History of SUVs in Australia

© Simon Bayliss 2015

The term SUV, or Sports Utility Vehicle, has its origins in the US, and has slowly permeated its way into the Australian vernacular.

While we often are reticent to becoming too American in our terminology, the lack of a better term has seen it now a valid segmentation of motoring types, classification and statistics, buyers, manufacturers and users alike. The statistics are ringing loud and clear, and show that we love our SUVs.

There have been attempts to shy away from the term though, Holden floated the XUV idea for one of its utes, but the reality is SUV is here to stay and is the segment that is leading the way in vehicle sales and growth and will soon be larger the traditional passenger vehicle segment.

The Australian market developed differently than that of the US, as their SUV's have developed from the introduction of wagon-based versions of the traditional 'body-on-chassis' 4x4's like the Jeep Cherokee (XJ) that had a ladder-boxed chassis encompassed within a monocoque chassis.Their development was heavily Detroit influenced, while in Australia, our early 4x4 influences were mostly Japanese and English through Nissan, Toyota and Land Rover and consisted of more utilitarian examples, the progression to a more family-friendly vehicle would also take its lead from those influences.

Simon Bayliss

What was the first SUV?

So what was the first SUV released into the Australian market? Well that depends on your definition of the term.

1972 Range RoverFor some, the SUV door was opened with the launch of the Range Rover in 1972 as many of these, while capable as 4x4 vehicle, were seen much more around Toorak and Double Bay than in remote parts of Australia. The original Rangie was very utilitarian, although the agricultural leaf springs were replaced by coils all round, it was still upmarket enough for the hobby-farm and ski types, especially when compared to other 4WD's of the time.

In its true sense, the Australian SUV was borne not of a transfiguration of an existing 4x4, but from an evolving Japanese brand that would soon be synonymous with the SUV term as we know it today... Subaru.

Subaru Leone

01-subaru-leoneSubaru introduced the Leone Wagon 4x4; but it was only an All-Wheel Drive without dual range which was introduced some years later. The Leone was released in Australia in 1974 – although it was first released in Japan a few years earlier. The All-Wheel Drive touring wagon was borne and so began our love affair with the inspiration and aspiration cues associated with this vehicle segment.

While the Leone would not go anywhere like a true 4x4, it was very capable of going most of the places most of the people really wanted to, in a safe, comfortable, family friendly vehicle.

It not only created a new and exciting segment in the market, but also prompted many other manufactures to go the AWD route; although it was really only a game of catch-up as Subaru owned that segment for many years.

It was not until the mid-late 80's that those competing in the market started to gain some serious traction (pun intended) in the market.

Suzuki Vitara

01-suzuki-vitaraSuzuki came into the SUV market in 1988, although it had been producing 4x4's since 1970, the introduction of the Vitara heralded a change in their target market with the new Vitara. While a true dual-range off-roader, it's road-manners were very good compared to other 4x4's thanks to its coil sprung suspension. The appeal for these small precursors to the modern SUV was further bolstered by power-steering and a more comfortable almost car like interior.

The Vitaria has experienced many iterations since, and is still today a very capable off roader with real-world credential for getting 'down and dirty', and is also a great car around the city.

Toyota RAV4

01-toyota-rav-4Toyota was not far behind in the SUV stakes, and launched the RAV4 in mid-1994. The first RAV4 was a 2-door 4 seater that, while lacking the dual-range of the Suzuki, its constant 4WD system and good ground clearance enabled it to be a very capable 'softroader'. Toyota opted for a monocoque body to produce a very lightweight vehicle.

Since then, the RAV has developed, over 4 generations, to a very popular SUV that has not only grown in market share but also in size to sit firmly in the medium SUV sector. Its growth in popularity over recent years is, to a large extent, due to Toyota's reputation for build quality. Its SUV credentials were further bolstered with the additional transmission lock enabling power distribution of the front and rear wheels to be split evenly.

