Discussion about SUVs

08_Teaser_SUV

Damn, Love!

Isn’t it paradox how more and more everyday things are now publicly considered inappropriate or even derided, but at the same time often very popular when judged by actual consumer behavior? Just think of travelling by plane, steaks on your Barbecue, fireworks on New Year’s Eve or, speaking about motors, sport utility vehicles, or SUVs for short. Why is this the case? And why is this class of vehicle criticized more often than any other? We wanted to know whether the criticism is justified.

In case you were automatically thinking “There will never be an article on a Daimler website that demonizes the SUV!” – Congratulations, you’re right! However, as a company that produces such vehicles, we feel obliged to get involved in the debate. In Germany, this debate really flared up last fall and it still hasn’t completely died down. This is demonstrated by the reports in the media as well as by the Fridays for Future demonstrations, which are especially critical of private transportation.

I think that the protesters have a right to be critical. Pluralism and freedom of expression are very important. Naturally, people are free to envision a world that doesn’t contain any SUVs — and perhaps even one that doesn’t contain any automobiles at all. That’s also okay. However, we at Daimler don’t share this view. On the contrary, we are convinced that self-determined private mobility will still be a necessity in the future. The SUV too will play a big role in this future — not because Daimler wishes it to, but because many customers want it that way.

This is confirmed by the sales figures, which are rising, even though these vehicles are denounced by the media. In fact, SUVs are selling better than ever before. More than one million new SUVs were registered in Germany last year, making them one of the most popular model types. According to Germany’s Federal Motor Transport Authority (KBA), almost one third (32.2 percent) of all passenger cars sold in Germany are SUVs. In the United States, they even account for half of new vehicle registrations. Moreover, the fact that Mercedes-Benz was once again able to increase vehicle deliveries by 1.3 percent last year, to 2.34 million units, is in part due to the growth of the SUV segment and, in particular, to the success of the GLC and the GLE. According to a study conducted by the CAR Institute at the University of Duisburg-Essen, the SUVs’ market share could rise further next year to as high as 34 percent.

Customers appreciate SUVs’ high recreational value. Pictured: The new Mercedes-Benz GLB 250. (Fuel consumption combined: 7,0-6,7l / 100km, CO2 emissions combined: 159-153 g/km*).
Customers appreciate SUVs’ high recreational value. Pictured: The new Mercedes-Benz GLB 250. (Fuel consumption combined: 7,0-6,7l / 100km, CO2 emissions combined: 159-153 g/km*).

Does that mean that all of these customers are selfish egomaniacs? Or do they perhaps have good and rational reasons for buying SUVs? In this article, we want to look at the facts to find out why people buy these vehicles.

And we want to show what we’re doing as an automaker is to ensure that future mobility is compatible with nature and the environment — no matter whether people are driving sedans, wagons or SUVs.

Fact 1: SUVs are simply automobiles

Although some people refer to SUVs as “urban tanks” or “monsters” that barrel their way down narrow alleys in historical city centers, this depiction is pretty much a modern horror story. It doesn’t reflect reality. An SUV is a normal passenger car, and this assessment is shared by Germany’s Federal Motor Transport Authority. Granted, SUVs look a bit different from other cars. When viewed objectively, however, an SUV is nothing more or less than a slightly raised automobile that offers more recreational value. Its off-road capabilities are somewhat better, and it has more room than a coupe for transporting all sorts of stuff. Nonetheless, these vehicles are as suited for everyday use as a wagon or a compact car.

But why does SUVs’ design cause many people to view the vehicle with hostility? Its detractors point to the vehicle’s size, for one thing. But are SUVs really oversized? Although an SUV may look more massive due to its raised design, it’s not any larger than most other vehicles. A Mercedes-Benz GLC, for example, is precisely eight centimeters wider than a C-Class Wagon – but it’s also around six centimeters shorter. Most of the SUVs sold in Germany can be classified as compact vehicles. At Mercedes-Benz, these vehicles are the GLA (based on the A-Class), the GLB (based on the B-Class), and the aforementioned GLC (based on the C-Class).

