What’s behind the American SUV fetish?

You Americans just don’t get it, so have this fake SUV! And it costs more!

That’s Car and Driver’s Erik Johnson imagining what European automakers must be saying as they watch American buyers continue to spurn their superb wagons in favor conventional sedans or tarted up “SUVs.”

And I have to agree. Why crop the back of a wagon to make a sedan with a separate trunk? You cut rear headroom and obliterate cargo capacity, for what? A wagon does not take a measurable performance hit over its sedan variant. If anything rear-quarter visibility is a little better. I own a sedan and a wagon. Although my wagon is marginally smaller in exterior dimensions it feels bigger inside. And while I often find myself wishing I had brought the wagon to pick up cargo, I have never found myself saying, “If only I had the sedan here….” Yet, due to lack of demand, after my model year Mazda stopped selling the wagon variants of its popular sedan in the United States.

If a sedan seems like a suboptimal auto profile take a look at the “SUV/Crossover” market. A large part of these vehicles are, as the Germans might say, fake SUVs: just wagons on a higher wheelbase sold at premium prices. They handle worse than a comparable wagon because of their higher center of gravity. They do not provide more cargo capacity than the base wagon. They do provide a higher and more upright seating position, which market research indicates is preferred by females. They also provide increased ground clearance, which means that you are less likely to scrape your undercarriage while driving off road. (Want a higher view and more cargo capacity, but don’t need off-road ground clearance? Yeah, I’m still waiting for performance minivans too.)

In addition to the handling penalty of fake SUVs, “real” SUVs come with a host of tradeoffs that don’t make sense for most drivers: They are designed for towing heavy loads, and so their chassis and related mechanics are upgraded for that purpose. If you don’t tow anything you’re still carrying around the weight of all that extra hardware. This weight burns more fuel and further degrades performance … unless you splurge on a performance SUV that compensates by upgrading everything from the engine to the suspension to the tires. Yes, for nearly 6 figures you can buy a SUV that handles like a sports car. And if you can afford that then fuel costs probably aren’t on your radar, so lucky you. Everyone else: If you’re not towing or off-roading with your SUV you really don’t get it.

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