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By Justin Hyde (With additional reporting by Michael Ellis)

DETROIT, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Traditional sport utility vehicles -- those fuel-guzzlers beloved by automakers, berated by safety experts and burned by radical environmentalists -- may have finally peaked in popularity after a decade of growth.

What's on the rise in their place are "crossovers," vehicles that offer the look, space and traction of an SUV but resemble cars under the sheet metal, rather than the pickup-truck base of traditional SUVs designed for off-roading and hauling heavy loads.

"Very few people are jumping boulders in Sedona (Arizona) every day," said Paul Taylor, chief economist for the National Auto Dealers Association. "They want a car that's practical for their daily lives, and with these ... they continue to enjoy the flexibility of SUVs, and get much of the comfort of a car and near the economy of the car."

The shift comes as SUVs of all stripes have sparked a small but strident backlash in recent months. Activists have run television ads linking SUV ownership and terrorism, while environmentalists have stepped up campaigns for higher fuel economy rules.

And the top U.S. auto safety regulator this week warned automakers that if they didn't build safer SUVs, they faced stricter government regulation. But Jeffrey Runge, the head of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, also said that crossovers offered improved safety, and pressed for more models.

"Responsible car companies will do this in the absence of the federal government," he said in a speech to the Automotive News World Congress. "They're already at work."


The difference between a crossover SUV, like a Honda Pilot, and a traditional SUV, like a Chevrolet Tahoe, may not be noticeable to a driver sitting behind them in traffic. But under their sheet metal there's decades of separation.

Traditional SUV models are usually built off pickup truck frames, and engineered to haul or tow heavy loads at the expense of a smooth ride and fuel economy. Many still use suspensions not that different in their basic design from those on horse-drawn wagons in the 1800s.

When the SUV boom began in the early 1990s with the Ford Explorer, Japanese automakers were at a disadvantage because they had fewer trucks to use as the basis for larger SUV models. So they began adapting car bodies and assembly lines, giving their models more ground clearance and higher roofs to make them resemble traditional SUVs, but offering better handling and fuel economy.

In 1995, Toyota Motor Corp. <7203.T> began selling the RAV4 in the United States, followed shortly by the Lexus RX 300, which was based on the popular Camry mid-size sedan. Both used car bodies as the basis for their designs, and consumers snapped them up.

After soaring in the 1990s, sales of truck-based SUVs have been flat for three years at about 3 million sales annually. Meanwhile, crossovers were up 23 percent last year, and their market share grew to 7.8 percent, according to Ward's Automotive Reports.

Automakers are banking on more growth to come. Of the 12 concept or production SUVs unveiled at the Detroit auto show this month, all but two were crossovers. Taylor said crossovers could equal traditional SUV sales in five years, even though many consumers may not even know the difference between the two classes.

"But they know what the results are, something that moves around town more gracefully, something that gets into the spot at the mall with little effort," Taylor said.

The drawbacks to traditional SUVs have been known for years. Their taller bodies make them more prone to rolling over, and their frames can cause more damage to other vehicles in crashes. And the larger truck engines in many SUVs have kept American dependence on foreign sources of oil growing.

Runge singled out SUV rollovers as a major concern on Tuesday. In NHTSA's rollover ratings for SUVs, 27 of the 31 lowest-rated models are traditional SUVs; the two models with the best scores are crossovers. And most crossovers are smaller to mid-size SUVs, with better fuel economy than larger models.


SUV protest has become almost chic in some circles. A radical environmental group burned two SUVs and two trucks at a Pennsylvania dealer this month, and have claimed responsibility for similar attacks last year. A group of religious activists won headlines around the country with an ad campaign contending Jesus Christ would have shunned SUVs as socially irresponsible.

And Ariana Huffington, a syndicated columnist, launched another brief ad campaign this month linking SUVs to funding for terrorists. While these acts have caught the attention of auto executives, they have been seen inside the industry as more of an annoyance than a serious challenge to the vehicles that supply much of the automakers' profits.

"While we may find their arguments totally absurd, the best way to respond is to keep a cool head," General Motors Corp. <GM.N> Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said in a speech to industry executives on Tuesday.

"The irrefutable fact here is there are more vehicle choices in the market than ever before. The American public is highly intelligent, and the American people are choosing what they want from this broad array."

(Photo) Ford Freestyle FX


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