When SUVs were first getting really popular, around the late ’80s and early ’90s, there was a certain segment of SUVs that started out as kind of a niche — but it eventually grew into one of the biggest segments in the automotive world. I’m talking about compact SUVs. It started with the likes of the Suzuki Samurai, the Geo Tracker (and its mechanical twin, the Suzuki Vitara), the Isuzu Amigo, the first-gen variants of the Toyota RAV4 and Kia Sportage — and of course, the YJ generation of the Jeep Wrangler. Aside from all being small SUVs, there’s one thing that all of these vehicles had in common: They were all surprisingly capable off-road. Tiny SUVs with serious off-road chops used to be everywhere. So, why are there so few of them today?
Here’s what I think happened. These little SUVs started taking off in popularity — not just with off-road nuts, but with a broader, mainstream audience. The consensus of most of the people who drove these was something like, "It’s great having a small SUV, but it would be better if it were a little roomier and a little more carlike." And so that’s the direction this segment took. Compact SUVs became more like compact cars, but with SUV bodies and ground clearance. Off-roading became more of a job for bigger SUVs like the Toyota 4Runner, the Chevy K5 Blazer and the Ford Bronco.
The RAV4 is a perfect example of this. It dropped the 2-door option and became much more on-road focused. It even eventually dropped the spare tire in the back because people thought it was ugly. We saw the Geo Tracker turn into the Chevy Tracker with the update of the Suzuki Vitara it was based on. The vehicle was still fairly capable off-road, but the focus shifted to street-worthiness. Eventually, the Tracker went away entirely and has its spiritual successor today in the Chevy Trax, which makes no attempt at off-road proficiency outside of offering all-wheel drive. Two of the brands most famous for building little off-roaders — Suzuki and Isuzu — stopped selling cars in the U.S., and nobody really stepped in to take their place in this niche segment.
Today, the only small SUV with a serious emphasis on off-road capability is the Jeep Renegade, particularly the Trailhawk trim. This is really the only thing I can think of that’s available in the U.S. market with any resemblance to the aforementioned compact SUVs of old. For years, the Wrangler was Jeep’s compact off-road SUV. However, it’s gotten much bigger over the years, with the 4-door Unlimited version remaining much more popular than the smaller 2-door.
Another glimmer of hope I have for the tiny off-roader is the introduction of the new Land Rover Defender. I know this isn’t quite the same thing as something like the Isuzu Amigo was in the ’90s, since it’s bigger and more expensive. However, by today’s standards, this is a small SUV that has a decidedly off-road emphasis to it.
Unfortunately for cheap off-road enthusiasts in America, we can’t get the awesome current-generation Suzuki Jimny until it’s legal to import — but until then, is there any chance the tiny off-road SUV could make a comeback in the United States? Will the new Defender generate enough interest for more budget-friendly competitors to pop up? Will Ford’s prophesied "baby Bronco" be a real off-roader? Only time will tell, but I’m optimistic that this niche brand could find a 21st century renaissance.