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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 September, 2003, 14:49 GMT 15:49 UK
BMW launches its 'butch baby'

By Jorn Madslien
BBC News Online automotive reporter in Frankfurt

BMW's new X3
The SUV segment is about to become very crowded
BMW's X3 baby SUV, or sports utility vehicle, first seen at the Frankfurt Motor Show, is a clear sign of things to come in European car showrooms.

The tiny truck will initially be competing against Land Rover's Freelander and Toyota's RAV4.

But this cosy competitive threesome is about to be overrun by a host of new models.

Among likely future rivals is a Volvo model, an SUV version of its new S40, and then there is the expected Volkswagen Golf adaptation, rumoured to be called Freestyle.

Mercedes and Smart are also preparing to dive into this segment, as is the General Motors subsidiary Saab and Fiat Auto's Alfa Romeo.

Crowded market

The thirst for baby-SUVs appears hard to quench.

So hard, in fact, that even Volkswagen's Polo will be on offer as an SUV lookalike, and Fiat will launch a Panda SUV as early as next year.

All this raises the question: why are the carmakers planning to churn out such an array of butch babies?

In part, they do so because they can. Putting different bodies, or "top hats" onto a car chassis has become the main way car makers launch new models, and these SUVs are in many ways little more than variations on that theme.

But the car makers are also making a push to replicate the SUV craze that has swept across the US in recent years.

Setting the standard?

European buyers never developed a taste for America's thirsty trucks, so instead they will be offered baby versions that are fuel efficient, easy to park in tight spots in ancient cities or to drive down narrow country lanes, and much less brash than their American cousins.

So is BMW's X3 setting the standard in a new market segment, just as Volkswagen's Golf did in the market for medium cars three decades ago?

No: the standard was set by Toyota's RAV4 in the 1990s.

But BMW's efforts should help bring upmarket weight to the segment.

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