The Sedan is Dead, Long Live the SUV

What was once a reliable workhorse and off-road conqueror has now grown (literally) into a multi-billion dollar auto sector that’s rather hard to fault.


What was once a reliable workhorse and off-road conqueror has now grown (literally) into a multi-billion dollar auto sector that’s rather hard to fault.

A raised ride-height, commanding driving position and interior space combine into the perfect formula for a sales success. It’s not surprising, then, that SUVs have become more popular than the default sedan or hatchback – which have both seen a sharp drop in sales recently.

One class that’s struggling to find a foothold in South Africa, however, is the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) – mixing electricity with a conventional internal-combustion engine. This niche sector is often plagued by high asking-prices and a fear of change.

Could combining the traits of these two types of vehicle result in a marriage made in heaven?

The South African new car market doesn’t sport a particularly wide selection of hybrid SUVs, with mostly premium brands offering hybrid models. These manufacturers have the necessary cash flow to design, engineer, and build impressive hybrids that make sense in real world driving.

We’ve compiled a short list of SUVs – all from premium brands, featuring plug-in hybrid electric powertrains. From BMW we have the X5 xDrive40e, Volvo offers the XC90 T8 Twin Engine, and Land Rover presents its first hybrid, the Range Rover Sport P400e.

Manufacturers say people buy these vehicles because they’re looking for exceptional fuel efficiency, space, and off-road ability, as well as some sportiness if they happen to find themselves on a twisty road.

BMW X5 xDrive40e

Combining the versatility and on-road presence of a large vehicle with BMW’s proven eDrive technology, the X5 presents a compelling argument for the green-conscious SUV lover.

Taking inspiration from the brand’s trailblazing i8 hybrid sports car, the X5 xDrive40e is BMW’s first plug-in hybrid production SUV. Combining the versatility and on-road presence of a large vehicle with BMW’s proven eDrive technology, the X5 presents a compelling argument for the green-conscious SUV lover.

The cleverly controlled interaction between the X5’s TwinPower turbocharged engine and the rechargeable electric motor generating an output of 230 kW, which ensures the SUV has that extra punch for some enthusiastic acceleration, yet won’t leave you in tears at the petrol station. The hybrid returns a combined fuel consumption of 3.4 litres/100km and only 78g/km of CO2, meaning it’s exempt from emissions tax.

Of course, these figures are claimed by the manufacturer and it might prove impossible to attain that level of efficiency. Nonetheless, it’s still more impressive than conventional powertrains and a lot less harmful than those sneaky diesels.

The X5 xDrive40e features an 8-speed Steptronic transmission for seamless gear changing and almost undetectable switching between hybrid modes. Its lithium-ion battery pack can be topped up from any standard power socket, or at public charging stations, by using the included charging cable plugged into the port located on the front left fender. This allows the car to drive in pure electric mode for up to 25 kilometres – meaning short journeys can be easily completed with zero tailpipe emissions.

Looks-wise, there’s not much setting this model apart from other X5s, with only small badges on the front fenders and D-pillars hinting at its special tech. Spec it with the M-Sport package and you can a have a menacing-looking SUV with a green heart.

Volvo XC90 T8 Twin Engine

The Volvo features five different modes that offer drivers a range of performance and fuel efficient characteristics.

Volvo surprised the market with their first hybrid offering – the XC90 T8 – promising outright power, exceptional fuel economy, and low emissions, all in a 7-seat luxury SUV. The brand’s Twin Engine moniker simply refers to the two sources of power found in the XC90 – its petrol engine and the rechargeable electric motor.

The manufacturer believes the XC90 to be segment leader, boasting 42 kilometres of zero emission, pure electric range and 303 kW of power at the driver’s disposal – all through an 8-speed automatic transmission.

It certainly is a powerful hybrid, and with R-Design sport package selected, it looks the part too. Yet, claimed fuel consumption is only 2.1 litres/100km and CO2 emissions as low as 49g/km.

The Volvo features five different modes that offer drivers a range of performance and fuel efficient characteristics. Hybrid is the default mode and is suitable for everyday use, it alternates between the two power sources to deliver the best overall fuel consumption.

Pure Electric mode is when the car’s batteries are fully charged and can serve as its sole energy source, powering the electric motor over the rear axle. In Power mode, drivers get the combined performance of the combustion engine and the electric motor, offering the kind of acceleration that will make a few sports cars hot under the collar.

AWD mode puts the XC90 in constant all-wheel drive, which is especially helpful in tricky situations like navigating wet roads or going off-road. Lastly, Save mode allows the driver to “freeze” the battery level, if fully charged, and save it for later use with Pure Electric mode.

Similar to the BMW, the XC90 T8’s lithium-ion battery pack can be charged from any domestic power socket by plugging its cable into the port situated on the front left fender.

Land Rover Range Rover Sport P400e

The Range Rover Sport has long been the first choice for those in search of a luxury SUV with an extra dose of grandeur.

The Range Rover Sport has long been the first choice for those in search of a luxury SUV with an extra dose of grandeur. This PHEV version is Jaguar Land Rover’s first attempt at a hybrid powertrain and it hasn’t spoiled the latter’s image, but instead widened its appeal.

Titled the P400e, this new model uses both JLR’s Ingenium petrol engine and an electric motor to deliver a total power output of 297 kW from the permanent four-wheel drive system, powered through a ZF 8-speed automatic transmission. The new powertrain mixes dynamics and fuel efficiency with the tried and tested RR-level of comfort and refinement.

The P400e’s lithium-ion battery allows the posh SUV to travel up to 51 kilometres in all-electric mode, crowning it the electric range winner of this list. Like the previous two, the batteries can be charged by plugging its cable into a specific port hidden behind the grille.

