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Marketing the off-road vehicle myth

Selling cars successfully is a mix of psychology and pricing. The promotional campaigns are aimed at segments of the population that can be considered sophisticated urban dwellers, outdoor enthusiasts, or even forward-thinking environmentalists. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in sports utility vehicle sales, which are sometimes advertised as perfect for lush off-road adventures on rocks and mud.

When they first appeared during the 1990s, these models were seen as a refreshing change from the square, uninteresting pickup trucks that had previously been the more practical option for many families. Although there were some design flaws and safety concerns, they projected a rugged competition image and greatly appealed to people who wanted to escape the bland, uninteresting appearance of many smaller cars.

There’s no question that a four-wheel drive vehicle performs comparatively better off the pavement in conditions where a standard or two-wheel drive car might wobble. However, to truly adapt to these driving environments, most vehicles still need to be modified for better ground clearance and traction. Four-wheel drive consumer vehicles often stall if pulled off the pavement for more than a short distance, and are actually better suited for trips to the grocery store.

Even vehicles that have obvious sporting extras like wading snorkels can experience electrical problems if they come into severe contact with the water. During winter, snowy conditions can be easier to handle in an SUV, but many people mistakenly assume that their vehicle will effortlessly skid through without assistance. Actually, a standard drivetrain car equipped with snow tires handles better than a sport utility vehicle that still uses all-season radials.

Claims that four-wheel drive vehicles offer superior handling are difficult to measure objectively, and most drivers don’t notice an obvious difference. What is evident is the decrease in fuel consumption, in addition to a higher initial purchase price for the four-wheel drive systems. This equipment can cost several thousand additional dollars in maintenance over the average life of the vehicle, and the price of insurance is affected as well.

Despite this reality, sport utility vehicles remain immensely popular and the concept continues to evolve. While the benefits of owning an all-wheel-drive vehicle in the city may be limited, that hasn’t stopped people from buying them, although 95% will never be taken off the road. Image has proven to be just as important as actual mileage figures or additional costs, and is the real force behind the spectacularly successful SUV phenomenon.

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