Honey, we shrunk the SUV _ and Europe loves it

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — In Europe, SUV now stands for: Shrunken Utility Vehicle.

An array of ever-smaller sport-utility vehicles and SUV crossovers is going on display this week at the Geneva Auto Show. Automakers are piling into the segment as one of the best hopes for future growth in a still-weak European market.

European consumers like the higher seating, easier entry and perceived greater freight-carrying capacity. Auto makers like the fact that they can built an SUV body on the same mechanical platform they use for compact cars, saving money on development costs.

The key in Europe has turned out to be putting the vehicles on platforms originally built for compact or small mid-sized cars — the so-called B and C segments. They're generally less than 4.5 meters (177 inches) long, or smaller than a Honda Civic, which measures 4.54 meters (179.4 inches.)

The smaller size helps with narrow streets and tight parking in European cities that made full-size SUVs less practical for many people, and a little politically incorrect as well for the more environmentally-conscious. The recently lower price of gasoline will not hurt, although gas remains painfully expensive in Europe compared to the United States due to high taxes.

At Geneva, among the top new contenders will be the Renault Kadjar, which blends the more rugged SUV style with cues from station wagons, such as a lower roofline and comfortable interior, in a small, 4.45 meter package. The Kadjar, pronounced KA-jar, is headed for the European market this summer and China after that, with Renault saying it's too earlier for price information.

Hyundai's redesigned Tucson has grown slightly but is only a fraction longer at 4.47 meters (176.2 inches.)

In the higher priced realm, Infiniti will show off its QX30 concept vehicle which keeps the higher stance of an SUV and uses carbon-fiber cladding and large 21-inch wheels with milled aluminum spokes. Infiniti says the design is intended to make occupants feel safe and protected; it has a pronounced front bumper and a large skid plate to protect the rear.

In the smaller, compact category, Honda will show off the new H-RV, which goes on sale in Europe this summer. It blends a basic hatchback configuration with SUV styling such as cladding and bold creases in the body metal; the company says it has added acoustic insulation to the wheel arches and floor to make riding in it less noisy and more relaxing.

Chinese newcomer Qoros is unveiling its 3 City SUV, a crossover that for now is headed for China only.

Analyst Tim Urquhart at IHS Automotive say these new models are further evidence that European car buyers are shifting away from classic sedans and hatchbacks in favor of SUV body styles.

The market for the smaller versions "continues to have huge growth potential" even as more and more carmakers crowd into the field, as they did with big SUVs years ago. The field is already getting crowded with vehicles such as Nissan's Juke and Opel's Mokka. Small SUV sales are expected to triple from 1.1 million to 3.2 million annual sales over the next decade. That's even as small and midsize car sales show only stable sales, rising from 4.7 million units to 5.3 million.

Europe's car market needs the boost as its economy slowly heals from a crisis over too much debt in countries such as Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy.

Car sales rose for the 17th straight month in January in the 28-country European Union, and last year's sales of 12.55 million vehicles was a 5.6 percent increase over the year before — the first such increase after six years of declines. Sales remain far below the 2007 peak of just under 16 million.

The show at Geneva' Palexpo convention center is open to the public from March 5-15th, open 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon-Fri. and 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Sat.-Sun. Tickets are 16 francs for adults, 9 for children, the disabled and retirees, and 50 percent off after 4 p.m. at the door.


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