Mad about SUVs, sales soar in Singapore

Mr Kelvin Tan (left, with wife June and son Bradley) bought a Range Rover Evoque and Mr Jonathan Lau (right) bought a Volvo XC60. Both did so partly for safety reasons. Mr Tan Teng Lip, who owns a BMW X6, likes SUVs for their toughness. Mr Simon Tong
Mr Kelvin Tan (above left, with wife June and son Bradley) bought a Range Rover Evoque partly for safety reasons.PHOTO: COURTESY OF KELVIN TAN
Mr Kelvin Tan (left, with wife June and son Bradley) bought a Range Rover Evoque and Mr Jonathan Lau (right) bought a Volvo XC60. Both did so partly for safety reasons. Mr Tan Teng Lip, who owns a BMW X6, likes SUVs for their toughness. Mr Simon Tong
Mr Jonathan Lau bought a Volvo XC60 partly for safety reasons.PHOTO: COURTESY OF JONATHAN LAU
Mr Kelvin Tan (left, with wife June and son Bradley) bought a Range Rover Evoque and Mr Jonathan Lau (right) bought a Volvo XC60. Both did so partly for safety reasons. Mr Tan Teng Lip, who owns a BMW X6, likes SUVs for their toughness. Mr Simon Tong
Mr Simon Tong switched to his Nissan Qashqai 1.2 after he got bored with driving sedans.PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER TAN
Mr Kelvin Tan (left, with wife June and son Bradley) bought a Range Rover Evoque and Mr Jonathan Lau (right) bought a Volvo XC60. Both did so partly for safety reasons. Mr Tan Teng Lip, who owns a BMW X6, likes SUVs for their toughness. Mr Simon Tong
Mr Tan Teng Lip, who owns a BMW X6, likes SUVs for their toughness.PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER TAN

Popularity of SUVs gives the impression that Singaporeans are taking to the hills, but the truth is less sensational

Mr Simon Tong had been driving sedans all his life and was getting bored with them.

So, three months ago, the 59-year-old commercial manager with an interior decorating firm swopped his Toyota Corolla Altis for a Nissan Qashqai. And he is loving it.

"At the showroom, it took me only three seconds to decide on this car. It has curves in all the right places," he says.

He says the compact SUV is well-equipped and so spacious it "can accommodate two mountain bikes without difficulty".

And being a 1.2-litre two-wheel- drive, it is also fairly frugal with fuel. "It gets me an average of 14km per litre. And I save on road tax compared to my previous 1.6 sedan," he says.

Mr Tong is part of a wave of motorists who have helped make SUVs the fastest-growing model segment here.

According to the latest Land Transport Authority figures, 24 per cent - or nearly one in four cars - sold here is an SUV.

Close to 7,000 sports-utility vehicles were registered in the first seven months - about double the 3,500 family-oriented multi- purpose vehicles sold.

These two genres, together with other lifestyle models such as coupes and convertibles (1,000), now make up 40 per cent of sales - up from about 5 per cent some 20 years ago.

Nanyang Business School adjunct associate professor Zafar Momin says: "SUVs and crossovers have been gaining traction globally, so this trend is not a Singapore phenomenon."

He says that in the United States, SUVs and crossovers have grown from about 31 per cent of total car sales in 2009 to about 37 per cent last year.  In China and Europe, their share grew from 8 to 21 per cent in the same period.

"There is always going to be a larger share of SUVs and crossovers in the US because of the relatively cheaper petrol prices there," notes Prof Momin, adding that Americans have also long favoured bigger vehicles.

"However, in the rest of the world and in Singapore, I believe that the share of SUVs and crossovers would level off at some point in the future in the low 20 per cent."

Mr Ron Lim, general manager of Nissan agent Tan Chong Motor, says these models now make up 40 to 50 per cent of Nissan car sales.

In fact, Nissan accounts for the highest SUV and crossover sales here among authorised agents. In the first half of this year, it sold 992 such cars, followed by Subaru with 532 units and Mitsubishi with 482.

The most popular model is the Nissan Qashqai.

But if parallel imports are included in the tally, the Honda Vezel is the bestseller, with 1,242 units registered in the first half of the year, followed by the Toyota Harrier with 835.

Mr Lim says buyers began gravitating towards this category in earnest last year with the arrival of the new Qashqai 2.0.

It accelerated this year when a 1.2-litre variant of the car arrived.

He says the notion of SUVs being thirsty vehicles "has been debunked". These days, most are two-wheel-drives with small engines.

He reckons that the SUV trend is part of a larger movement: "People are shifting out of sedans. Whether they continue to shift towards SUVs or not remains to be seen."

Porsche dealer Karsono Kwee, executive chairman of Trans Eurokars, says the SUV fever is raging with the new Macan.

Since the model arrived last year, it has outstripped the bigger Cayenne in sales two to one. "This year, we are confident of selling 500 Porsches and the Macan will account for 60 per cent of that," he notes.

Volvo and Land Rover are also among brands that have been riding on the SUV wave, fuelled by perceptions that such cars are safer, more rugged and that they offer a superior riding height.

Those were the reasons why Jonathan Lau picked a Volvo XC60 instead of, say, a stationwagon.

"My wife was concerned about safety," says the 45-year-old sales and marketing director of a food ingredient company.

"SUVs, being higher, give us better visibility."

It was also partly why 35-year-old Kelvin Tan and his wife June switched to a Range Rover Evoque recently.

"We wanted a car that had more space, especially with the arrival of our son Bradley. We were driving a Mini before," says Mr Tan, editor of Men's Health Singapore.

"And it's also good to have a tougher car in case of accidents, we thought."

Architect Tan Teng Lip, 65, can testify to the toughness of SUVs. He drove to China in one.

"My first SUV was a Suzuki Vitara. Next came two Hyundai Terracans in succession," he recalls, adding that SUVs were handy because he had to visit construction sites often in his line of work.

The Terracan, he says, was also "perfect" for cross-country trips. "It took me and my friends to China," he says. "It was in 2009, we drove from Vietnam to Nanning in Guangxi Province - the last leg of the China-Asean Rally."

These days, he mostly uses his BMW X6, which he describes as "a softer SUV... as I visit construction sites less nowadays".

Most people, however, buy SUVs because they look good and outdoorsy - and not necessarily because they need to go off-road.

And car-makers are responding. Daimler, for instance, now offers half a dozen mostly "soft" SUVs - up from one true SUV (the G-class) three decades ago.

Its chief executive, Mr Dieter Zetsche, recently declared 2015 the "year of the SUV", adding that the stupendous growth in the segment is far from over.

•Additional reporting by David Ting

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2015, with the headline 'SUV sales soar'. Print Edition | Subscribe