The seven-seat sport utility vehicle (SUV) is riding high on a wave of popularity in Singapore, particularly among families for whom size matters.
Among the more popular models here is the Mitsubishi Outlander, which Mr Sebastian Sim, Mitsubishi sales manager of Cycle & Carriage Automotive, says is "currently the best-selling seven- seater SUV here". It retails for $125,999, including COE.
He says: "We have already put 838 units on the road since we reopened our Alexandra Road showroom in September 2014. Last year alone, we registered 693 units."
He adds that typically, the seven- seat SUV is bought by families with children, "many of them used to drive 1.6-litre sedans".
The Kia Sorento, which costs $149,999, including COE, is another popular choice. Ms Dawn Pan, head of sales and marketing at Cycle & Carriage Kia, says it has more than 20 per cent market share of seven-seat SUVs.
Also selling well is the Toyota Fortuner. A spokesman for Borneo Motors, the agent for the Japanese brand, said: "We have sold about 1,500 units since 2005. The main customer profile is families with children. The model is also popular with expatriates."
A new model will arrive in June.
The growth of the seven-seat SUV segment has come on the back of more models being introduced here.
Ten years ago, there were about a dozen choices. The first seven- seater SUV to really gain traction in the Singapore car market was the original Volvo XC90, which made its debut here in early 2003. About 1,000 people bought it (40 of whom opted for the little-known five-seat variant) during the 12 years it was on sale in Singapore from 2003 to last year.
Five years ago, there were twice as many models in the segment and they included the cheap Daihatsu Terios 7 (which cost about $65,000 including COE in 2008), the "stretched" Nissan Qashqai+2 and the offbeat Subaru Tribeca.
The number of different seven- seat SUV models available in Singapore has remained stable since then, at 20 to 24.
Consumers are spoilt for choice, with everything from the cost- effective Chevrolet Captiva ($145,999 including COE) to a high-performance 5.5-litre 557bhp turbo V8 to the Mercedes-AMG GL63, that costs $632,888 including COE.
How the seven-seat SUV has evolved in terms of how it handles and its size has contributed to its growing popularity.
For example, improvements to the drivetrain result in better fuel efficiency, and upgrades to the suspension, so that it handles more like a large hatchback instead of a small lorry.
Size-wise, the cabins feature more comfortable seating even in the third row and there are more amenities on board, such as rear air-conditioning, power points for gadgets, panoramic sunroof and powered tailgate.
Says Mr Ron Lim, general manager of Nissan agent Tan Chong Motor: "We sell 80 to 90 units of the X-Trail a month. The emphasis is on versatility, bigger luggage space."
Mr Jeff Mannering, managing director of Audi Singapore, says that "two-thirds of Q7 sales worldwide" are of the versatile seven- seater version, with the rest being the five-seater version.
Owners say the lure of the seven-seat SUV comes from its combination of sporty styling and spaciousness.
Family physician Dr Lye Tong Fong, 44, bought an XC90 two months ago. He is married to a manager and they have three children aged 14, 12 and seven.
Dr Lye, who previously drove a Mercedes-Benz E-class, says: "Our kids are growing and we need the space. They also participate in sports and we need to carry things such as bicycles."
Mr Andrew John Habgood, 37, a director of a software company, relocated from Australia to Singapore recently and bought a 2.2-litre diesel Kia Sorento last month. He and his wife have two children aged 11 and eight. He used to drive a Ford Territory, also a seven-seat SUV, back home.
Of his new SUV here, he says: "It gives us a fair bit of flexibility. The kids are growing and we've got a dog, and there's a lot of stuff to carry. And when we have visitors in town, we can use one car. Or when we give our friends' kids a ride home."
Sporty styling appears to be as important as seating capacity to buyers of seven-seat SUVs.
Dr Zulkarnain AB Hamid, 38, an emergency physician in a hospital, bought his petrol 2.4-litre Kia Sorento two months ago. He and his homemaker wife, Ms Shazana Ibrahim, 28, have a five-month-old daughter and two- year-old son.
He says: "An SUV is higher and looks sportier. I prefer sporty cars. My previous car was a Mitsubishi Evo."
The previous notion that SUVs are gas guzzlers has also been debunked.
In fact, the diesel-powered seven-seat SUV models are more economical than their petrol- powered equivalents. For example, according to its manufacturer, the Kia Sorento 2.2 diesel's average fuel consumption is 14.9km per litre, versus the Kia Sorento 2.4 petrol version, which is 11.4km per litre. These cost savings are boosted by the fact that diesel is currently about 80 cents per litre cheaper than 95-octane petrol.
However, the SUVs that do consume a lot of petrol are the performance-oriented models. Ms Dawn Lim, 39, an executive director of a construction firm, owns a BMW X5, which she bought in 2014. She says she spends about $400 to $450 a month on petrol, which translates into an average mileage of 4.4km to 5km per litre.
Ms Lim, 39, who has two young children, aged 31/2 years and 15 months, with her restaurant owner husband, says: "I love it. It's got a very good drive. But it's quite a thirsty car."
She adds that very often, not all the space in her SUV is occupied - a sentiment commonly echoed by other seven-seat SUV owners.
She says: "I don't need seven seats, but I have the option of using the extra seats. Actually, I've not used the last row yet."
Those last-row seats can be folded down to expand the boot space, which is useful because "we'd bring the kids' bikes along, their scooters and sand toys, baby pram".
For some, having such a big ride is all about planning for the long term.
Dr Zulkarnian says: "I wanted something comfortable, something that can accommodate more people and things.
"We've been trying to plan for a bigger family. We keep our cars for 10 years, so we need to plan."
•Additional reporting by David Ting
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2016, with the headline 'Seven for the road'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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