MORE space, less space, more doors, fewer doors, better on-road ability, more rugged off-road ability... nothing is out of the question, says Mercedes-Benz SUV boss Wolf Dieter-Kurz, not even a convertible, as carmakers chase every niche to maximise SUV sales' potential.
Speaking to Wheels at the launch of the new GLE replacement for the ML-Class, and the global launch of the GLE Coupe (neither of which we can tell you about until the embargo lifts on June 19), Kurz said carmakers are only just starting to explore the model proliferation opportunities of SUVs, and that there's the potential for a considerable derivative expansion globally.
A number of new brands - from Alfa Romeo to Lamborghini, Jaguar to Bentley, and even Aston Martin - are tipped to enter the SUV market in the next few years, but they won't be the only source of sales growth. Derivatives from existing players, like Benz which currently nets 25-30 percent of its sales from the high-riding, pseudo-off-road wagons, are also high on the cards.
"Of course we are thinking many variants and many opportunities. I think the SUV segment due to its growth and the worldwide interest that the SUVs have, it will be the segment which sees the most derivatives in the outskirts of the portfolio. It's getting kind kind of fussy in the outskirts [already]."
"We are looking into every opportunity where we will find a market."
Kurz said the key to deciding which derivatives to produce comes down to three questions: attractiveness, volume and resources.
"The core decision for [buying an SUV] is: do people find the vehicle attractive?"
If an SUV derivative's potential sales volume is considerable, said Kurz, carmakers like Benz will be more likely to allocate the financial and R&D resources. And key to that volume is China, not America.
"China is the driving force for the overall portfolio. [We ask each time] can it be successful in China?"
Kurz said a convertible like the one Range Rover showed based on the Evoque (pictured) was not likely, because "China is not very good these days in terms of convertibles. Never say never. But the convertible is a very slim niche in terms of the SUV portfolio."
But he said we could see the return of a car like the R-Class, an SUV/people mover hybrid that found few fans in Australia when it was sold here between 2006-13.
"Maybe we were too early with the R-Class, which we are still selling in China. It's doing good with 12-14,000 units per year. So this more on-road based but still very roomy but not station-wagon segment is definitely an interesting segment in the future.
"There are others... If you cancel, let's say, the convertible and the roadster [opportunity] because it will not work as an SUV, then I think it's more the design play. How much are you dealing with 'coupe-ness-ness' - is that a word? - or station wagon direction, or the real boxy SUV? I think there is lots of design play which is possible in terms of the SUV."
SUV sales account for one third of the Australian new car market annually, and are tipped to overtake passenger cars in Australia in 2017.
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