Why have two-door SUVs always been one-hit wonders?
They’ve had many brands, origins, prices, purposes and sizes but, with few exceptions, low sales volumes
In order to properly cater to people’s needs, the automotive industry must pay attention to how they change over time. They may be affected by their culture, by their economy, by their government, by which product lineups are accessible to them… Such factors end up making what we can define as some unspoken rules; customs formed over time which most people obey without even knowing. It’s up to automakers, of course, to learn and follow them.
Chrome trim, for example, used to be a signature trait of luxury cars. Now, it’s considered pretty much tacky. Unpainted bumpers and plastic hubcaps easily identified entry-level cars, but are unacceptable today. Station wagons were the favorite body style for families, but that position went to minivans then to crossovers. Pickup trucks which disregard beauty and luxury can only have a chance to sell in work-related versions. And there’s the case of two-door SUVs.
After the storm comes fun
If we go way back, we’ll notice the category was born with only two doors (the CJ above has no doors at all, I know. You get it). Models like the CJ or the Ford Bronco were developed in war and post-war times, so they had very particular priorities. However, once cars went back to civil use, features such as having two seats, short length and open top quickly became associated to leisure and sportiness. The unspoken preference for two-door car models was being born.
Models such as the Mercedes-Benz G-Klasse quickly became popular with open top for their versatility: besides the cabriolet style, it was possible to use the rear portion as a large trunk or add a second row of seats. This step towards leisure can be considered the foundation of the SUV category as we know in nowadays, in a variety of models.
While the existing models were doing quite well in the market, they were still too noisy, uncomfortable and ugly for many people. The first takes on the SUV concept were released in the 1980s: rugged style and truck platform were still there, but paired to cleaner style and slow but steady evolution when it comes to comfort and safety items. The US has always been fond of large vehicles, so it had huge influence on shaping the modern SUV — including two-door ones.
Poised to success
As SUVs moved further from trucks and closer to cars, they became more and more interesting to most customers. They began to follow the maker’s current design trends, to receive the first improvements focused on aerodynamics and fuel efficiency, and to look better. Land Rover was the only automaker actually interested in the luxury market at the time, with the Range Rover; most of the others focused on exploring leisure use and sportiness as much as they could.
In the early 1990s, there was such a hype for two-door SUVs around the world that they were “envied” by some of the four-door ones. The 1983 Chevrolet Blazer S-10 used black paint only on the C-pillars in order to disguise the rear doors. The 1990 Nissan Pathfinder went further and literally hid the rear handles between the windows.
Two-door SUVs peaked in the turn of the decade. The available models came mostly from Asia and North America, but ranged from superminis like the Kia Sportage to full-size examples such as the Chevrolet Tahoe. Most of them used shorter wheelbase than their four-door sibling’s, which helped advertise them as breezy, fun to drive and even somewhat nimble. However, saying this phase was their peak means everything went south for them in the following years.
Which problems appeared?
Over time, demand for SUVs to be more comfortable, fuel-efficient and fancy kept increasing, so they became more expensive. Their prices ended in ranges excessively close to those of family-oriented models which were much better at those criteria, and better suited conservative customers, which are majority in the luxury market. In other words, with shrinking demand and stripped of competitive pricing, things spiralled down rather quickly for two-door SUVs.
The first Land Rover Freelander was one of the last SUVs designed with a two-door version from the beginning. Although the unusual rear design didn’t help, the main reason why it failed was arriving at a time when people had already lost interest in this SUV type. Land Rover would only sell another one in 2011, the Range Rover Evoque.
The market took such a hard turn away from this body style that older models were quickly phased out and the newer ones never even had an actual chance in the market. By the mid-2000s, two-door SUVs as people knew were already history. There have been some exceptions to that, but mostly show cars which never left the auto shows and cabriolet versions like the Murano’s, featuring a luxury take on the two-door body. Needless to say, it didn’t work out for them.
Isn’t there at least one that made through?
In nowadays, the single reason why we can’t say two-door SUVs are a thing of the past is the Wrangler. Jeep’s rugged SUV has done an awesome job making the original CJ’s formula just as modern as it would need to prosper in today’s market — even the latest generation, released in 2018, preserves features such as removable parts, heavy-duty AWD and a long list of additional accessories. Then again, the two-door version is still largely outsold by the Unlimited one.
Staying true to its roots made the Wrangler not only withstand the fall of two-door SUVs but also get the remaining demand for itself — a niche car for a market segment which became a niche. The other makers have always touted about competing with it, but the models are only appearing now: the first one was the Land Rover Defender.
The rise and fall of two-door SUVs show how volatile market demand usually is. Any given product may quickly rise and attract a lot of customers now, then suffer the consequences of external factors or the simple shifting of customer’s needs and have its sales plummet. Dropping the product altogether is usually the best option because the new circumstances rendered the industry unable to keep providing it with the characteristics people came to appreciate in it.