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SUVs are more popular than ever, but do drivers need all that extra space?

While sport-utility vehicles surge in popularity, a new survey sheds light on how often SUV owners actually use all that extra cargo space and towing capacity.

SUVs, typically larger and heavier than standard cars, are popular for their rugged, go-anywhere, do-anything capacity. That means they also produce more emissions on average. 

The approximately 330 million SUVs worldwide produce nearly 1 billion tonnes in carbon dioxide emissions, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). For comparison, Canada’s total carbon dioxide equivalent emissions in 2020 were 672 million tonnes.

“We want to make people think about their needs when it comes to their vehicle choices,” said Andréanne Brazeau, climate policy analyst at Quebec-based environmental group Équiterre. 

That was the thinking behind a recent analysis on the habits of drivers in Quebec, carried out by Montreal-based interuniversity research centre CIRANO on behalf of Équiterre and with the support of federal funding. 

The survey polled a representative sample of 1,020 Quebec vehicle owners online from June to July 2022 using Leger Opinion.

Among those surveyed, SUVs were the most popular vehicle, with 47 per cent of respondents saying they owned one as their main car.

Of those surveyed:

  • 74 per cent of Quebec SUV owners said they had never used their towing hitch.
  • 39 per cent of SUV owners said they used most of their seats at least once a week, compared to 31 per cent of sedan owners.
  • 38 per cent of SUV owners said they use all of their cargo space at least once a week, compared to 32 per cent of sedan owners. 

The survey also asked people what factors were most likely to influence their next car purchase. It found price and safety were top of mind, while ecological footprint was the second least influential factor.

The car of a ‘what-if’ society 

Charles Royce, a marketing lecturer at McGill University’s School of Continuing Studies, said even if someone isn’t likely to make daily use of the extra space and capacity, the SUV is an appealing vehicle. 

Why? He said it may come down to the fact that marketing works. 

“We live in what I call a what-if society,” Royce said.

“What happens if we have kids … What happens if we buy a computer desk at Ikea for our son and we need to carry it home? What happens if we want to go camping some time?”

He said it’s an example of advertising doing exactly what it’s supposed to do.

Royce, who owns an SUV himself, said he didn’t need convincing to buy one, and felt that it was the practical choice for his family.

“You feel safer, you’re higher up off the ground,” he said.

Royce said he won’t likely ever go back to driving a sedan, though he is considering downsizing to a smaller, more compact SUV. 

More emissions, less fuel efficient, and very popular

Brazeau calls the rise in SUV popularity an “alarming trend.” Not only do the vehicles emit more on average compared to smaller sedans, they’re also more dangerous to pedestrians.

The latest federal inventory of greenhouse gas sources found that on average, SUVs and other light-duty gasoline trucks produced 30 per cent more greenhouse gas emissions per kilometre than cars in 2020. 

They are also about one‐quarter less fuel efficient than a standard car, according to the IEA. 

Yet the vehicles continue to rise in popularity. Even when car sales dropped globally in 2022, SUVs were the exception.  In 2022, the IEA reported that SUVs made up for about 46 per cent of global car sales.

A graph showing the share of passenger vehicle sales in Canada, with light trucks including SUVs, pickups and vans on the rise, compared to decreasing sedan sales.
In 2020, light trucks including SUVs, pickups and vans accounted for 80 per cent of new car sales in Canada, while sedan sales accounted for just barely 20 per cent. (Uytae Lee/Stories About Here)

“The shift towards heavier and less fuel-efficient conventional vehicles increases growth in both oil demand and CO2 emissions,” the IEA stated in a recent report.

In Quebec, SUVs and other gasoline-fuelled trucks — including vans and buses — rose from 24 per cent of vehicle sales in 1990 to 71 per cent in 2021, according to a report on the state of energy in the province. 

Nationally, the number of registered SUVs and crossover vehicles has grown by about 31 per cent since 2017, to 8,831,628 in total, according to Statistics Canada.

The vast majority of SUVs registered in Canada are gasoline-fuelled, though the share of electric and hybrid SUVs is growing.

As the window narrows to avoid irreversible damages caused by climate change, Brazeau said she’d like to see people thinking more carefully about whether they need to opt for a larger vehicle.

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