If you have meandered Pakistan’s roads in the past couple of years, you may have noticed an increasing number of cars that are basically hatchbacks with increased utility and ground clearance, for example Honda HR-V, Vezel and Nissan Juke.
So what are these seemingly SUV-lookalikes? And what has made them this successful in such a brief period of time in a country with a sedan-majority auto market?
To better understand how cars like Honda Vezel have been able to make a name for themselves while others have not, we will need to look at the basics.
Cars like Vezel and Juke may bear some resemblance to SUVs but are not classified as such. Instead, they are CUVs (Compact Utility Vehicles) or crossovers that are regarded as vehicles that use unibody architecture. This is pretty similar to that of regular hatchbacks, sedans and coupes with the most notable difference standing in the form of a higher ride height and more cargo and cabin space.
Efficient at handling the urban landscape, the only significant disadvantage with crossovers is their underwhelming off-road capability. This, however, is understandable as crossovers and SUVs are meant to serve different purposes.
On the other hand, Sports Utility Vehicle or Suburban Utility Vehicle (SUV) is a station wagon or truck that employs a body-on-frame chassis which guarantees a much robust off-road experience. Examples of SUVs in Pakistan would include Toyota Hilux and Fortuner which are the only two SUVs that are being imported in the form of SKDs (slightly knocked down units) and are being assembled in Pakistan. Local production has helped Toyota Indus keep their prices well under the PKR 5 million mark and according to numbers from Pakistan Automotive Manufacturers Association (PAMA), every month approximately fifty Fortuners and five hundred Hilux’ are sold.
This figure safely makes this duo the most successful one ever to come to Pakistan. However, moving away from the only 'SUV' success story of Pakistan, when we take a look at the impact their bigger siblings have been able to make, things do not look all that promising. The main reason for that is Toyota Prado’s and Toyota Land Cruiser’s use of bigger engines which attract higher import duties, ultimately surging their price well over the novelty price point of PKR 15 million.
"Crossover is the new sedan” is a phrase commonly used to describe these paradigm shift CUVs. These vehicles are initiating to replace sedans as the most preferred automotive form factor. The reason for the boom of crossovers/CUVs is the fact that they are placed at a crossroads between sedans and SUVs, which means that crossovers share characteristics of these two vehicle segments be it the softer on-road ride quality of sedans or the raised ride height and larger cabin/cargo space of SUVs, both of which make crossovers ideal for families living in an urban locale. Also, as family sizes tend to swell in developing countries, including Pakistan, and in-car technology tends to become a driving force behind every consumer vehicle, crossovers again find themselves at the intersection of the two as they guarantee both decent utility and gadgetry at an affordable price point.
Automakers around the world are now adapting to this shift by populating their line-up with a variety of crossovers. Honda started off by taking out the platform pinned under Fit to make a crossover we now know as Honda HR-V.
While other automakers have taken the approach of basing crossovers over their existing hatchbacks, Suzuki embraced the concept of CUVs by launching Vitara as a crossover despite the fact that its preceding iterations were all body-on-platform SUVs.
And the benefits of Suzuki's decision to adopt a different form-factor ancestry by basing Vitara on an SUV rather than on a hatchback are evident in the form of All-Grip that gives Vitara the SUV DNA we all once wished other hatchback based CUVs had. All-Grip is Suzuki's new four-wheel driving system that allows Vitara to exercise functions which are traditionally limited to SUVs. Such as, the option to choose between multiple driving modes (Auto, Sport, Snow and Lock) that tweak the amount of torque being delivered to all four wheels, which allow for a better road grip on a variety of surfaces be it snow, mud or tarmac. And despite the All-Grip goodies, Suzuki Vitara benefits from the advantages of CUVs in general as a reduced footprint (125mm shorter, 85mm lower and 35mm leaner) makes Vitara ideal for urban use as it is easier to manoeuvre through narrow roads and tight parking spaces.
Moreover, since CUV form factor is more forgiving for the designers mainly due to the use of unibody architecture, Vitara now comes with a much more dynamic design language than the stereotypical models usually employed by a variety of automakers for their SUVs. Also, the adoption of CUV platform gave Suzuki the leverage to use a lower displacement 1.6-litre engine which in addition to being Euro 6 compliant, offers a combined average fuel efficiency of over 18km/litre despite the fact that it directly powers Vitara's all four wheels. All of those numbers mean that Vitara is both easier on the pocket and on the planet. Most importantly at a price point in between PKR 3.8 million and PKR 4.2 million, Vitara does look like a compelling option, considering its competitive edge over other CUVs available in Pakistan.
While only time will spell the success of Vitara in Pakistan, the results for Suzuki’s courageous decision to ditch the SUV form factor in favour of CUV have been staggeringly positive as fourth generation Vitara has been able to make a name for itself in emerging markets. Just a brief period after its launch in India, Maruti Suzuki announced for the very first time that monthly sales for Vitara crossed the ten thousand mark in October 2016.
Moreover, calling Honda Vezel a propagator of crossovers in our market may not be an overstatement as not only has it been able to make a name for itself in a brief amount of time but it has also been able to create widespread crossover awareness in the minds of Pakistani car buyers.
In addition to that, the Vezel has inspired many current and prospective car companies in Pakistan to plan and launch CUVs in our market. Only in the last three to six months, Dewan Motors have been able to start the bookings of BMW X1 while Audi Pakistan has been vocal on their social media streams about launching its entry-level crossover, Q2, in Pakistan next year.
Interestingly enough, in Pakistan, the impact of crossovers has also been amplified by law, as the amount of customs duty applicable to a motor vehicle depends on its engine displacement. And since SUVs generally come with bigger engines under the hood i.e. 2.4-litre and above, they have never been the strongest performers in our market as duty skyrockets their price.
On the other hand, crossovers are built to substitute sedans and hatchbacks and hence come with smaller sized engines under the 2.0-litre mark. This allows them to avoid higher duty charges in Pakistan while simultaneously coming with better fuel efficiency, thanks to its relatively smaller engine.
To sum up, Pakistan’s expanding middle class, increasing family sizes and unfavorable duty structures for SUVs make us the Goldilocks zone for crossovers like BMW X1, Audi Q2, Honda Vezel and Suzuki Vitara.
This content has been independently produced by the writer and Dawn.com. Pak Suzuki has paid for association with the content.