We have been to the Mercedes museum in Stuttgart. There, we were admiring cars from the 1930s, when suddenly it struck us!
Those pre-war “cars” are just like our “SUVs”.
Let us explain…
So many people complain about SUVs being everywhere, too big, too heavy, not aerodynamic, etc.
No-one likes them, but everyone wants their “high driving position”.
The truth is that SUVs’ driving position is not “high”, it’s “normal”.
Look at “cars” from the first half of the 20th century. They were enormous (close to 6 m long). The seating position was higher than today’s “cars”.
Left: 1930-1938 Mercedes 770 (W07). Length: 5.6 m. Height: 1.83 m. Weight: 2700 kg.
Right: 2020 Mercedes GLS (X167). Length: 5.2 m. Height 1.82 m. Weight: 2500 kg.
Their driving position was what we would call “raised”. But people back then would have said “not raised, just a normal position”.
100 years ago, only sports cars would be as low as our “normal cars”. They needed improved aerodynamics and better cornering ability.
Cars from the late 19th century were even higher:
In fact, they resembled a “normal” horse carriage with an engine.
Horse carriages themselves are much taller than our tallest SUVs and pickup trucks. They had steps to climb on them. Their ground clearance was insane by today’s standards.
And before that, riding a horse would have given you an even more commanding position than driving a modern Range Rover.
Horses and carriages — this is where we come from. Even people who were born after the 1970s still aspire to “travel tall”. It seems to be part of our biology.
So “normal cars”, such as sedans and hatchbacks, have, in fact, a low driving position.
“Normal cars” ride lower than what we normally expect.
“Normal cars” were not the norm when we look at the history of transportation.
This helps us to understand what is going on in the car industry.
We could say that our heart makes us want to ride as high as possible. But our brain sees the benefits of riding lower: better fuel efficiency, lower risk of rolling over, better handling, less wind noise.
More so because we nowadays drive at much higher speeds than 150 years ago. In these conditions, lower riding cars make more sense.
The myth of station wagons’ superior practicality
Journalists regularly try to demonstrate that SUVs aren’t as practical as station wagons.
I’ve believed them for years.
But in practice, we don’t find it to be true.
Station wagons have less headroom, so it’s harder to put a child in their seat without hitting their head on the sealing.
In station wagons the boot is not as tall as in an SUV.
Like for like, station wagons are longer than SUVs, so their footprint is larger. To give you a few examples:
- The Audi A4 is longer than the Q5;
- The BMW 5 series is longer than the X5;
- The Mercedes E class is longer than the GLE.
Where station wagons beat SUVs is in overall style, weight, fuel efficiency, and high-speed handling.
Yet, because of the higher demand for SUVs, they receive more research and development money. Consequently, car manufacturers are able to come up with new tech features, like active anti-roll bars, which make SUVs handle like cars.
SUVs should rather be compared to vans and minivans, which are definitely more practical. Like for like, vans are smaller, lighter, shorter, and roomier than SUVs.
Wagons make sense for trips: less drag, less fuel, more stability, lower purchasing price.
But on a daily basis, they’re uncomfortably low for getting in and out, for securing children inside (their head hit the sealing, which can also happen with sporty SUVs, but not vans), the visibility is average.
On top of this, wagons don’t have enough ground clearance for unpaved roads, for going unintentionally fast over a speed bump, for manoeuvring close to a high curb, for meeting some heavy snowfall. Replacing a damaged bumper is expensive.
So SUVs are not as nonsensical as they seem at first, especially compared to wagons. Sure, vans would make more sense in terms of economy and practicality, but we are not entirely rational beings…