Screenshot from a Toyota advert showing the words "let's go beyond"

Carmakers are hijacking the EV transition with hybrid SUVs

If you bought a new car in 2023, chances are it was a hybrid or battery electric vehicle (EV). The trend towards low and zero carbon transport will doubtless grow in 2024. After all, it’s now baked into legislation that instructs carmakers to ensure that a given proportion of cars they sell produce zero tailpipe emissions, with that proportion rising year on year from 22% in 2024 to 100% in 2035. 

However, motivated by higher profit margins, carmakers have taken advantage of the electric vehicle transition to push larger, heavier electric SUVs, with big consequences for drivers and the environment.

SUV advertising spend

In 2022, the five biggest carmakers in the UK – Ford, VW, Toyota, Kia and Audi – were responsible for 579,765 vehicle sales (30% of all cars sold) of which 290,000 were battery electric vehicles or hybrids. Of battery EVs sold, 75% were SUVs; of hybrids sold, 48% were SUVs; and of petrol and diesel vehicles sold, 42% were SUVs. Since 2020, over half of SUVs sold have been electric or electrified.*

This is no coincidence. Carmakers are pouring more money into advertising hybrid SUVs than any other vehicle type. 

Between October and December 2023, Toyota’s (including Lexus) ad spend on hybrid SUVs was nearly 11 times that spent on non-SUV hybrids such as hatchbacks, and a whopping 22 times the amount spent advertising petrol and diesel SUVs. 

Pie charts illustrating proportions of car sales by powertrain and SUV class.

Overall, Toyota spent 4.2 times more advertising hybrid vehicles than it did battery EVs, and 7.8 times what it spent advertising petrol and diesel cars. All the while, the world’s largest carmaker continues to promote itself as a forward-thinking champion of sustainability, like in this brand advert that appeared on the Toyota UK YouTube channel before Christmas.

Looking ahead, the trend towards SUVs is set to continue since of the 38 new electrified models currently announced for release in the UK in 2024, 20 are SUVs.

SUVs cost the earth

Carmakers’ push to sell more and more SUVs, even electric ones, is bad for people and planet. 

Bad for people

SUVs tend to be much more expensive than smaller cars, 59% more expensive on average. Unfortunately, the growth in the SUV market has come predominantly at the expense of crowding out traditional smaller, cheaper family cars like hatchbacks and sedans. 

Bar graph showing SUV market segment over time.
Chart based on data from https://www.jato.com/oems-are-selling-more-suvs-but-are-they-selling-more-vehicles/.

Between 2013 and 2022 new sales of every type of car declined in the UK – except SUVs, where sales rose 75%. Seven of the top 10 best selling cars are now SUVs, and some once market leading small cars like the Fiat Punto and Ford Fiesta have even been discontinued as carmakers narrow the field in favour of SUVs. 

The result is a dearth of options for drivers looking for small, affordable electric cars, despite UK drivers being 36% more likely on average to want to buy an electric car if offered a £21,000 model. 

Bad for the planet

Electric SUVs may sound like an improvement. After all, electric cars are good, right?

Unfortunately, the emissions saving from hybrids (41% of SUVs sold in 2022) are often little better than those from traditional petrol and diesel vehicles. 

The Nissan Qashqai and Nissan Juke, both SUVs, are the UK’s second and eight best selling cars respectively. Emissions savings for the hybrid Qashqai are as low as 17% and at best are 24.5% compared to the petrol version. For the Juke, emissions savings for the hybrid version range from a measly 15.7% to 20%. 

Screenshot from a YouTube video advert for the Nissan Qashqai.

Moreover, air pollution caused by tyre wear remains as high from an electric SUV as non-electric, and may even be higher due to the electric SUV’s increased weight. 

Over 1,000 times more particle pollution is produced through tyre wear than pollution from exhausts – a source of pollution that is currently completely unregulated. While smaller lightweight electric cars emit between 10% and 13% less particulate pollution than petrol and diesel vehicles, heavier electric SUVs can emit up to 8 percent more than their fossil-fueled counterparts.

What can we do?

In pursuit of profit carmakers are hijacking the transition to low carbon transport to sell increasing numbers of SUVs. Even when electrified, these larger, heavier and more dangerous vehicles are a false solution, failing to offer anything close to the decarbonisation necessary to meet net zero goals. 

This is why Adfree Cities is calling for an end to SUV advertising as part of our wider call for a high carbon ad ban. Removing the promotion of SUVs would create more space for public debate about the future of transport, a future with fewer cars altogether and a greater focus on active travel and public transport. 

*Based on data from Marklines.

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