Yawn if you love SUVs

June 5, 2005
Wait a second. Aren't we supposed to honk when we see something we like? Well, maybe, but these days, it seems like American motorists just can't get worked up over SUVs. Check my report in Monday's issue of TheCarConnection.com and you'll discover that even some of the newest entries into the segment just aren't connecting with buyers. Last month, Jeep sold a grand total of 39 more of the all-new Grand Cherokee than they sold of the old model in May 2004.

What's gone wrong? Gasoline prices are the obvious answer. It takes a lot of money to fill the tank of a Ford Expedition, especially if it's the way you make your daily commute. But pump prices aren't the only reason. I'd venture to say that utes are just getting a little passe. After all, they're everywhere you look these days, and while diehards are going to write me nasty letters for saying this, they all tend to look too much alike. The exception are the new crossovers, especially those not nervous about looking unique. Think Nissan Murano or Infinti FX. Okay, the distinctive Cadillac SRX is a dud, but that's because GM got greedy -- wow, there's a surprise -- and scuttled the launch by overpricing the vehicle, loading it up with options and under-building the V6 model. But the bottom line is that crossovers and sport wagons are the only reason why overall SUV sales haven't come crashing down to earth.

That's bad news for Detroit, of course. The Big Three were slow to catch on to crossovers. I recall a rather loud disagreement I had with Bob Lutz during his pre-1998 Chrysler days. A crossover skeptic then, he's admittedly become a convert, but it takes time to turn things around in this business, and Detroit has simply too much capacity for traditional, truck-based SUVs and not nearly enough for car-based crossovers.

Incidentally, don't be surprised to see even some of the most popular SUV nameplates go through radical changes in the years to come. There's been an ongoing debate inside Ford as to what Explorer should be. Might the number two maker switch from a body-on-frame SUV to a car-based version for the industry's best-selling ute? Stay tuned.

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