Boasting a claimed fuel economy figure of 2.8 litres/100km and only 64g/km CO2, the Sport PHEV is the most fuel-efficient model in Land Rover’s history. It waits to be seen if the luxury SUV can live up to these figures, but they’re still impressive nonetheless.

Driving the future

Hybrid cars, and hybrid SUVs primarily, are still considered a niche market within South Africa, mostly inhibited by limited choice, high price tags, and the allure of frugal, yet malign diesels.

Still, with global warming, air pollution, and more stringent emission laws being passed, car manufacturers are now more ardently searching for alternate, earth-friendly powertrains.

It makes sense, then, that with the popularity of the SUV not dying down anytime soon and the increasing influx of new hybrid and battery technologies, vehicles like these will become more commonplace.

The models on this list are just a hint of what’s to come in the future – vehicles that are eco-conscious and partly electric, but still offer all the creature comforts that have made SUVs the most popular choice worldwide.


Why do modern cars all look alike?

Looking at cars while driving in heavy traffic might often cause a feeling of déjà vu.

Most modern vehicles tend to look more and more similar and there are a number of explanations for this resemblance.

“It is to a large degree dictated by safety,” said Hannes Oosthuizen, former editor of Car Magazine.

Because of recent governmental regulations, automakers are required to adhere to pedestrian safety regulations (PSR).

This means that the front-end of cars needed to evolve into a flatter and wider shape as to protect pedestrians in the event of a collision. This flat, wide shape helps to distribute the energy delivered to the human body as widely as possible.

“When it comes to aerodynamics, the designers and engineers have found ways to work around this, which is why you can now again have quite edgy cars with an upright grille or noses that still perform very well in wind tunnel testing,” said Oosthuizen.

New regulations also force cars to be more fuel efficient and to produce less carbon dioxide (CO2). This is achieved by designing more streamline and aerodynamic models, as this reduces drag.

So then, when a car has a wide and flat front-end, it needs a raised rear-end which ultimately gives the car a more aerodynamic, wedge-like shape. The Honda CR-Z is a good example of this.

Another explanation is that most of the big names in the industry own several other brands.

Volkswagen owns Audi, Bentley, and Porsche. General Motors makes Chevrolets, Cadillacs and Opels. Ferrari, Maserati, and Alfa Romeo are all owned by Fiat. These automakers often share successful design features among the different brands in their stable, contributing to the similarities across the different brands.

The VW Touareg, Audi Q7, and Porsche Cayenne prove this point.

“Brand identity is a stronger driving force than ever before, and that’s why the companies work so hard to develop brand design languages,” said Oosthuizen.

These individual brands want their customers and the general public to recognise their product when they see it on the streets. They employ the generic ‘family-face’ across all their models as a way to stand out from the rest, but sometimes all end up looking the same.

“The result is that most BMWs look the same and most Audis look identical.”

With passenger- and pedestrian safety, fuel efficiency and lowered CO2-levels expected to remain top priorities for the foreseeable future, no ground-breaking designs are expected to appear any time soon.

Five student wheels worth considering

You’re a Stellies student and you’re considering a new car, you want to stand out but not break the bank. This year offers some enticing new models and below is a list that is both budget-friendly, yet still trendsetting.

The cars listed here are all priced below the crucial R200k price bracket, which makes them worth considering whether you’re a student or a working city-slicker.

They were mainly chosen based on price, as this is a big deciding factor. Features of the car were also considered as well as safety and reliability.

In alphabetical order, they are;

  • Citroen C1 – This boutique city-car is fresh off the boat and features funky styling; like the split headlights, LED-accents and tinted-glass boot lid. It’s also the most fuel-efficient car in this list. If you decide on the priciest model, the Airscape, you’ll get a folding fabric roof – neat! The C1 comes standard with a 7-inch touch-screen as well as six airbags.

“I like that my [C1] can accelerate fast, but the air-conditioner’s circulation is quite bad,” says Christine Collett, a final-year BA Social Work student.

  • Fiat Panda – Often ignored because of its prettier sister, the Fiat 500, the Panda is cheaper and definitely more spacious. With five doors instead of three, you can easily pack in more friends. Its tiny engine means it’s very fuel-efficient. The Panda comes standard with all the tech any student demands, including an adorable name.

“I love that [the Panda] is cute and reliable, never had a problem with it,” says Claire Atkinson, a final-year B.Com student.

  • Honda Brio – The Brio offers a punchy engine and reliability your dad would be proud of. Featuring the most powerful engine in this list, the Brio offers pace for not a lot of dosh. It’s also offered with the essential tech, making it a sensible buy. Just pick the black interior and not the fading beige colour that comes as standard.

“It’s so [fuel] efficient and really has power for its size, I love it,” says Clarice Coetzee, a BA Politics student, about her Brio.

  • Smart ForFour – Having just gone on sale in South Africa, this Smart is a must-have for any respectable trendsetter. With its two-tone paint-work it’s sure to turn more than a few heads. Surprisingly affordable, this city runabout is rear-engined as well as rear-wheel drive, like some sports cars. Pick the priciest model and you get niceties like touch-screen infotainment, cruise control and LED accents in the headlights.
  • Suzuki Celerio – This Japanese tot comes with all the toys you need; six airbags, electronic stability programme [ESP], Bluetooth, electric windows, etc. The boxy shape of the Celerio means it’s got lots of space inside – loading up your mates won’t be a hassle.

“The boot is nice and big, but [the Celerio] struggles when it’s fully loaded,” says Antoinette Mills, a Stellenbosch resident.

According to the National Association of Automotive Manufacturers of South Africa (Naamsa), the December 2015 sales figure for these five cars combined was only 302 units. Which is only 0.9% of the entire passenger car sales figure for the same period.