We pick up the story at the end of the 1970s…
By the mid-1970s, the SUV market shrank due to the loss of Land Rover and International Harvester. As the decade continued, the segment was stagnant as most customers did not take these vehicles as seriously as in those in certain parts of the country. Places, such as rural communities and in mountainous regions, were ripe for these vehicles to serve as primary transportation through any climatic condition.
There was an automotive development that would change the future of the SUV. Throughout the 1980s, the station wagon was under threat by a brand new transportation option – the minivan. Families figured out that you can have a vehicle that would seat seven, carry their stuff and park inside of a garage.
Meanwhile, another development began to shake up the automotive world. Jeeps were becoming popular – and more civilized. The old Wagoneer would spawn two new models – the Cherokee and the Grand Wagoneer. The Cherokee carried the spirit of the original Wagoneer, while the Grand Wagoneer introduced a new kind of vehicle – the luxury SUV.
To meet the popularity of the Jeep brand, a new type of SUV emerged – smaller, more civilized, but as capable as its rugged brethren. For 1984, Ford introduced a Ranger-based "compact SUV," called the Bronco II. The same year, Suzuki expanded their motorcycle business in the USA by adding an automobile division. Its first product was the very small Suzuki Samurai.
Mitsubishi established their own automobile business in America and introduced the Montero in the later part of 1983, while sending Dodge dealers their own version called the Raider. General Motors already had their response to the small civilized SUV craze. In 1983, the S-10 pickup spawned a duet of new models – the Chevrolet S-10 Blazer and GMC S-15 Jimmy.
The next few years saw more compact pick-up based SUVs. For 1984, Toyota took their Hi-Lux and created a convertible/removable hardtop model called the 4Runner. Two years later, Nissan introduced the Hardbody-based Pathfinder. It is safe to say that the SUV field more than doubled by 1986 than it did at the end of the 1970s. It also meant that the minivan would soon have an antithesis to compete against. The Isuzu Trooper II was introduced in America for 1983 as one of the first offerings by the brand under its own banner.
These small SUVs may seem to have followed the same formula as the old military Jeep. However, its lightweight and added ground clearance would result in some interesting findings. A higher center of gravity combined with a lighter weight would possibly cause a Suzuki Samurai or a Ford Bronco II to tip over on its side. Both Consumer Reports and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would discover these flaws in those light SUVs. Suzuki sued Consumer Reports over is findings, while preparing to sell its replacement – the Sidekick – over on these shores towards the end of the decade.
Jeep was still a cornerstone in the SUV segment. Now controlled by Renault, the brand introduced what would be the single most important product of its kind – the 1984 XJ Cherokee. Though smaller than the Grand Wagoneer, the XJ would revolutionize the breed by utilizing unit-body construction. Though still capable of going off-road like its predecessors, there was a more solid platform to work with, eliminating some of the complaints by some customers of body-on-frame SUVs. Though seen as civilized, the XJ Cherokee and Wagoneer brought new types of customers to the Jeep fold. These were the kind of customers that loved the space and utility of the Cherokee, but would never drive one off road. These would be the people that would drive SUV sales for years to come.
By the latter part of the 1980s, another new twist to the SUV story came about. Rover was considering a return to the USA market. They had been selling the Range Rover globally since 1970 fostering a huge success. Land Rover established a North American operation and introduced the Range Rover stateside for 1987. This would spark the growth in luxury SUVs, once an exclusive domain of the Jeep Grand Wagoneer.
While most of these new SUVs were capable of going off road, some were starting to go soft. The "softroader" revolution would drive SUV sales through the 1990s. What manufacturers and importers learned was that sometimes an SUV does not have to feel like one. However, a SUV could still look like one, offering a larger space than a station wagon, but with a more masculine feel than a minivan. The latter point was the big selling point of the SUV as it began to eat into minivan sales through the 1990s.
If one product epitomized this move towards "softroaders," it would be the 1990 Ford Explorer. It was larger than the Bronco II it eventually replaced. Yet, it was the perfect vehicle for families to supplant their history of station wagons and minivans. Customer lapped up the Explorer to become one of the best-selling SUVs of the decade. Despite a tire issue – the infamous exploding Firestone controversy – Explorers remained one of the most influential products among owners in terms of what it did for them in their care.