Many SUVs can hold seven seats, thus providing room for the whole family.
Many SUVs can hold seven seats, thus providing room for the whole family.

Of course we also offer some larger variants. They offer more room — for families, for example — but they aren’t more voluminous than a compact van, whose dimensions generally correspond to those of the Mercedes-Benz GLE (which can also be fitted with seven seats, by the way). The only difference is that many people view vans and minibuses more favorably. However, the drivers of such vehicles also use them more often to get to work or do their shopping than to go camping in the Jura Mountains.

Fact 2: SUVs aren’t any more dangerous to their surroundings than standard cars of the same weight and size

It’s also claimed that SUVs’ size and design make them more dangerous than other vehicles to pedestrians and that they do more damage in collisions. Some SUV opponents have cited accidents in which such vehicles were involved to bolster their arguments. There’s no doubt that every accident is horrible and one accident too many. I don’t want to downplay this in any way. However, accident research is governed solely by objective arguments, not by subjective claims and feelings.

The protection of other road users has always played an important role in the development of passenger vehicles at Mercedes. If a collision with a pedestrian is unavoidable, passive safety measures come into play in order to mitigate the consequences for the person. Smooth-surfaced bodies, energy-absorbing bumpers, handles that are flush with the door, composite glass windshields, foldable exterior mirrors, and recessed windshield wipers have been characteristic features of Mercedes models for many years in order to ensure pedestrian protection. However, the vehicles’ pedestrian protection strategy clearly focuses on completely preventing contact or collision with an unprotected individual, i.e. a pedestrian or cyclist. That’s why all Mercedes-Benz models have Active Brake Assist installed as standard. At speeds of up to about 60 km/h, this system can react to pedestrians and cyclists crossing the road and independently initiate maximum full-stop braking, if necessary.

An iconic off-roader: the Mercedes-Benz 280 GE. The forefather of Mercedes-SUVs has been manufactured since 1979. Its shape has hardly changed in all this time.
An iconic off-roader: the Mercedes-Benz 280 GE. The forefather of Mercedes-SUVs has been manufactured since 1979. Its shape has hardly changed in all this time.

But if a collision is unavoidable, the passive safety measures will reduce the impact on a pedestrian who is hit by the vehicle head-on. All of the SUVs from Mercedes-Benz are of course also equipped with these safety measures. In order to reduce the impact, the front of the vehicle features a variety of deformation zones that also absorb energy when there is a collision with a pedestrian. In this system, large homogenous contact surfaces have a positive effect on the impact. During the design of the front section, the developers also make sure that no hard structures extend into the deformation area that is relevant to pedestrians. Mercedes-Benz always aims to make the geometry of its vehicles as favorable to pedestrians as possible (i.e. “minimally aggressive”) and to lengthen the deformation path through the appropriate placement of the engine, the shock absorber domes, the containers, and the control units.

Every model is customized for the protection of all road users. Because the designs of the models differ, the safety measures and technologies vary as well. Our experts also make sure that the hood can absorb energy in a targeted way. This is ensured in the current GLE model by the way the hood is designed. In the smaller SUV models (GLC, GLB, and GLA), the deformation path is created by the slight raising of the hood when a collision is imminent.

Fact 3: SUVs aren’t big polluters

SUVs are also an abomination in the eyes of environmentalists, who consider them one of the main culprits when it comes to increased greenhouse gas emissions and thus the acceleration of climate change. But are SUVs really “rolling proof of an environmental aberration,” as someone wrote recently? Are they really more harmful to the climate than other model series? In this case as well, the facts contradict these generalizations.

