The age of SUVs: tectonic shifts in the cars we buy and how we buy them

‘The real big change is the move towards electrification and sustainability’

A mask-wearing car sales person  showing cars to  customers during these Covid times. Photograph:  Getty Images

A mask-wearing car sales person showing cars to customers during these Covid times. Photograph: Getty Images

 

There are those who say the market for new cars is going to change more in the next decade than it has since the Ford Model T was first introduced. That our need for electricity and our (apparent) desire for autonomy will cause upheavals in the motoring world never seen before.

The thing is such upheavals have always taken place. Ford’s place in the global motoring firmament – if we’re talking in terms of ubiquity – was taken over first by Volkswagen, then by Toyota.

The simple, rugged, all-purpose Model T was eased into retirement by cars designed for specific functions or styles, and which changed, sometimes only subtly, every year so as to incentivise a new purchase.

We speak now of the electric car revolution, but the truth is electric cars were once the dominant motoring species, until someone, somewhere, decided that this petroleum stuff was cheap and plentiful, and what the heck is carbon-dioxide anyway?

Against that backdrop of global change, the Irish car market has changed beyond all recognition. While the brands of cars we buy and drive today are largely familiar, the actual vehicles themselves are quite different to what we bought two decades ago, and the way we buy them is changing even more rapidly.

Looking at a Top-10 sales chart from 2000, the year this writer first became a fully-fledged motoring journalist. It is striking to note that not only were 250,000 new cars sold in one year, but that the Fiat Punto was the best-selling model, and the Alfa Romeo 156 held a full 1 per cent of the market all to itself.

Arguably, the fall of Fiat – once a brand that in the 1970s and 1980s held as much as 30 per cent of the Irish new car market – has been one of the biggest and most shocking changes in those two decades.

Back in 2000 we bought mostly B-segment and C-segment hatchbacks, and a smattering of D-segment saloons. (B-segment refers to small hatchbacks, such as a Ford Fiesta, VW Polo, or Toyota Yaris; C-segment cars are family hatchbacks such as a VW Golf, Ford Focus, or Toyota Corolla; the D-segment refers to larger family saloons such as a VW Passat, Ford Mondeo or Toyota Avensis).

Indeed, even as recently as 2007, the farthest-flung year for which the Society of the Irish Motor Industry (SIMI) has easily-accessible figures, the list of best-sellers is still a lineup of B and C-segment cars, with a couple of larger saloons thrown in.

Striking contrast

This year, even allowing for the turmoil of Covid-19, the Top-10 looks staggeringly different. Fully half of that top 10 is now occupied by SUVs or crossovers, and there is but a single small B-segment hatchback – the Toyota Yaris – remaining in our list of most-purchased cars.

It’s a striking contrast to the list of best-sellers in the UK market, which is still dominated by such small cars as the Fiesta and Corsa, and in which only two SUVs – the Nissan Qashqai and the new Ford Puma – make an appearance.

So how have SUVs become such a massive seller in Ireland, in a market where their raw cost is jacked up so much by vehicle registration tax (VRT)? There’s clearly an element of fashionability about them – SUV sales are surging across the world having become initially popular in the US market in the 1990s.

“It’s builders,” reckons Aidan Doyle, public relations manager for Kia Ireland.

Doyle has seen the market evolve more than most, having begun his career with Opel, back when it was part of General Motors, and more recently been part of the inexorable rise of the Korean brands in Ireland.

“Back in the early 2000s, when the building trade and the construction trade was booming, a lot of guys working for construction firms were given big 4x4s as company cars. They became kind of intrinsically linked with success, and that image spread out to other models.”

The SUV has essentially all but killed off the market for D-segment saloons such as the Ford Mondeo and Toyota Avensis. Indeed, the Avensis is no longer on sale, and the Mondeo is due to be replaced next year by a larger seven-seat crossover.

It is not just saloons, though. The market for MPVs, originally created by the Renault Espace in 1982, and further expanded by the likes of the Renault Megane Scenic and Opel Zafira in the late 1990s, has all-but dried up.

Even C-segment hatchbacks – the likes of the Golf, Focus, and Corolla – are seeing their once-unassailable positions eroded by increasing sales of B-segment SUVS; small but tall crossovers based on the likes of the Yaris and Fiesta. That’s even though such cars have, at least until now, been deeply inferior in an engineering sense to those C-segment hatchbacks.

Deceptive

One senior motoring industry insider confided to The Irish Times that “it’s deceptive”.

“A lot of people don’t realise when they’re trading from a D-Segment saloon to a C-segment SUV that they’re actually buying a smaller car. Because of our obsession with SUVs and crossovers, an awful lot of Irish people are missing the pure joy of driving a really good C-segment hatchback.

“A good C-segment hatch just has everything, these are drivers’ cars. Whereas people are going and buying a small crossover instead which is just a supermini with a higher roof.”

Of course, looking at the vast difference between the Irish and UK best-seller charts, there’s another aspect that drives our greater passion for SUVs – the age of the buyer.

Because new cars in the UK are, in general, so much cheaper to buy than they are here, younger buyers – the people who tend to buy smaller hatchbacks – are driven into the second-hand market in Ireland, leaving the new car sales charts to older, generally wealthier buyers.

Many of them are being drawn into SUVs because they perceive them (often incorrectly) as roomier and more practical for family life. Older buyers again are often drawn to SUVs because they feel that the higher seats make them easier for getting in and out of, even if the actual difference in seat height is often measured in mere millimetres.

The rise and rise of the SUV has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of the Korean brands. While Kia has certainly had its successes, it’s sister brand Hyundai has risen almost to a dominance of the Irish car market.

