Who Drives SUVs and Why?

In the fall of 1998, AutoPacific surveyed 40,000 people to obtain information on the type of vehicle that purchasers/leasers were considering for their next purchase/lease. For those 30 years of age and under, 73% indicated that they were considering an SUV for their next purchase, as did 63% of survey participants in their 30s and 50% of those in their 40s. For those 65 and older, only 13% were considering buying an SUV. Overall (i.e., all ages), 48% responded that they were considering an SUV. It is interesting to note that consumers currently in their 30s and early 40s would have been children and teenagers during the oil crisis of 1973-74 when families were urged to conserve energy and people were lining up for hours at the gas station in some parts of the country. Yet, some in this group seem to have lost the “energy conservation” mindset, as they are now ardent fans of SUVs.

The average SUV customer is male (63.7%), married (76.4%), aged 45 years, in a household with an income of $94,400, and at the head of the household (84%). SUV customers expect to drive 14,367 miles each year and 39% are prior owners of another SUV. Because SUV owners are fairly affluent, the price of the vehicle and of fuel is not sufficiently important to cause them to consider changing the type of vehicle they drive.

Based on data from the 1995 Nationwide Personal Transportation Study (NPTS), Niemeier determined that 29.3% of total household vehicles (i.e., non-commercial vehicles) on the road are SUVs, vans, or trucks (most of these are pickup trucks), and only about a third of these vehicles are owned by persons with annual incomes under $35,000.

Although the primary SUV customer is male, women are beginning to enter the SUV market because of their perception that the SUV is safer and provides better visibility. This perception of safety is based on the size, shape, and rugged image of the vehicle, rather than published reports or statistics (see Section 5). In addition, soccer moms who drove minivans are changing their personna when they move from a minivan to a sport utility vehicle. It has been projected that 53.8% of future SUV buyers will be female. In the United States, women influence “as much as 80% of all vehicle buying decisions.”

In early 1999, an opinion poll queried 1,000 consumers to determine the single most important reason for purchasing a particular type of vehicle. Owners of small cars responded with reasons such as price/value and fuel economy; owners of large cars indicated price/value and safety; owners of minivans indicated size of family and more space/room; and owners of pickups indicated price/value and hauling (as well as work/business). SUV owners responded that the primary reason for their purchase was availability of four-wheel-drive. Additionally, 5% indicated hauling capabilities and another 5% noted towing as reasons for their purchase.

Opinion polls taken in December 1996 and in February 1998 asked questions concerning the characteristics most desired in vehicles. In both polls, the most important characteristics were dependability and safety, and both of these characteristics were listed as even more important to consumers in 1998 than in 1996.

In both polls, fuel economy and low price were the least important attributes, and they were listed as of lesser importance in 1998 than in 1996.

Owners of minivans and SUVs are more likely to have children than owners of any other automotive category. In addition, SUV buyers list “Family Vehicle,” functionality, and reliability as the most desirable characteristics in a vehicle.

SUV purchasers have been categorized by J. D. Powers as either “Domestic Indulgents” (those who buy a vehicle based on size, status, and luxury equipment) or “Utility Seekers” (those who buy for functionality – hauling, towing, room for more passengers, and safety).

According to The Polk Company, the Babyboomer generation is leading the way in buying SUVs. The basic sedan was the vehicle of choice when the family only owned one car. The number of vehicles per household in the United States had grown to 1.9 in 1998, however, and now most households own one car and one truck.

As stated in earlier sections, the sales of SUVs have increased dramatically, especially during the past ten years. Many people are referring to the increase in SUV sales as a fad, based on the purchaser perception that they are fashionable and make a statement about an active or high-income lifestyle. (Actually, purchase costs vary widely from the economy versions to the luxury models, and the longevity of the SUV popularity makes it unlikely to be a fad.) Popularity of SUVs could also be encouraged by the relatively low fuel prices and good fuel availability in the U.S. and by the absence of public pressure to conserve energy or to control pollution. In addition, the United States economy is strong, and individuals have more money to spend on luxuries. Furthermore, because the SUV market is so good, almost every manufacturer offers at least one SUV option. Most recently the luxury sport utility hit the market, with sticker prices above $45,000.

Advertising plays a major role in influencing purchasing decisions. In the Fall of 1999, Ford Motor Company started a new ad campaign for its suite of SUVs; the ads emphasize outdoor adventures, with “no boundaries.” The image is what sells; the implication is that one could go anywhere in the SUV, if one weren’t so busy commuting to work and running errands.

Although image is important when making a vehicle purchase, the height of the SUV is also a factor. Market surveys show that “visibility from the driver’s seat ties a vehicle’s driving performance and interior comfort as the most important attributes that buyers seek. Finally, SUV owners profess to feeling more protected and more in control of their safety in traffic when encased within an SUV. (See the main page for why this is not necessarily so)

Source: Oak Ridge National Lab
An Analysis of the Impact of Sport Utility Vehicles in the United States