The most common engine version of the Mercedes-Benz GLC 220d (weighted fuel consumption: 6.0-5.2 l / 100 km, weighted CO₂ emissions: 158-137 g/km*) 4MATIC does not consume much more fuel in the WLTP measurement cycle than a Mercedes-Benz C-Class 220d 4MATIC Wagon (weighted fuel consumption: 5.2-4.9 l / 100 km, weighted CO₂ emissions136-128 g/km*) that is fitted with the same engine and equipment. The numbers in brackets are based on the NEFZ test cycle. According to the more realistic WLTP test cycle the numbers are even closer: 5.9 – 7.3l for the GLC vs. 5.9 – 6.8l for the C-Class. This shows that fuel-efficient engines are not restricted to certain vehicle types. They operate as efficiently in an SUV as in a wagon or a sedan.

Of course the laws of physics cannot be violated. As a result, heavier vehicles with more powerful engines emit more CO₂. However, most of the SUVs that are bought and registered in Germany are mid-range and lower mid-range vehicles whose weight and performance correspond to those of comparable sedans and wagons. By contrast, big off-road vehicles such as the Mercedes-Benz GLS and the Mercedes-Benz G-Class are niche and luxury products that have only a less important effect on the overall CO₂ balance.

Fact 4: SUVs are driven by people who are just like everyone else

In view of the steadily rising sales figures, you have to wonder who the buyers of these SUVs are. Are they only people with huge incomes or a big inheritance who want to own a status symbol? Or are SUVs exclusively for people who like to impress others, or who wish to drive a big vehicle to compensate for their low self-esteem? Both of these claims are often made.

However, recent studies have shown that the biggest group of SUV buyers consists of retired people. A representative study conducted by the price comparison portal Verivox discovered that such vehicles are most popular among people aged 60 to 79. The reasons for this are obvious: The SUVs’ raised design makes them easier to get into and provides drivers with a better overview. Both of these factors are greatly appreciated by elderly people. Families also like the SUVs’ spaciousness and versatility, which enable them to take all kinds of items along, from baby carriages to skiing equipment. All of these people have one thing in common: They aren’t generally regarded as aggressive horsepower junkies. This is also demonstrated by accident statistics. According to the Verivox study mentioned above, owners of big SUVs and off-roaders cause five percent fewer accidents than car owners in general, and the owners of small and mid-size SUVs cause 21 percent fewer accidents.

A compact design — but also a raised seat position and a better overview: the new Mercedes-Benz GLA.
A compact design — but also a raised seat position and a better overview: the new Mercedes-Benz GLA.

The facts thus clearly indicate that there is no justification for making sweeping criticisms of SUVs. Today’s problems can’t be solved by calling individual model series into question. Even if all SUVs were decommissioned overnight, the challenges that humanity faces would remain the same: How can we make mobility more sustainable in the future than it is today? How can we reconcile people’s desire for individual mobility with the need to conserve resources? At Daimler, we have of course thought a lot about these issues. In fact, the very first ideas addressing these questions already arose 135 years ago …

People want individual mobility

It was – of all things – the automobile pioneer Gottlieb Daimler who in 1895 assumed that no more than 5,000 of these vehicles would be manufactured worldwide. This was because he believed there were too few chauffeurs to safely drive such “horseless carriages” on the roads. As we now know, the great inventor from Swabia was wrong on this point. It’s estimated that there are 1.2 billion automobiles in the world today, and their number is steadily increasing. The desire for individual mobility hasn’t changed. This is the case not only in well-established industrialized countries, but even more so in regions that have benefited from globalization and the associated economic upswing only in recent years. This list is topped by China, but it also includes countries such as India and Brazil. For the people of these countries, automobiles serve the same role as they have in Western Europe, Japan, and North America for decades: They are a kind of personal declaration of independence.

However, the automobile’s huge success is also its biggest problem. Traffic density is steadily increasing in urban areas, with the consequence that many commuters spend more time in traffic jams than driving. It goes without saying that automobiles equipped with combustion engines also impact the environment, especially with regard to CO₂ emissions.

What can we do if more and more people want to enjoy the freedom of mobility that automobiles provide them with, despite the negative side effects? Should mankind restrict the use of automobiles — or even ban them? We at Daimler think that such an attitude is very one-sided and maybe even arrogant — especially if such restrictions are to be imposed in countries where the people have only recently been able to enjoy driving their own automobiles.

