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What Makes A Vehicle A “Sport Utility” Vehicle?

Of note over the past couple of weeks is the revelation that shape matters when it comes to vehicle efficiency. The other takeaway is that the plethora of SUVs — tall, boxy, and all pervasive — just aren’t the right shape to optimize efficiencies. Frontal area matters! And we don’t seem to be getting any alternatives, at least in the US.


I confess that I consider my current Mini Cooper Clubman, All-4 the ultimate “sport utility vehicle.” Why? Of course because of the AWD and the drivability. But even more salient is the height. To utilize our vehicle for “sports,” we use the roof racks: to carry sea kayaks, bicycles (as many as four), skis, and a rocket box, or any combination of these. With a hitch-mounted bike rack, we can carry both the kayaks and our bikes. Sure, typical SUVs may have roof racks, but you also need a step ladder to put things on the racks or take them off.

And for sea kayaks — long, ungainly craft when out of their element — the height is a huge usability factor. With an elegant 4-part hoist system (available from West Marine) we can back the Mini into the garage bay where the kayaks are suspended, lower them onto the Mini, and drive out without incurring an insurance claim!

While the Mini is our “SUV,” our i3 is our daily driver. Commuting, groceries — even hay bales for the gardens. But, catering to “American” tastes, BMW built this vehicle to at least resemble “crossover” appearances. So, it barely fits under the kayaks. At least I have almost a foot of (useless) space over my head when driving.

Unfortunately, this trend isn’t looking to change anytime soon. Tesla builds lower sedans with too short a roof or an SUV that is too tall. Chevrolet is making huge affordability and drivability strides with the Bolt, but “artificially raised the roof height” to look more like a CUV — to “appeal to American tastes.” Its new models destined to appear sometime this year are the Equinox and Blazer, both with promised affordable pricing, and both perpetuating the useless over-height paradigm.

And Volkswagen, parent to the ever versatile Golf, has a perfectly satisfactory successor in the ID.3, but refuses to sell it in North America because Americans want SUVs. BMW took a flyer with the Mini electric, but fell far short of competitive range. Maybe if they electrified the Clubman body style, that extra wheelbase would have afforded more than a ~120 mile range?

Here’s hoping the recently “discovered” inefficiencies of the all-pervasive SUV body style will “revolutionize” auto styling back to something that actually works. I get it that folks like being able to “see over the car in front of you,” but how’s that working when everyone is driving a too-tall rig? And that excessive ground clearance? I routinely drive my Mini with skis through deep snow and up forest roads for bike trips. (Amazing what AWD with appropriate tires can do!)

I suggest a “true” sport utility vehicle is one that supports and encourages us to use our sporting equipment frequently and easily. Having to find space for the step ladder isn’t helping. EV station wagons, anyone?

By Gordon Matthews

Gordon Matthews is a professional engineer and career 45 year utility-industry professional. He plies the Pacific Northwest with bikes, skis and kayaks, hoping he can fully electrify those journeys!

Related Stories:

BMW Retires The I3 With A Golden Parachute (Kinda)


Images courtesy of Gordon Matthews





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