Subaru Forester

Subaru ForresterWith others entering the market, Subaru consolidated its place at the top of the pack with the introduction of the Forester in 1997. Based on the Impresa, which itself was a spinoff from the Liberty, it ensured the Forester handled the road with more car-like dynamics, with the benefit of the Subaru symmetrical AWD system. Add the, now ubiquitous, boxer engine and increase the ground clearance and it was a hit for both city and country buyers alike. The boxer engine provides another benefit in that it enables a much lower centre of gravity - an added benefit with a higher sitting motor vehicle.

Honda CR-V

Honda CR-VHonda had a lot of success in Australia with medium to small vehicles that could not be killed with a stick; they just kept going and going and going. With that reputation for reliability, it is no surprise that when Honda moved into the small SUV market in 1997 with the CR-V, it was no surprise that is was popular, very popular. While it was softer than those already in the market, it was a big hit with parents for the school run, shopping etc, due to its manageable size and great access, it was also the first model to introduce a clever on demand AWD system, activating upon front wheel slippage.

Kia Sportage

Kia SportageWhen launched in 1997, the Sportage was not the prettiest thing on the road, nor was it the best performer but it did herald the arrival of a future force in the SUV stakes.

The original compact SUV for what at the time was a pretty much unknown brand, was conversion of a FWD car to a 4WD complete with dual-range and body on chassis. It was a capable softroader but lacked the refinement of the main competitors at the time, RAV4 and Forester.

Interestingly, the Sportage debuted two years before RAV4, but was not a serious contender for the segment until its partnership with Hyundai brought the second generation and a long model relationship that would come to dominate the segment.

Here come the Brits!

01-landrover-freelander-IWhile the market by the end of the 1990's was looking very Japanese, along came the British. Building on their off-road heritage that began in the late 1940's, Land Rover introduced the world to a very capable softroader in 1998. Although a much maligned vehicle, those lucky enough to have a good one, swear by them. (Editors note... I purchased one in 2001 and drove it throughout much of eastern Australia and have to say it was very good and I had almost no trouble with it; only trouble was the constant ribbing from others).

Nissan X-Trail

Nissan X-TrailNissan's foray into the burgeoning SUV market was not until 2001 with the X-trail. With good interior dimension thanks to its boxy exterior, mated with a very good 4wd system, similar to that of the Pathfinder (without the dual range), it was a very capable SUV with an added benefit of selectable 2wd and lock for when things got a little slippery. Over the years, its increase in size has enabled it to be a market leader in the city and similar to the RAV4, it has morphed into a larger SUV segment to sit top of the medium SUV segment for many years.

In the early 2000's, there was the realisation that the market for SUV's in Australia was growing and there was a large segment of the market that was not catered for. The SUV's to date had been a bit on the small size, which not only limited its appeal to families, but also it's potential as a family tourer.

Station wagons had long been a stalwart for the family vacation, but this demographic was looking for a lot more. Enter the family SUV.

Hyundai Santa Fe & Terracan

Hyundai TerracanHyundai Santa FeHyundai entered the ring in 2000, with the Santa Fe which was very well received by the market as it was a well built family wagon with a car-like manners on the road. Add to that, the power/torque was good for a vehicle of this size and the high riding position was becoming what drivers sought. Throw in some added ground clearance, and the aspirational wagon had arrived.

The second offering, from Hyundai, was the Terracan, which was a seven-seater, ladder-chassis dual range 4x4 with some attempt to be a bit more car-like than other 4x4's. Its seven seat capacity was squarely aimed at the family buyer.

Kia Sorento

Kia SorentoThe Sorento (2003) started off as a full ladder chassis 4x4, which was good but was let down by its on-road dynamics; only a few car makers can straddle both camps successfully. But the Sorento did attract buyers and was a sign of things to come for the company that had recently been acquired by Hyundai. The Sorento was based on the Terracan; and so begun a very fruitful partnership between the two manufacturers via shared vehicle underpinnings.

Mitsubishi Outlander

Mitsubishi OutlanderWith its long heritage building passenger vehicles and 4x4's, it was only a matter of time before Mitsubishi would introduce an amalgam of the two. The first was not a hit, a downsized Pajero styled by prestigious Italian styling house Pininfarina and was locally called the iO, but the second was very well received.

Introduced in 2003, the Outlander was reasonably popular, but did polarise some people with its looks confusing buyers - was it small wagon or an SUV.