SUVs — yes or no: renunciation isn’t progress

At Daimler, we are convinced that a ban wouldn’t permanently solve any of the problems of our time. Our company’s history has taught that in the past problems have been solved as a rule by means of research and development work. This was the case with the airbag, for example, as well as with the catalytic converter and assistance systems such as our adaptive cruise control Distronic. Daimler registers more than 1,500 patents every year. They all aim to further enhance mobility. We’re convinced that if you want to bring about change, deeds are more important than words. No matter whether we are working on SUVs, sedans, wagons or compacts, our vision is to achieve accident-free and locally emission-free driving. It’s irrelevant for the climate which vehicle segment contributes to emissions. The crucial thing is that emissions decline as a whole. To achieve this goal, we are already offering a variety of options for our vehicles, including those in the SUV segment. These options range from the GLC and GLE plug-in hybrid (GLC 300e 4MATIC: weighted fuel consumption: 2.5-2.2 l, weighted CO₂ emissions 58-51 g/km, combined power consumption: 18.3-16,5 kWh/100 km | GLE 350de 4MATIC: weighted fuel consumption: 1.3-1.1 l, combined power consumption: 28.7-25.4 kWh/100 km, weighted CO₂ emissions: 34-29 g/km) and the GLC F-Cell (combined hy-drogen consumption: 0.91 kg/100 km, CO₂-Emissionen kombiniert: 0 g/km, Stromverbrauch kombiniert: 18.0 kWh/100 km* to the all-electric EQC (combined power consumption: 21.3-20.2 kWh/100 km; weighted CO₂ emissions*).

The first all-electric SUV from Mercedes-Benz: the EQC 400 (electricity consumption combined: 21.3-20.2 kWh/100 km; CO2 emissions combined: 0 g/km).
The first all-electric SUV from Mercedes-Benz: the EQC 400 (electricity consumption combined: 21.3-20.2 kWh/100 km; CO2 emissions combined: 0 g/km).

We want more than half of our automobile sales to consist of vehicles with electric drive systems as early as 2030. This goal is very ambitious, considering how long it often takes to develop and test new vehicles. The main methods for reducing the number of traffic jams and accidents in the future will be to make automobiles more intelligently connected to one another and to have autonomous functions steadily reduce driver stress. Daimler is extensively researching all of these methods — not only for cars but also for trucks, vans, and buses. Our company is also focusing on new mobility concepts that provide people in big cities in particular with an alternative to driving their own cars.

Moderation, innovation, and the middle way

This fact check has shown that the average SUV doesn’t take up more space than a car and that it isn’t more dangerous for road traffic or more harmful to the environment. Moreover, it doesn’t figure prominently in accident statistics either. So why do some people demonize an entire vehicle class even though it obviously pleases its buyers, provides many advantages, and therefore continues to be in big demand? There are clearly no logical reasons for this. We at Daimler particularly appreciate three things: freedom, responsibility, and facts. Customers are ultimately free to choose from a wide variety of mobility options. As a manufacturer, we in turn are responsible for offering sustainable products that thrill our customers. German government policies create the framework conditions for making this possible. This framework shouldn’t be the result of ideology; instead, it should be based on facts.

Perhaps people shouldn’t incline so much to extremes or turn them into absolute standards. It’s not necessary to use a SUV to drive one’s children to school every day, but it’s also not necessary to demonize it or even to ban it. Automobiles didn’t exist yet in the time of Aristotle, but he offered people an important piece of advice that still holds true today: Maintain moderation in all things. Maybe we should apply this in the SUV debate as well.

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Christian Scholz

As a child, he once made it into the Mercedes-Benz magazine in the 80s with a car drawing. At that time he crossed off-road vehicles and coupés with each other. Completely crazy! And so, after studying politics and management, he preferred to use a pencil for writing rather than drawing. After various positions in internal and external communications at Eastman Kodak and Wüstenrot & Württembergische, he has been writing for Daimler since 2012.

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