend to be thirsty, roll excessively on corners and are slower and less comfortable than comparably priced saloons. Yet punters love them.

The sales of Sports Utility Vehicles, as the car industry describes them, have grown by 74 per cent in the US this year. Overall, SUV sales are likely to rise by a further 35 per cent by the year 2006, reckons Mercedes- Benz - which is the latest luxury maker to enter the market. Its new M- class is one of the stars of the current London Motor Show.

In the UK, the sector also boomed massively through the '90s - up from about 27,000 vehicles in 1990 to more than 80,000 in 1995. Sales dipped a trifle last year but are set to rise again next year due to the launch of two crucial new vehicles - the M-class and, even more important for the UK, the new Land Rover Freelander.

Lexus - Toyota's luxury wing - jumps on the bandwagon next year. Porsche is rumoured to be entering. BMW will have a 4x4 model - as much station wagon as off-roader - in a few years. Volvo has just launched an off-roading version of the V70 estate, and every major Japanese maker is now an established SUV player.

While the US is easily the biggest SUV market, others are also experiencing an SUV love affair. Worldwide sales of the Range Rover - the vehicle which invented the breed, back in 1970 - have boomed from 15,000 in 1992 to more than 30,000 last year despite much greater competition. World SUV sales will grow from 1.8 million in 1990 to 3.8 million this year. In Britain alone - a country ill suited to big, fuel consumptive vehicles - sales of the market-leading Land Rover Discovery rocketed from 6,600 in 1990 to 21,600 in 1995.

Ford is the world number one. Its Explorer is the world's best-selling SUV, almost wholly because of its strong US sales. Last year 402,000 Explorers left US Ford dealers and took to the freeways, leafy suburbs and drive- in hamburger joints of middle-class America.

Some analysts say that the boom in large American SUV sales is an upshot of America's enduring love affair with the Yank Tank, which was rudely interrupted by higher fuel prices in the Seventies. But now that gas is cheap again, Yanks are returning to their tanks. Except that, instead of Cadillacs and Lincoln Town Cars, the new-wave tanks are as high as they are long, and masquerade as sports or fun vehicles.

Mercedes-Benz reckons that about half of all luxury SUV buyers are newcomers to the 4x4 market. According to Mercedes boss, Jurgen Hubbert - who has overseen the construction of Mercedes' new factory in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which makes the new M-class - buyers see SUVs as "an expression of individuality, lifestyle and active enjoyment of life". Mercedes has tried to reassure saloon car owners by serving up a vehicle that is as car-like as possible.

The new Lexus is the same; its offering is as car-like as possible. There is nothing utilitarian or grubby about the cabin. It's as posh as an LS400's.

"Buyers rarely use their SUVs off-road, at least not in difficult conditions," says Mercedes' Hubbert. "They're attracted to the looks and feeling of security that an SUV conveys. They also like the high, commanding driving position. But they mostly want a vehicle that's as car-like, and normal to drive, as possible."

The smaller SUV sector, likely to boom in the UK following the Freelander's launch, tends to attract a younger, sportier buyer than the M-class or Discovery. The Freelander will compete with Golf GTIs and MGFs, as much as conventional saloons. It will be sold on its sporty individuality, and on its action-man, outdoor mien. In truth, the only off-roading it's likely to do, at least in the south-east, is when it mounts kerbs for parking. And, to most Freelander buyers, the great outdoors will be a nice little pavement cafe in Clapham, rather than a Highlands glen. Never mind - image is all.

The booming 4x4 sector is also testament to the growing diversity of the car market. We're seeing more coupes, more roadsters, more baby cars, more MPVs - and more SUVs - as production costs shrink and people demand more individual cars. Increasingly, SUVs use donor parts from conventional car models, further reducing costs. The M-class, for instance, uses the V6 and V8 engines from the new-generation Mercedes saloons. The Lexus 4x4 uses much of the hardware of upper-end Toyota saloon models. New generation Range Rovers are likely to use BMW engines.

Jaguar seriously considered entering the top-end of the sector, with a rebodied and re-suspended version of the Ford Explorer. "We looked at it, because the market is booming," says Jaguar chief executive Nick Scheele. "And if the market wanted a Jaguar 4x4, it would have got one. But it didn't. Research showed that it was just too big a jump for us. We'll probably not enter the market, but I'd never say never."

Despite booming sales, there are one or two clouds on the off-roading horizon. The biggest threat is the possibility of higher fuel taxes. SUVs, especially the bigger ones, are invariably thirsty and are completely at odds with the growing greenness in car company philosophy and in government rhetoric. Plus, like most fashion accessories, posh SUVs will invariably fall from favour one day. But few people are predicting when.

Many makers find it hard to believe their luck has lasted this long. And while the good times continue, and people keep on pretending that they really could use a "car" that can climb muddy banks, car makers will keep laughing all the way to the bank.