Not quite as generous as its competitors in terms of form and function, it was however, a very good, and popular foray into this segment and a sign that more was to come from this smart SUV.

Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute

Mazda TributeFord EscapeProbably the first testing of the larger AWD SUV segment was the Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute in 2001; primarily the same car with slightly differing external cosmetics and engine/transmission configurations. The Escape was squarely aimed at the North American Market, while the Tribute offered wider geographic appeal. Both vehicles experienced some good successes for a number of years and opened the way for today's most successful large SUV's.

2004 saw the battle-lines were drawn for large SUV market. In one corner was the Ford Territory and in the other was the Toyota Kluger.

Kluger Vs Territory

Toyota KlugerFord TerritoryReleased in 2004, the Territory was loosely based on the BA Falcon, but with an element of European refinement and built in Australia specifically for the Australian market. The Kluger on the other hand, was sold internationally, especially the US, where it is known as the Highlander. The early Klugers shared the same platform and running gear as the Lexus RX330.

The tussle for market share was being won clearly by Ford, when in 2005, 23,454 Territory's hit the road which was about double that of the Kluger. The two vehicles at that time were not really directly competing though as the Territory was available in AWD and 2WD while the Kluger was AWD only. Fast forward to today, and the competition is a lot closer but only due to less Territories being sold as more manufacturers come into the market and have eroded Territories share of the market.

Mazda's CX series

Mazda CX-7While Mazda's Tribute was a fairly popular vehicle in the early/mid 2000's, it didn't seem like Mazda was going to be offering much in the SUV stakes. Then the CX series was about to change that, and how. Their first offering was the CX7 in 2006. The CX7 was all Mazda in fit and form, and was very popular from the start with sleek design and a wonderful 2.3litre turbocharged engine as well as a full list of standard features which was the envy of much of the competition.

The CX9 was released the following year, and was the company's first 7-seater offering and was after a share of the Kluger/Territory market.

European Luxury SUVs

Mercedes M ClassThe European marques, while not as active in the Australian SUV scene in terms of volume and evolution of the newer Japanese and South Korean brands, were also evolving from a much higher standard, and with a different geographical mindset.

Mercedes released the M-Class in 1998, and lead the way for a short period until BMW released the X5 in 2000 which, for Australian buyers, meant that the European reputation for style, quality and panache was also available in SUV form. VW released the Touareg in 2003 and Porsche the Cayenne; both sharing the same underpinnings.

Volvo XC-70Volvo released an AWD version of the V70 and named it the 'V70 Cross Country' which in 2003 was rebadged the XC-70; the vehicle was more in line with the Subaru offerings, but larger and with typical Swedish style flair and safety. In the same year, Volvo also released the XC90 which was a larger, taller, and higher SUV.

BMW X5In 2004, the BMW X3 was released to expand BMW's claim on the luxury segment of the SUV market.

Wanting to straddle the 4x4/SUV divide, Mercedes released the GL which was a larger version of the M class that would accommodate a third row of seats and provided some serious off road capabilities with dual-range and raiseable air suspension.

Range Rover SportThis was good competition for the leader in the luxury 4x4 market, Land Rover, who were starting to release some very innovative models that must have left the competitors guessing. The Range Rover was in a world of its own primarily, then Land Rover released a Sports Version (Basically a Discovery 3, with a sporty Range Rover appearance). Further cross-model breeding appeared a few years later with the Evoque 2011) which was a Range Rover styled AWD on a Freelander platform. Once a leader, always a leader.

You want a wagon with that?

Toyota 4RunnerMitsubishi ChallengerWay back in 1984, Toyota had an idea to basically add a cabin to a Hilux 4x4 and called it 4Runner; it was a popular option and ran in Australia for over 10 years.

Mitsubishi picked up the banner in 1998 and ran with the Challenger wagon built on the Triton ute, and after 4 different model upgrades is still going strong (with the 5th generation just released).

Isuzu Mu-XIn 2012, Holden added a wagon body to the Colorado and soon after Isuzu released the D-Max based MU-X in 2013. These SUV's are more traditional 4x4's but with a softer-edge inside opening up the market to those looking for serious off road credentials at fraction of the price of a Discovery, Land Cruiser or Patrol.

