The great weight debate: why are cars becoming heavier?

The increasing popularity of SUVs is clear from a quick look at the new car sales charts. But while such cars are popular with buyers, not everyone approves. A recent report caused plenty of headlines by saying that people should think carefully before buying large SUVs, both because of the space they take up on the road and because of the extra pollution they can cause.

I suspect that, as an Autocar reader, you too might shake your head at the popularity of SUVs. Not necessarily for the reasons stated above but because what you or I want from a car and what typical car buyers want from a car are two completely different things.

Allow me to illustrate my point. Ask me what new car I’d buy with my own money and, within the bounds of what is financially imaginable, I’d probably say an Alpine A110. Tell me to get real and I’d say a Lotus Elise or a Mazda MX-5. Insist it must seat four and remain affordable and I’d say a Mountune-chipped Ford Fiesta ST.

What I would absolutely not be slavering after is a coupé-cum-hatchback-cum-cod-offroad-crossover-quasi-estate blob on wheels. So why in the first month of this year were five of Britain’s 10 best-selling cars, and two of the top three, all crossovers/SUVs? Has there ever been a greater gap between the cars that we think people should be buying and those that they actually do? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is yes. We will be getting to the whats, whens and whys of that in a minute.

But let’s stay in the present a little longer and look at what’s driving this disconnect between the cars we think people should be buying and those they actually are. The first thing to say is that Autocar hasn’t survived 126 years without knowing who its reader is. And the truth is that you, like us, are slightly strange. You don’t look at cars in the same way as other people. They might see a mode of transport, or an opportunity to make a public statement about themselves; you see something to be driven, savoured and enjoyed.

This is because you love cars and not their image. There’s a crucial difference and one that I think is relatively easy to illustrate. Remember Chris Evans’ knuckle-gnawingly shouty turn on Top Gear?

It led to the lowest IMDB ratings of any mainstream television programme of which I’m aware. And although I haven’t asked the bloke, he gave every impression of being someone who didn’t love cars at all, just their image, which is a very different thing – and the audience saw through it in a heartbeat. Indeed, it was another short-lived former Top Gear host who has no interest in cars but who happens to be a mate who told me: “That was the programme on which I learned you can’t present your way out of not caring for your subject.”

But you know your subject, which means you know what makes a car good to drive. Most fundamentally, you know that the lighter and lower it is, the better it will be. But we live in an era when cars are getting higher and heavier. What we have to accept is not only that ours is a minority view but also that it has always been that way. This isn’t a new happening.

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Half of the big group tests we do are of driver’s cars of one form or another, because we think you’ll be more interested in tests like that. Our instinct then is to give the nod to the better-driving car; all else being equal, it’s generally the reasonable thing to do. But sometimes it isn’t…

One of the first twin tests I wrote, in March 2010, featured the Jaguar XJ. I drove to the car’s launch in a Mercedes S-Class and gave the nod to the Jag for its better driver appeal while overlooking a few relatively unimportant (or so I convinced myself) frailties, such as ride isolation, second-row space and material quality. I don’t mind admitting that I got that one wrong.

Second opinion – Matt Prior

During the 1990s, car magazines told the car buying public just how excellent the Alpine A610 was. It was a true, worthy Porsche 911 rival, they said. Alpine went on to sell about, I think, 10 per year.

Ditto the original Honda NSX. Maybe 30 or so were sold per year. There was a year in the late 1990s when more examples of the Jaguar XJ220 – by then well out of production, but with some still unsold owing to that decade’s earlier recession – were newly registered than NSXs.

Fortunately, I wasn’t around to write about either of those cars. Although in 2006, I did review the Nissan Qashqai, this new whizzy crossover thing, a car to replace the Primera hatchback. The same money as a large family car but for a car the size of a small one, only taller? I didn’t quite get it.

Hmm. To their credit, the good people at Nissan only remind me about this every single time I talk to them. Euro NCAP crash tests have resulted in heavier cars Unlike James Ruppert, car dealers carried more clout before the internet The late 1980s best-sellers – and not an SUV to be seen single time I talk to them.