GENEVA – Carmakers are banking on the fast-growing demand for small SUVs to earn new customers in the U.S. and help turn around their businesses in Europe’s still-fragile market.
Chrysler’s Jeep brand launched the Renegade and France’s Citroen introduced the funky Cactus at the International Motor Show this month. And they are just the start of a long list of carmakers looking to come to the party, said IHS analyst Tim Urquhart.
They are coming big and small. Mighty Volkswagen, aiming to become the globe’s No. 1 automaker by 2018, has rolled out the concept T-Roc.
The market for small SUVs is growing just about everywhere across the globe. It’s among the fastest-growing market segments in the U.S., where young people and downsizing baby boomers are attracted to the tall cabin, big cargo area, fuel efficiency and maneuverability.
Here’s a glance at a few of the models that were on display in Geneva.
The Renegade, with Jeep’s classic vertical grille and round headlamps, can’t arrive soon enough for the brand’s owner, Chrysler Group LLC. It’s the well-known brand’s first serious small, fuel-efficient contender. It is considered key to Jeep’s goal of reaching 1 million in sales this year, an increase of nearly 40 percent over 2013.
In Europe, for instance, the market for small SUVs has grown to 1.1 million sales per year, said Mike Manley, president and CEO of the Jeep brand. But the Renegade also will go after small SUVs in the U.S. such as the Kia Soul and Nissan Juke.
Manley said the price will be competitive enough to not only entice consumers looking to buy a small SUV but also attract those who were considering subcompact sedans or hatchbacks.
To get better mileage, the Renegade will have 16 engine and transmission configurations for different markets around the world, including the first nine-speed automatic transmission in a small SUV. Transmissions with more gears generally help engines run more efficiently, especially at highway speeds.
The Renegade combines a rugged, outdoorsy feel that is part of the brand, combined with splashes of color and the latest technological interfaces to appeal to young buyers.
The vehicle includes dual pop-out roof panels, a return to the sun-roofs of yesteryear.
The Citroen C4 Cactus developed from a concept car, and it retains that funky anything-goes heritage. The car has a bold shape with rubberized panels on the side doors that have real-life application.
You can take a supermarket caddy and push on the car and no wear and tear on the car at all, said Citroen managing director Federic Banzet. It is a real innovation, which is very useful and allows for personalization by changing the color.
But the real ingenuity is inside, where Citroen challenges design themes that go back to the horse and carriage, Urquhart said.
Citroen has rethought the interior, moving away from the drive column to push buttons for drive, reverse and neutral. The French carmaker, part of PSA Peugeot Citroen, also has raised the digital speedometer and odometer to sit on the dashboard instead of embedded in it, and put a tablet-like interactive screen at nearly eye-level for entertainment, in-car telephone as well as temperature control.
The roomy glove box opens trunk-like from the top, a simple solution to prevent contents from spilling out when opened on the go.
So, why name the car Cactus, which hardly evokes aerodynamics or speed?
It expresses robustness, solidity and sympathy, Banzet said. Don’t ask me why, but that is the public reflection when you mention cactus.’
Urquhart called the Cactus a bit of a brave thing and compared it to the Fiat Multipla, the now-phased-out Fiat six-seater utility wagon that sat three across a front bench and inspiring both ridicule for its distinctive front-end bump and fierce loyalty for its practicality.
I hope it doesn’t suffer the same fate as the Mulitpla. The history of the industry is not kind to manufacturers who do take risks.
Volkswagen’s T-Roc concept car is an SUV on the popular Golf platform. The concept boasts a fast, sloping roofline with three-dimensional tail lights, white wheeled arches and sculpted precision lines. Like the Jeep Renegade, if offers the possibility to remove a panel and drive open top.
Over the past 24 months, Volkswagen has presented a cavalcade of new SUVs, Volkswagen’s Heinz-Jakob Nuesser told reporters. We would like to build the T-Roc. It would be the logical extension to the Golf.