When the Renault Duster came out, I didn’t have to point it out to my wife. As soon as she saw one, she smiled and asked me what car was that. I explained to her that it was nothing more than our very own Logan, which is a sedan, on stilts. I explained how the handling would be worse, how it was less economic than our own car, how the trunk couldn’t hold as much luggage as our car did (but more than its hatch sister, the Sandero can). All to no avail. She listened, interested for once in cars, shook her head gravely, then said the damning words, “I want one.”
She is the target audience the Duster and others like the Ford EcoSport, Opel Mokka, or the upcoming Peugeot 2008 and 500X are aiming at. A mid-thirties, urbanite woman, with a job and a baby. A person with absolutely zero interest in going off-roading or speeding on a track. A woman who hates station wagons, tolerates minivans, but when she saw the unibody, SUV-looking Duster,, not knowing anything about it, decided on the spot to buy one.
What are her reasons? She’s a family woman with multiple obligations. Her commute is twenty minutes one way and soon she’ll be doing school runs. Of course, she lives in Brazil so her route is filled with potholes, speed bumps, radars, beggars and stoplight vendors. Her parking spot at home and work is tight. What does the Duster give her that the Logan or the Sandero, can’t?
It offers her some ground clearance to start with. She’ll be able to run over some of those bumps, float through the broken pavement and even parallel park without thought of scratching the wheels or breaking the car (or so she believes). The Duster is jacked up a few inches more than other regular cars. That gives her a better perch from which to control her surroundings and keep an eye on the traffic and various street vendors that approach her with gusto at every stoplight. When she parks it she’ll be amazed how though it looks so big inside, she can fit it into any standard issue parking spot at the mall or parking garages at places she has to go.
All the while, she’ll be enjoying an interior that is a notch above the regular Logan as Renault can ask more for this car, they can well afford to pay up for the plastic that cost a nickle more than the regular one and throw in a prettier radio for good measure. The seat fabrics will also be a (very small) step above the usual Renault fare and there’ll be some color and flash in the dash that’ll brighten up considerably the monotonous drab gray of most of the cars she’s driven or been in.
Finally, she’ll be the envy of her friends. When she says she drives a Logan, everyone and their aunt know that it’s just a low cost sedan that competes with the likes of a Chevy Classic. When she tells them she drives a Duster, her friends’ eyes will light up and she’ll savor the thought that they’ll think she is such a modern woman, driving such an avantgarde car. She’ll know she’s in tune with fashionistas the world over who somehow can’t buy that Range Rover just yet.
That pretty much sums up the reasons behind the rise of the softcore, car-based, mini SUV that I like to call Urban SUV. They’re not meant to go off road, and to the people who buy them, off road means that 5 km dirt road on the way to the country house. The longer suspension travel on the cars, not only enhances their tough looks, but adds to their comfort when riding along the bad roads prevalent the world over. The higher stance also offers a higher driving position that many equate with safety, not to mention the easier ingress and egress. The big doors make getting baby seats in it that much easier. The Urban SUV is based on a car and drives like pretty much like a car. It’s no biggie for people who have ever driven cars. In place riddled with violence, heavy traffic, tight spaces, speed cameras and little money, it’s a God-send.
Sales of cars like the Duster and others in the same vein grow and grow and then grow some more. Other makers have observed that little EcoSport and the waves it made in Brazil and other Latin American markets. The Dacia or Renault Duster rubbed it in on the home soil of many makes. Everybody is getting in on the action with their take. Cherokee for America, Mokka and many others for Europe. Even Honda showed a Fit-based, unimaginatively-named Urban SUV Concept in Geneva. They are slowly but surely eliminating enthusiasts’ choices: The pocket rocket, the sporty wagon, the BOF SUV that can go anywhere are finding less favor and funding in OEMs’ planning as they see who is bringing home the bacon.
My wife and the Duster featured in this article are just prototypical archetypes that explain the Urban SUV phenomenon. She is the kind of person the OEMs want. A middle class, young woman, living in a country where the car market is exploding. Potentially, she’s riding the wave of prosperity Brazilians are experiencing right now. BTW, that woman could be anywhere. Brazil, Russia, China, Indonesia, it doesn’t matter. Their worries are the same, they enjoy a lot of the same music. They all watch the same programs on cable TV. Remarkably, they want pretty much the same thing in a car, though what they want is something that enthusiasts don’t. They want practicality, economy, small but useable space. They don’t care for speed or going off road and they want to feel safe. What’s more, car makers want them, not us. They far outnumber enthusiasts.