This segment of the market is set to grow even more with the upcoming release of the Fortuna by Toyota which is a wagon version of the new Hilux, and the Everest which is Ford's offering built on the very popular Ranger ute.


Muddy Waters

Jeep CherokeeAs a sign of just of just how strong the SUV market is, many traditional 4x4 models are releasing AWD versions as well as traditional 4x4 versions of models.

Case in point is the JEEP Cherokee and the Grand Cherokee. Add to the mix that some traditional dual-range 4x4's like the Nissan Pathfinder are no longer offered in that iteration, but purely an high-range only 4WD with the ability to select 2WD also. And as an interesting sign of the times also, the Pathfinder is now available as a Hybrid.


Don't always believe the advertising

So you have an SUV, or about to purchase one, and you see the marketing material depicting some 'outback' adventure, there should be some things that you need to be aware of before you head out to tackle the Simpson Desert.

The first point is not really to do with the vehicle but more about the bush and outback as a place for adventure. Much of what you want to see and do can in fact be done in a conventional 2WD car.

There are a lot of people that live in the bush that don't own a 4WD and they cope just fine.

The modern SUV will, generally, give you greater ground clearance which is good for some rougher roads, and the AWD system will provide added traction and safety when needed. But bear in mind that, generally, your AWD is not a 4WD and should not be used as one as they are not built to take the punishment serious off-roading can dish up; not only can you break the vehicle, but you can become seriously stuck. We will cover this in more details in an upcoming issue.

Something to note though in regards to space-saver, run-flat and emergency spares. Found mostly on European SUV's, where in their home countries, they are suitable due to the higher population densities and short distances to get to service centres should one need to. This can be dangerous if you are 300km from the nearest town.

A space-saver is a sold rubber or small tyre that has the same rolling diameter as the original. It is not as bad as the others options but will limit the speed and distance you can travel, and make for a rougher ride, especially on an unsealed road where it can be very rough. The 'runflats' basically allow travel for a certain distance at a slow speed while flat (due to a stiff sidewall).

If on an unsealed road, that distance is much greater and once the tyre is done, it is done, and then rim and suspension damage will result. The third option, emergency- spare, should not be taken too far away from population/ service centre as it is basically a puncture kit in a can. A useful thing that many 4WDers have in their toolbox, which can fix a puncture (but they will also carry 1 or 2 spares anyway). The problem for these is that if it a serious puncture/ tear/ blowout, this solution is useless.

And you will be stuck and either need to be towed or get a lift to the nearest service centre for a repair.

While some vehicles can be Tardis-like in that they look small from the outside but big on the inside, many SUV's can be the opposite as the higher roofline and taller stance can make them look bigger than they are.

While running around the city or a day trip out of town might easily fit Mum, Dad and the kid/s, it is a different prospect if going away for the weekend or longer as the practicality of fitting everything in can be a challenge in terms of space and safety.

Add to that, many of the smaller SUV's can be limited by the weight of being fully loaded.

With the above in mind, which we will cover in more details in upcoming issues, your SUV is the perfect choice of vehicle type to get out and experience so much of what is on offer throughout Australia whether it is a weekend away or an adventure further afield.

We are not alone... or are we?

Mention SUV's in certain circles and there is often a look of disdain as the immediate thought is that there is some implied comparative connection between an SUV and a dual-range 4X4. Well there is and there isn't, and a growing grey area in between.

If we look at Europe and Australia, there is a huge difference in the AWD/4x4 participation rate and that has a lot to do our climate and the environment in which we wish to explore. The harsh interior and our wonderful coast means a lot of the times, the build and mechanicals of a 4x4 is required. But not always.

The modern SUV (AWD) owes much of its origins to the need, safety-wise, of increased traction in wintry conditions (and general normal road safety). So, while these vehicles are great when extra traction is required, they are not designed for the bump and grind of true offroading. They are great for off-the bitumen roads, but the extreme tracks covered by a LandCruiser or Patrol they are not designed to do and will often struggle.