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Seven-seater SUVs herald the age of family planning for carmakers

BT_20190823_MERC1_3871369.jpg
While MPVs have been in steady decline, with no more than a handful of choices available today, seven-seater SUVs are everywhere.

BT_20190823_MERC1_3871369.jpg
While MPVs have been in steady decline, with no more than a handful of choices available today, seven-seater SUVs are everywhere.

Singapore

YOU tend to think of property values on a price-per-square-foot basis here, but here's something to keep in mind when shopping for your next car: price-per-seat.

That metric is becoming increasingly relevant in the car market, as a growing preference for seven-seaters coincides with an ongoing boom in the Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) segment. The resulting SUVs with seven seats have become so important that carmakers are scrambling to build them.

Land Rover, which only produces SUVs, once had just one seven-seat model in its lineup but now has three of them. The math is similar at Mercedes-Benz; last year it offered buyers only one seven-seat SUV, but next year it will have a trio of them.

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In fact, the new Mercedes GLE-Class neatly embodies how the luxury SUV has evolved over time. It started life as a rugged 4x4 in 1997 and steadily gained car-like handling and refinement with each new iteration. For the fourth-generation GLE (launched here last month for S$370,888 with Certificate of Entitlement), Mercedes added a third row of seats.

To fit the extra chairs, designers made it 105mm longer than its predecessor. Mercedes also packed the GLE 450 4Matic with high-tech features such as a hybrid engine and voice control with Artificial Intelligence, but giving it the versatility to haul more than five people around was vital; its direct rival, the BMW X5, also comes with seven seats. "Seven-seater SUVs such as the Mercedes-Benz GLE continue to gain popularity amongst the modern families of today, with their emphasis on space, comfort and versatility," says Philipp Hagenburger, president and CEO, Mercedes-Benz Singapore.

Sweden's Volvo is often credited with popularising the breed of car here. In 2002 the XC90, the brand's first SUV, was an early car to offer seven seats in a rugged, good-looking package instead of a dull, boxy Multi Purpose Vehicle (MPV).

Volvo sold around 1,000 XC90s in Singapore over a 12-year run, of which fewer than 50 were five-seat versions.

Its sales earned it the title of Sweden's single most valuable export, and rival car makers began to shoehorn extra seats into their SUVs.

While MPVs have been in steady decline, with no more than a handful of choices available today, seven-seater SUVs are everywhere.

Audi's Q7 and Mazda's CX-9 represent the sporty side of the breed, while the Hyundai Santa Fe and Kia Sorento are examples of Korea's feature-packed take on the format. The Kodiaq, a medium SUV with three rows of seats, even serves as a de facto flagship for the Skoda brand here.

The three-row SUVs themselves are still evolving. By the end of 2019 Lexus will launch a revised version of its RX crossover here, and the stretched L-version has third-row seats that can now be set in two different positions. It's a small tweak that lets users juggle the amount of space in the back to make available to either cargo or passengers.

That sort of versatility is the very reason users are drawn to such cars in the first place. "The Lexus RX L has been one of the best-selling luxury SUVs for us not just for its uncompromising levels of comfort synonymous with the Lexus brand and its incredibly generous cabin space, but the additional seating capacity in the third row provides much versatility and convenience for drivers who lead busy lifestyles with diverse needs," says Samuel Yong, marketing director for Borneo Motors (Singapore), which distributes Lexus cars here.

The Lexus also comes with a feature that has become a must-have for these extended SUVs: seats that fold electrically instead of relying on the user's muscle power. "It gives parents the option to leave the seats up when they have to ferry a family around, or fold it completely flat with just a push of a button for more storage space to accommodate everything from additional golf bags, luggage, shopping bags and even pets," says Mr Yong.

Yet another take on the three-row SUV involves trying to offer more with less. The BMW X7, the brand's flagship SUV model, only comes with three rows of seating, but the company regards a six-seater configuration as the most comfortable version of the car. It has two individual chairs in the middle row, instead of the usual bench for three people.

"It's like first class in an airplane. You want to have some decent space around you, and that is the philosophy of the six-seater," says Carsten Groeber, BMW Group vice-president of product management. "It's not only about transportation, or putting as many people as possible into the car."

If anything, Mercedes-Benz is pursuing the opposite strategy. Its upcoming GLB will be its second smallest SUV but will still offer seven seats.

Mercedes says the rear-most chairs are only for people up to 1.68m tall, but the fact that they are there at all is confirmation of one thing: seven-seat SUVs are fast becoming hot property.