From 2016 through 2018, the Hyundai Tucson was Ireland’s best-selling car. Not only was it the first Hyundai to reach the number one spot in Ireland, it was also the first SUV to do so. It was a remarkable performance, one that broke the traditional deadlock on the top spaces of the Irish best-sellers list usually held by one of Toyota, Ford or Volkswagen.

“I was looking back to 2009,” Stephen Gleeson, managing director of Hyundai Ireland, told The Irish Times. “Back then Volkswagen had about 11 per cent of the market, Ford had 14 per cent. We had 3 per cent of the market, and since then we’ve grown to more than 9 per cent. It’s a remarkable change.”

Truly remarkable. Hyundai, which entered the market in the 1990s as a seller of, essentially, bargain-basement models, has grown through competitiveness to ubiquity, even unseating Ford as the choice of Garda patrol vehicles.

Tastes

Buyers have changed their tastes even within the brands that they are buying. Once it was a pretty accurate rule of thumb that if you looked at a new car’s price list, the model one-up from basic (let’s say a GL instead of an L) would be the best-seller.

The shift to buying cars on PCP and other forms of finance has changed that utterly. Now it’s not really the price of a new car that matters, nor even the bald figures of the monthly repayments, but the cost of financing the gap between your trade-in value and the price tag of the car you want.

Financing that gap has improved the affordability of a new car even as new car prices have spiralled upwards. Gleeson confirms that even a once bargain brand such as Hyundai is not immune.

“So we’ve announced the new Tucson, and organised all the prices and the specs, and I was looking at our figures the other day, our pre-orders for January, and it’s the top-spec model that’s the best-seller right now.”

That seems to be the experience with other brands. Volkswagen, for example, started some years ago offering preferential interest rates on higher-spec models, and saw sales of such cars explode. VW buyers in Ireland are now so used to spending bigger money on their cars that the larger more expensive Tiguan SUV now out-sells the Golf hatchback.

The rise in prices paid for new cars is reflected in that Top-10 sellers’ list. In 2007, the average base price for a car in the top 10 was €20,062. Today it stands at €26,733. And that’s just taking the base prices of each model – the average real transaction price, according to the Central Statistics Office, is closer to €33,000.

Of course, look at the sales charts for this year and you’ll see one holdout against the SUV tide at the top – the Toyota Corolla, a C-segment hatch which nicked the top-seller spot from the Hyundai Tucson in 2019. That is, of course, part of a greater, underlying trend which is the shift from petrol and diesel power to electric propulsion. The Corolla is not an electric car, but it is a hybrid, and its new-found popularity with Irish buyers is a signal that buyers’ tastes are changing once again.

Big change

“The real big change is the move towards electrification and sustainability,” Steve Tormey, chief executive of Toyota Ireland, told The Irish Times.

“Even for ourselves we’ve moved from a 30 per cent hybrid mix in 2017 to almost 90 per cent mix in 2020, which is a huge leap in a few short years. Now consumers are more environmentally conscious than ever, and want to make sure that their decision will make a difference for future generations.

“Now, seeing the impact Covid has had on how we live, I think that will increase the change even more. From selling only 35 hybrids in 2000 to them now accounting for 90 per cent of our sales, it’s incredible to reflect on how much foresight the engineers in Toyota had at the time.”

The rise of the electric and hybrid car has been remarkable in the past 24 months as buyers, seeing both the looming climate emergency and incoming changes to vehicle taxation, began looking more and more for cars with plugs.

In 2019, Tesla briefly blipped to the top of the monthly sales charts with the Model 3 saloon, but that was arguably more to do with the timing of an arriving container ship than it was the outright popularity of the car itself. This year Volkswagen’s new ID.3 electric hatch topped the sales charts for two months in a row, and while there was some shipping timing in that too, it seems more like the first stirrings of something larger and more profound.

Equal to electricity in importance will be the move to more and more online shopping for cars.

Not surprisingly, given the successive Covid lockdowns in 2019, car importers and dealers put more effort into their online sales, seeing them as a lifeline in tough times. Covid has merely accelerated what was a developing trend, arguably leapfrogging the traditionally conservative Irish car buyer further and faster into a brave new world.

“From a consumer perspective there has been a significant move online, with the majority of consumers starting their journey online” said Toyota’s Steve Tormey.

Other brands, smaller brands such as Subaru, are now seeing the potential for online sales to improve their stance in buyers’ minds, sidestepping the physical limitations of a relatively small dealer network.

Incidentally, those thinking that Covid-19 will deplete car sales in the same fashion as the 2008-2009 financial crash are barking up the wrong financial tree.

“At the end of the day, with Covid we were out of business for two months,” Stephen Gleeson of Hyundai told The Irish Times. “With the financial crash in 2009, we lost years of work, years of our lives.

“I think psychologically this year has probably been harder in some ways, not least because we’re worrying about our loved ones and our colleagues, but in financial terms, it’s no contest. We’re actually currently ahead of last year’s sales in terms of January pre-orders already.

“Back in 2009 there was no recovery, simply because the banks had stopped lending money. I think, hopefully, with vaccines ahead of us now, and the fact that we’re better able to take care of those who do fall ill, we can drive on and see the economy bounce back.”

Financial crash

Indeed, the effects of that financial crash were incredibly far-reaching, with many saying that it took till 2016 for the Irish car market to properly recover, only for it then to be undermined by Brexit and the effect that cheap sterling had on imported used cars.

For anyone looking for the one, big moment in Irish car-buying history, that one great hinge around which the story of buying and selling cars on this island pivots, you won’t find it. There are too many such moments, whether you think of the perfect storm of the “00” registration plate and so-called “scrappage” scheme; or the financial crash; the rise of the PCP finance package; the explosion in SUV sales; Brexit; or the transition from liquid fuels to electric power.

Whichever brand or model is on top, all you can be certain of is that it will all change again. And soon.

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