Sports utility vehicles are expected to account for up to half of Europe's prestige car sales by offering drivers higher-than-ever levels of high-tech safety and "infotainment" equipment.

Automotive data specialist Jato Dynamics said its latest figures show a rapid rise in the number of SUV models with standard safety features such as electronic brake distribution, cornering brake control, and stability control.

SUVs are also acquiring traditional prestige car items, such as leather upholstery, cruise control and climate control.

Driver aids like satellite navigation and in-car entertainment options are now must-have optional extras for 4x4s (SUVs), Jato said.

This is backed up by 'car buyers guide' publications and websites which recommend that new vehicle buyers choose SUV specifications and options carefully to ensure strong resale values.

Jato compared SUV sales and equipment levels in 2005 with those from the past five years. During the period, annual sales of 4x4s in Europe's five largest markets (France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, and Spain) rose from 460,000 units to 750,000 units, mostly at the expense of traditional premium and luxury sedans and hatchbacks.

Currently, 4x4s account for 40% of the premium/luxury car market in Europe and are set to exceed 50% by 2010.

Jato noted that, while not downplaying their products' off-road capabilities, manufacturers have raised standard equipment levels to counter past criticisms of unsatisfactory road handling and braking. For example, ABS brakes were standard on virtually all SUVs in 2005, compared with only three quarters five years ago. Also, the number of 4x4s with electronic brake distribution rose from under 60% in 2001 to over 90% last year. Nearly 60% came with stability control (a 300% rise). In 2005, one in six SUVs was also fitted with cornering brake control (CBC).

Nine of 10 SUV models offered air conditioning as standard, up from 75% in 2001. Also since 2001: Cruise control as standard doubled to 45% of models in 2005; 70% more models now come with leather upholstery; and 84% more offer heated and electrically powered front seats.

Option changes on SUVs, also tracked, highlight the nearly complete shift in emphasis from away from 4x4s' utilitarian origins.

Satellite navigation systems were second only to metallic paint in manufacturers' options lists last year. And while only 14% of SUVs offered a single CD player as an option in 2001, 30% now offer a multi disc auto-changer (21% provide one as standard).

Further evidence of the increasingly luxurious standard of SUVs is confirmed by options such as leather seats and cruise control. Availability of these items as options is rising quite slowly but that is because many more SUVs now have them as standard.