Market Trends

SUVs are Changing the Image of Luxury Automakers

Once considered abominable, this body style has done so much for global sales that it is redefining the priorities of this segment

The automotive industry used to be segmented. There were automakers for mainstream cars like Fiat; others restricted to performance models such as Porsche; some others in the luxury market like Mercedes-Benz; a few focused on off-road use like Land Rover… I am sure that you can easily think of many other examples of those segments.

While that modus operandi built many references over time, it has also heavily limited each brand’s sales potential: Chrysler, for example, could never expect to offer a performance car because the public would never give it credit — not to mention that such a product would certainly favor its sister division Dodge. It is easy to see the problem here.

The crossover frenzy, which later turned to SUVs, started for other reasons but had the additional effect of encouraging automakers to venture beyond those stereotypes. Now, around twenty years later, the success of SUVs like Porsche Cayenne, BMW X5, Volvo XC90 and, more recently, Aston Martin DBX, some intriguing changes have occurred.

Tall, long and heretic

Sport-utility vehicles used to be exclusively related to off-road use. Jeeps and Land Rovers used to feature rugged appearance, minimalist cabins and focus on mechanical robustness. The Grand Cherokee was released in 1993 and the Range Rover dates to 1970, but they were spruced-up interpretations of what their makers were already doing.

The opposite idea was more difficult to apply: luxury companies had to adapt their design languages to new dimensions and proportions and, of course, not all attempts turned out well. Some of the first luxury SUVs were too tall, boxy, or long and that gave them a sense of clumsiness that kept them distant from the visual excellence of their makers.

Nevertheless, people gradually realized that those models offered the best of both worlds: comfort, quality, efficiency, and safety at the traditional levels of Audi, BMW and their rivals plus the SUV style which had become the trend of that moment. Luxury SUVs went from ugly ducklings to global best-sellers in a matter of around ten years.

If you can’t beat them…

Sales figures are difficult to argue with. As their trend grew around the world, SUVs became a mandatory body style to sell. Luxury companies were the first ones to surrender and gradually accommodate them into their visual identity: Audi Q7, BMW X5 and Mercedes ML were released in the turn of the century and regularly updated ever since.

Proportions are the key here. The Cadillac Escalade has always used tall lights and grilles to look more imposing than the sedans; the Audi Q7 is longer than usual to take a family-oriented image and even resemble a station wagon; the Jeep Grand Cherokee has used several accents in contrasting colors, including those golden ones in the 1990s.

If you take a step back, there are global changes as well. The BMW X5 features more creases than usual; the Mercedes-Benz ML uses the signature unpainted C-pillar; the Porsche Cayenne applies a quite simple design on the windows… everything is planned to dissimulate an SUV’s increased size compared to that of a sedan or even a station wagon.

An exercise of reinvention

Urban automakers kept working on SUVs over the years and that has brought unexpected results. Mercedes-Benz was one of the first to create performance versions for them while BMW worked on the very silhouette and reached the X6’s coupé-like shape. Both solutions have been reused by many competitors ever since with excellent results.

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Such immersion of SUVs in urban lineups was feared by car fans because they could distort their image. While some changes did happen, indeed, the fact is that an automaker’s image goes beyond specific components. Because of that, it is perfectly reasonable that it adapts to the new times. In fact, that creates a beautiful challenge for designers.

Preferences aside, it is easy to see Aston Martin’s muscular shapes and smooth lines on the DBX; Mercedes-Benz’s balance between charm and ostentation on the GLS; Bentley’s marriage with high luxury and affair with sportiness on the Bentayga… even easier it is to observe Rolls-Royce’s unapologetic old-school limousine vibe on the Cullinan.

Just like verbal languages, design languages are merely tools; their function is to express ideas. When we focus on that, rather than on specific elements, we begin to see how natural it is for languages to accommodate new applications. What are your opinions and thoughts on that matter? Feel free to share them using the comment button below!

Writer and future engineer striving to work with car design. If you like cars but not the stereotypes that surround them, give my articles a try.