Half Sports Car, Half Off-Roader: The Era of the SUV Coupe Has Begun
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- “Is that the lava orange?” a dude in a T-shirt and cap shouted at me from his Jeep Wrangler idling in a shallow riverbed outside Ojai, Calif. “How do you like it? I’ve got one on order!”
The off-roader was eyeing my 2020 Porsche Cayenne Turbo Coupe, a $130,100 crossover with a carbon-fiber roof and cartoonishly large wheels. As I drove slowly past him through a washed-out section of road flowing in muddy rapids, he and his rugged buddies whooped their approval. I was surprised, in part because I liked this oddly named franken-car, too.
The rig belongs to an increasingly significant sports utility subsegment that’s come to be known collectively as SUV coupes. Porsche Automobil Holding SE offers five variations on its Cayenne Coupe alone. If you’re wondering about the label “coupe” on something like an SUV, it’s not just you. Until recently, the term was reserved for an auto with two doors. But that definition has expanded beyond low-slung sports cars to include zippy four-door sedans and now SUVs, which dominate 70% of total auto sales in the U.S.
The emerging type (sometimes called a crossover coupe, sport utility coupe, or sport activity coupe) is built on the chassis of an SUV. It’s got big cabin space, an elevated ride, and ample towing capacity, but it’s topped with the low, sleek roofline of a sports car. You can distinguish it from a traditional SUV if you look closely: Both the $76,500 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 53 Coupe (shown here) and the Porsche I drove this month taper off midway back down their roofline, as if a sculptor had smoothly rounded off all the squared edges.
People are dropping leases of “vehicles that are swoopier in design—sedans or coupes they really liked—because they want the utility” of an SUV, says Stephanie Brinley, automotive analyst for research company IHS Markit Ltd. “These SUV coupes address that niche.”
Those designing them say the spread of Covid-19 will only further the reach of the style. “Now the most important thing to know is that you and your family are safe, and the safety aspect applies to an SUV coupe. It’s very beefy, it’s strong, you sit up high, it has big wheels and 4x4 capability,” says Gorden Wagener, design chief at Daimler AG, describing Mercedes-Benz’s GLE 53 Coupe. “People will want to feel protected in a visual way,” says Adam Hatton, the creative director of exterior design at Jaguar Land Rover Automotive Plc, who was on a recent conference call speaking about the future of auto design after Covid-19. “My job is to make cars look very solid, planted, and safe. ‘This is my protective shell.’ ”
BMW introduced the first iteration of an SUV coupe in 2009 with the X6, a 5,000-pound shorn-off SUV. Jaguar’s I-Pace and Range Rover’s Evoque followed, as did BMW’s four-door X2—even if they weren’t strictly advertised under that moniker. Mercedes-Benz showed a coupe derivative of its GLE SUV in 2015; the trend had become fully crystallized by March 2019, when Porsche revealed the Cayenne Coupe. (At base, the model starts at $75,300.)
Notable failures in the category include the now-discontinued, rather bland Acura ZDX and the too-quirky BMW 3 Series Gran Turismo hatchback, also since deceased.
Porsche’s more boxy, rectangular counterparts offer sporty cosmetic options, such as a “lightweight” performance package in the 541-horsepower Cayenne Turbo Coupe that deletes the sunroof and adds a carbon-fiber roof. They can weigh a bit less and be slightly faster than their SUV siblings, but the only substantial engineering change is that the back seats have been lowered to afford more headroom in the streamlined rear cabin. Those coupes based on an existing SUV model, such as the Cayenne and GLE, carry identical engines, brakes, transmissions, and suspension systems. Wagener calls the effect “coupe DNA translated into SUV proportions.”
Even if they’re largely defined by styling changes, it’s not just a marketing gimmick. “There’s no trick involved—it’s really about trying to make people happy,” says IHS Markit’s Brinley. “Right now, if you put a sedan out there, it’s not impossible to sell, but it will be difficult. Automakers are trying to address somebody who wants utility but expects sexier looks.”
Indeed, both the Cayenne Coupe and the GLE 53 Coupe offer more than 54 cubic feet of rear storage space, roughly 90% and 80% of that in the Cayenne and GLE SUVs, respectively. During my test drive, I used the Porsche to ford shallow streams and navigate dirt roads near sunny Tejon Pass, 75 miles outside Ojai. Later that week, I used the more luxurious Mercedes on a Home Depot run, filling up the back with palms, pots, and fertilizer destined for a patio deck.
SUV coupes allow more space for battery packs and electric motors than do sedans, because they’re larger all around, which is also auspicious for their future popularity. Porsche’s Cayenne Coupe offers hybrid variants, and Jaguar’s I-Pace is all-electric. “The big thing you have to deal with as a designer is the layer of batteries, which you can disguise with a crossover coupe” by putting them under the elevated passengers, Hatton says. More space? Larger wheels? They’re great things, whether you’re off-roading out in the sticks or just want to look good on a trip to Home Depot.
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