Almost every brand in the USA clamored to get a SUV product on their showroom floors in the 1990s. Some had to borrow from other OEMs to do so. For example, Acura and Honda sold rebadged Isuzus in their respective showrooms. Then, there was a lot of badge engineering to accomplish the same thing. The Nissan Pathfinder was also sold as an Infiniti. The Explorer spawned Mercury, Mazda and Lincoln versions. General Motors continued to offer many versions of its products. Suzuki and Chevrolet had similar small SUVs with different badges and names. The Chevrolet TrailBlazer was sold in various ways by Buick, GMC, Oldsmobile, Saab and Isuzu. The second generation Dodge Durango was available in a more luxurious Chrysler model.
Even today, the Toyota Land Cruiser is offered in a more expensive Lexus version. Of course, GM’s large SUV is still available from Chevrolet, GMC and Cadillac. Ford and Lincoln also share the large SUV platform, as well. Not to mention Nissan and Infiniti sell similar three-row crossovers despite some design differences.
The luxury SUV market began to explode in the 1990s and well into the new century. Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Porsche, Audi and BMW would see these vehicles on their lots. They were offered either as full SUVs or simply crossovers.
That term "crossover" would become part of the SUV lexicon at the turn of the millennium. As unit-body SUVs were becoming acceptable to customers and enthusiasts alike, some products started sharing platforms with automobiles and minivans. Once they shared a common platform, they were simply dismissed as real SUVs. The idea of the softroader became the norm. It just seemed that families who needed a more masculine form of transport won over the real off-road capable products that spawned this type of vehicle in the first place.
With current product trends in place, are SUVs an endangered species? If you think they are – you are sadly incorrect. They are as vital as ever. In fact, we want more of them! Yet, we want them not just for recreational purposes these days. We want them to do the same work as crossovers.
Though some cultures have embraced them as urban creatures – invaders, as a journalist once said about them decades before – the Jeep Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited are as commonplace at the hippest places in town as they are up in the Rocky Mountains. Yet, these direct ascendants of the military Jeep are considered the best way to tackle the roughest terrain around. Put a Wrangler in any situation, and it will dominate it. Would you take your kids to school in one? Some actually do.
Jeep and Land Rover still offers a full line of vehicles with true off-road capabilities. Even the smallest models – the Range Rover Evoque, Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk and Land Rover Discovery Sport, to name a few – have been tested to go deep into the desert or into the mountains and handle what is in front of them. Toyota, Nissan, and GM also currently offer SUV models that would follow a Jeep or a Land Rover through the woods and beyond.
Some might say that the US market no longer offers tough and rugged SUVs for sale anymore. You would have to go elsewhere to seek more of these kinds of vehicles out. If you have a passport handy, you could find yourself in one of these places. For example, go to any Caribbean island and head to a farm. Most likely, a Suzuki Jimny would oversee the crops, as they are small enough to manage the tight rural roads on an island. The Australian Outback is ripe with off-roaders. You will find a variety of Toyota Land Cruiser models that you never thought was still being built today. These Toyotas are joined by Nissan Patrols, Mitsubishis and Holden Colorado 7s – the latter based on GM’s midsized truck platform. Where Land Rovers once roamed, they have been replaced by Toyota and Nissan SUVs. These places include the Middle East, Africa and many parts of Asia.
Speaking of Asia, off-roaders also have a huge presence in Thailand, India, China, Russia and the former Soviet Republics. Names, such as Tata, Mahindra, Force, Daihatsu, Isuzu, Ssangyong, Lada, UAZ and Great Wall are a common sight from Sri Lanka over the Himalayas into the deeper parts of Siberia.
This brings us back to the original idea – a vehicle capable enough to tackle the world. It began from a bid to develop a light vehicle for reconnaissance and other duties supporting the US Army. After the war, it went into civilian service to all corners of the globe – made by a few manufacturers. It went where only animals tread. They also found a home where adventure and exploration lives.
Over time, the SUV would be tamed. Civilians with families wanting a replacement for the old station wagon, but wanted something more masculine than a minivan took to the SUV as their vehicle of choice. Some might say that this diluted the breed. Yet, there are still some SUVs that hold true to the tenets of what they are supposed to be – capable of going anywhere you can take one.
Born on the battlefield, the SUV left its mark on global culture.
All photos by Randy Stern