Frankfurt, Germany — In Europe, SUV now stands for: Shrinking Utility Vehicle.
An array of ever-smaller sport-utility vehicles and SUV car-like crossovers is going on display this week at the Geneva International Motor Show. Automakers are piling into the segment as one of the best hopes for growth in a still-recovering European market.
European consumers like the higher seating, easier entry and perceived greater freight-carrying capacity. Auto makers like the fact that they can build an SUV body on the same mechanical platforms and modules they use for compact cars, saving money on development costs.
The key in Europe has turned out to be putting the vehicles on platforms originally built for compact or small mid-sized cars. They're generally less than 4.5 meters (177 inches) long, or smaller than a Honda Civic, which measures 4.54 meters (179.4 inches.)
Compact SUVs have gained in popularity globally, but they're really getting attention now in Europe. The smaller size helps with narrow streets and tight parking in European cities that made full-size SUVs less practical for many people, and a little politically incorrect as well for the more environmentally conscious. The recently lower price of gasoline will not hurt, although gas remains painfully expensive in Europe compared with the United States due to high taxes.
At the Geneva show, among the top new contenders will be the Renault Kadjar, which blends the more rugged SUV style with cues from cars and station wagons, such as a lower roofline and comfortable interior, in a small, 4.45-meter package. The Kadjar (pronounced KA-jar) is headed for the European market this summer and China after that, with Renault saying it's too early for price information.
Hyundai's redesigned Tucson has grown slightly but is only a fraction longer at 4.47 meters (176.2 inches.)
In the higher priced realm, Infiniti is showing off its QX30 concept vehicle, which keeps the higher stance of an SUV and uses carbon fiber cladding and large 21-inch wheels with milled aluminum spokes. Infiniti says the design is intended to make occupants feel safe and protected; it has a pronounced front bumper and a large skid plate to protect the rear.
The QX30 aims at one of the problems of the segment's popularity: how to distinguish one's entrant from all the others. The QX30, which will be introduced as a production vehicle in 2016, tries to do this with bold styling; it has sharp metal curves and flares that stand out.
"We want to come to the market with a different offer," said Francois Goupil de Bouille, Infiniti's vice-president for Europe, Middle East, Russia and Africa. "So what we are going to do is come with a striking design, a very different design. We are going to take the maximum risk."
In the smaller, compact category, Honda is show off the new H-RV, which goes on sale in Europe this summer. It blends a basic hatchback configuration with SUV styling such as cladding and bold creases in the body metal; the company says it has added acoustic insulation to the wheel arches and floor to make riding in it less noisy.
Chinese newcomer Qoros is unveiling its 3 City SUV, a crossover that for now is headed for China only.
Analyst Tim Urquhart at IHS Automotive say these new models are further evidence that European car buyers are shifting away from classic sedans and hatchbacks in favor of SUV body styles.
"It's signaling a bit of a sea change which has been happening in the European market for the better part of a decade now, a gradual shift from passenger car-style body types, your conventional sedans and hatchbacks, and more toward these SUV and crossover sort of vehicles.
"They use existing power train technology and existing passenger platform architecture. You raise the ride height a bit, use some funky SUV styling cues, and you've just created a different genre of vehicle," he said. "You're extending your range in a cost-effective manner, in a way that's exciting to consumers."
The market for the smaller versions "continues to have huge growth potential" even as more and more carmakers pile into it, as they did with big SUVs years ago. The field is already getting crowded with vehicles such as Nissan's Qashqai and Juke and Opel's Mokka. Small SUV sales in Europe are expected to triple from 1.1 million to 3.2 million annual sales over the next decade, IHS Automotive predicts. That's even as small and midsize car sales show only stable sales, rising from 4.7 million units to 5.3 million.
Europe's car market needs the boost as its economy slowly heals from a financial crisis over government debt in countries such as Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy.
Car sales rose for the 17th straight month in January in the 28-country European Union, and last year's sales of 12.55 million vehicles represented a 5.6 percent increase over the year before — the first such increase after six years of declines. Sales, however, remain far below the 2007 peak of just under 16 million.
The show in Geneva is open to the public from March 5-15.