How heavier, costlier SUVs and utes took over Australia’s roads

Peter Martin, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

If we’re upset about the price of petrol, why do we drive the vehicles we do?

SUVs (so-called sport utility vehicles) use more fuel per kilometre than standard cars – according to the International Energy Agency, up to 25 per cent more.

They weigh more than standard cars – about 100 kilograms more.

And they emit more carbon than standard cars. In Australia, medium-size SUVs emit 14 per cent more carbon per kilometre travelled than medium-size cars. Large SUVs emit 30 per cent more than large cars.

Yet we’re buying them at a rate that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago.

SUVs outsell passenger cars 3 to 1

As recently as 2012, more than half the new vehicles sold in Australia were “passenger cars” – the standard low-slung cars of the type we were used to. About one-quarter were SUVs.

Back further, in the early 1990s, three-quarters of the new vehicles we bought were passenger cars, and only 8 per cent SUVs.

Yet after an explosion in SUV sales, today every second vehicle bought is a SUV. In September, SUVs accounted for 58 per cent of new vehicle sales. Passenger cars accounted for just 17 per cent. This means SUVs outsell passenger cars three to one.

Like country music, SUVs are hard to define, but you know one when you see one.

They are distinguished by being high and squarish – the words used in the official definition are “wagon body style and elevated ride height”, and generally big. They are usually four-wheel drives or all-wheel drives.

Standard passenger cars (be they hatches, sedans or wagons) sit closer to the ground, are usually lighter, and are less likely to kill or seriously injure pedestrians and cyclists, according to US insurers.

So common have the new larger SUVs become that Standards Australia is considering increasing the length of a standard parking bay by 20cm. It wants comments by November.

Also taking market share from smaller standard cars are what we in Australia call utes, which are standard vehicles (they used to be Falcons and Commodores) with a built-in tray attached at the rear.

1971 Holden Ute.

Utes are categorised as commercial vehicles, even though these days they tend to have four doors rather than two. They are also just as likely to be used for moving families as equipment, even if bought with small business tax concessions.

Australia’s National Transport Commission is so concerned about the rise in sales of both SUVs and utes, it warns they are “tempering Australia’s improvement in transport emissions”.

Vehicles defined as commercial, the bulk of them utes, accounted for one in five vehicles sold a decade ago. Now they are one in four, outselling passenger cars.

Tax only explains so much

Cars get special treatment in Australia’s tax system.

If an employer provides them and their private use is “minor, infrequent and irregular”, or if they are utes “not designed for the principal purpose of carrying passengers”, they can can escape the fringe benefits tax.

And from time to time small businesses get offered instant asset writeoffs, which means that all or part of the cost of the car can be written off against tax.

But apart from perhaps helping to explain the increasing preference for utes, these concessions seem insufficient to explain the demise of the standard passenger car and the rise of the expensive (and more expensive to fuel) alternatives.

Australia’s Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics identifies the obvious: headroom, legroom and storage space, as well as the ability to drive on bad roads as well as good.

Danger is a perverse selling point

But, in an information paper, the bureau goes on to note that SUVs “appear to be more likely to kill pedestrians than cars”.

They also appear more likely to kill the occupants of standard cars than standard cars when those cars crash, largely because they are higher – a phenomenon the insurance industry refers to as “incompatibility”.

Australia’s Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics refers to this as the “other side of the coin”.

But I think that for buyers of SUVs, it might be the same side of the coin. That is, I think it might be becoming a perverse and macabre argument for buying SUVs.

If SUVs are becoming dominant and they put other road users at risk, it makes sense not to be one of those other road users.

I am not suggesting that danger from SUVs is the only reason for the flood of buyers switching to SUVs. But I am suggesting it has helped contribute to a snowballing in demand for SUVs, along with fashion, and changed views about what’s normal.

I’m not sure what can be done at this stage. Higher petrol prices ought to have helped, but they don’t seem to have.

SUV purchases have increased, even as petrol prices have climbed. Extra taxes have been proposed to help curb road deaths, but they mightn’t help either. SUVs are already expensive.

Tighter standards would help

One thing we ought to do straight away is to shift the burden of decision-making from buyers to makers.

The federal government is about to roll out long-overdue fuel efficiency standards, of the kind already common in the rest of the world.

Ideally, those standards would require the entire fleet of vehicles sold by each manufacturer to meet a gradually-tightening average efficiency standard.

Putting more electric vehicles into each fleet would help. But so would increasing the efficiency of its conventionally-powered SUVs – which would mean reducing their weight, and with it, their danger to other people on the road.

The design of the scheme is up for grabs, and the Grattan Institute’s Marion Terrill has made a submission.

She says regardless of the switch to electric cars, Australians are going to be buying petrol and diesel vehicles for some time. That’s why it’s so important those cars become as fuel efficient (and, she could add, as safe) as they can be.

Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Have you noticed bigger cars on our roads? Do you think they have gone too far? Why not share your opinion in the comments section below?

Also read: How the over-50s can get the best value car insurance

The Conversation
The Conversation
The Conversation Australia and New Zealand is a unique collaboration between academics and journalists that is the world’s leading publisher of research-based news and analysis.


  1. In a free market economy, people will buy what suits their needs, based on what the marketing tells then, be it the “Safest” transporter for the family, or big enough to tow the new monster boat or caravan. On the issue of danger to pedestrians and cyclists, statistics are great, but in all cases, it wasn’t the SUV that did the harm – it was the driver.

  2. Of course we are buying more SUV’s, what choice do we have when our main vehicle manufacturers have either left our shores or only make available full size cars with 2 doors. Days are gone where we could proudly support our own Vehicle making industry.

    • On country Victorian roads you need a SUV of some sort for better visibility of the potholes and failing road surfaces. We have a Ford Ranger which I much prefer to drive, and a Mitsubishi ASX small SUV. The ASX was purchased as we are getting older and our previous sedan was proving difficult to access. Higher vehicles are a huge improvement over sedans to enter and exit when the joints are losing flexibility. Almost 100% necessary after a hip replacement.

  3. It neither ceases to amaze me at the tunnels vision of comments in this article, not only of the writer but more particularly of the organisations he has quoted.
    On the safety aspect, the article has not factored in, that we have more people as pedestrians, who are on roadways, where they shouldn’t be for various reasons. These include drugs, alcohol, impatience, people with heads focused on screens, or headphones on which means they cannot hear traffic, These have all increased greatly in recent years. This together with the fact that there are far more people, and more vehicles has not been taken into account. The other thing that I have observed is that the majority of pedestrian wear dark clothing making them less visible to drivers. This together with driver distraction by all the electronics in more modern cars increases the propensity for accidents.
    The fact that most the newer vehicles are SUV’s means that they are more likely to be on the roads and hence more likely to br involved in incidents.
    Why are Australian buying more SUV’s than Sedan’s
    The old reason is that people want to tow boats, caravans, trailers, horse floats etc. Whilst this is true to an extent the increase in larger 4WD’s can align with more caravans for people travelling within Australia, there are other factors.
    The increase in self – employed tradespeople, who require a vehicle, usually a crew cab ute often 4wd, for work and recreation, where a sedan does not fit the bill.
    This a major area of growth of this type of Vehicle.
    Growth has occurred because of the better visibility, easier access to larger storage areas, and easier access to the vehicles.
    Also compared to many of the so called expert, who are either in or from Europe, there are many difference in Australia particularly in relation to the road surfaces and the distances travelled(often with large loads),
    The demise of Australian manufactured utes, vans, and station wagons has also contributed to the public buying these vehicles, which offer flexibility that a sedan can’t.
    Until EV’s can offer load carrying, towing, and flexibility that is at least similar, with the ability to recharge anywhere quickly, they will continue to be confined to large cities and major traffic routes.

  4. More rubbish from academics who believe that they know better about how we should live our lives.
    There is actually a technical definition of an SUV and it relates to the approach and departure clearance angles as well as straddle height. Vehicles that meet the specific standard are exempt from some crash and emissions standards in the US. As such they can be marketed for less as the compliance expenses are significantly less than for a conventional passenger vehicle.
    Apart from getting more bang for your buck, there is a marvelous range of vehicles on the local market that just didn’t exist a decade ago.
    Unfortunately this has come at the expense of losing choices in the sub-compact and compact sized cars as they are no longer viable for the manufacturers. Every new car costs several million dollars/yen from idea to show room and the break even point is well over 100K sales before a profit emerges. It is easier to factor in a reasonable profit margin on a larger car than a smaller one.
    If people can afford the extra fuel costs, that’s no-ones business but their own. In Australia the scary talk about emissions is of little relevance as our natural environment absorbs more of the so called GHGs than we produce.
    Even though the argument is that over 90% of our kilometres happen within 100km of the CBDs of the capital and major cities, for many people there is always the possibility that when they want to travel, they don’t want to have to be locked into distance and road conditions constraints.

  5. From a personal perspective I much prefer to drive a small compact sedan than a ute. It’s not just the economy factor but more the “fun factor”. I do not understand why people buy utes unless of course they use them for trades etc or towing toys. I own two cars, the small hatch gets used for the daily drives (city trips and parking is a breeze!) and the SUV gets used when going on longer trips and camping outback.

  6. I personally would love to be able to drive a smaller car but part of the problem is that they are lower to the ground. Older knees don’t cope so well with entering into or alighting from a low set car. So I drive the Clayton’s SUV which is not a 4WD, has load space and is of a comfortable height for aging people

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