Selling cars successfully is a mixture of psychology and pricing. Promotional campaigns are aimed at population segments that may consider themselves sophisticated city dwellers, rugged outdoor enthusiasts, or even forward-looking environmentalists. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the sales of sports utility vehicles, which are sometimes advertised as being perfect for exuberant off-road adventures in the rocks and mud.
When they first appeared during the 1990s, these models were seen as a refreshing change from the boxy, uninteresting station wagons that had previously been the most practical choice for many families. Even though there were some design flaws and safety issues, they projected an image of rugged competence, and greatly appealed to people who wanted to escape the uninteresting, bland appearance of many smaller cars.
There is no question that a four-wheel-drive vehicle performs comparatively better off-pavement in conditions where a standard, or two-wheel drive car might flounder. To be truly suited to these driving environments, however, most vehicles must still be modified for better ground clearance and traction. Consumer-grade all-wheel driven vehicles often get stuck if taken off the pavement for more than a short distance, and are actually more suited for trips to the grocery store.
Even vehicles that feature such obvious sports extras as fording snorkels may experience electrical problems if they come into serious contact with water. During winter, snowy conditions may be easier to handle in an SUV, but many people erroneously assume that their vehicle will effortlessly power through the drifts unassisted. In reality, a standard transmission car equipped with snow tires handles better than a sports utility vehicle still wearing all-season radials.
Claims that all-wheel driven vehicles offer superior handling are hard to measure objectively, and most drivers do not notice an obvious difference. What does become readily apparent is decreased gas mileage, on top of a higher initial purchase price for four-wheel drive systems. This equipment may cost several thousand dollars extra in maintenance over the average life of the vehicle, and insurance pricing is also affected.
In spite of this reality, sports utility vehicles remain immensely popular, and the concept continues to evolve. While the benefits of owning an all wheel drive vehicle in the city may be limited, that has not stopped people from buying them, even though 95% will never be taken off-road. Image has proven to be as important as actual mileage figures or extra costs, and is the real force behind the spectacularly successful SUV phenomenon.