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SUV Nostalgia?

September 6, 2009

Jalopnik, one of my favorite sites for all things automotive, recently posed an interesting question.

Will the SUV be worshiped as a nostalgia totem in 20 years?

The logic is pretty simple. Once upon a time, there were muscle cars. The Mustang, the Camaro, the Firebird. Then the 70’s happened, and the energy crises brought that party to a crashing halt. Now, thirty years later, we’re in the midst of a revival. Between the 2005-on Ford Mustang, the Chevy Camaro, and to a lesser extent the Dodge Challenger, the muscle car is popular again.

Could the same thing be in store for the SUV, which has an eerily similar trajectory (cheap to build, highly popular, almost defining an age, then crippled by high gas prices)?

In my opinion, yes and no.

Ever since the Ford Explorer, the SUV has been a mainstream vehicle, more akin, in my opinion, to the station wagons of the 70’s and minivans of the 80’s than to muscle cars. And I think they may follow a similar trajectory to past family haulers. That is to say, the kids who grew up riding in them will probably grow up to want nothing to do with them.

Consider station wagons. They were cast into the wilderness for a long time, but now, slowly but surely, they’re starting to come back. Albeit in a slightly different guise. The big full-size wagon is pretty much extinct, but compact wagons and hatches (Mazda3, Mini Cooper, Honda Fit, VW Jetta Sportwagen) are quite popular, and later this year, Cadillac will be launching a CTS Sportwagon. You could even make an argument that the hot-selling Subaru Forester is, at heart, a wagon (though some insist it’s a crossover).

I think the resurgence of the wagon can be explained by two factors. First is the SUV, or rather, the rear hatch. The utility of a rear hatch and the cargo space it affords makes it difficult to go back to a trunk. SUVs, in essence, have primed people to reevaluate wagons and hatchbacks. Second is the generational shift. The kids who grew up in minivans and SUVs are now old enough to be buying cars on their own, and don’t have the same hangups toward wagons as those who grew up in them do. Simple as that. I can only assume one day minivans, or a new spin on them, will probably find a similar renewal of acceptance. Or maybe they’ll morph with SUVs, each taking the best features of the other. Who knows.

Where I think we will see a muscle car-esque resurgence of the SUV is with those models that existed before anyone knew what to call them. The old Broncos and K-5 Blazers. The International Scouts, Jeep Cherokees, the first-generation Range Rovers (back in the day when luxury meant leather seats and power windows). In other words, the simple, rugged SUVs that didn’t bother with creature comforts.

A few attempts have already been made, notably the Toyota FJ Cruiser. Too bad it turned out to be an expensive, garish caricature of the old-school FJ40 Land Cruiser.

I know the offroad community has clamored for years for the return of the simple SUV. Hell, there’s a reason the Wrangler continues to sell so well. It’s cleaned itself up a lot over the years, but it still preserves that spartan essence to a degree unmatched by anything else sold in the U.S. Frankly, I’m baffled no one has thought to learn from the Wrangler and apply the same principles to a competitor.

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