Sales are down but car makers hope enough drivers will still prefer ground clearance and size over fuel economy
Slide Show >>Yes, yes, we know. Sport-utility vehicles aren't cool anymore. They are gas-guzzling behemoths, throwbacks to the days of $40 a barrel oil. No one in their right mind would buy one now. Unless, of course, they actually liked being gouged at the pump or had no conscience about the damage fossil fuels wreak on geopolitics and the environment.
But don't expect SUVs to give up quite so easily. For one thing, there is a sizable segment of the population that needs the seating, cargo room, and off-road capabilities of a Chevy Suburban or a Land Rover. A Prius just won't cut it if you need to ferry the team to Pop Warner's or if you live off the grid in the snowbelt.
Fortunately for those people, major manufacturers are readying a big, new wave of SUVs for the 2007 model year. Even better, there are more hybrid and alternative-fuel models on the market than ever before.
But then there are those SUVs that embrace their low miles-per-gallon rating like an NRA supporter at an antigun rally. They don't really have much choice. The problem, of course, is that the 2007 model year cars were greenlighted years ago, way before the price of oil spiked. Manufacturers such as General Motors (GM) and Ford (F) have to put a brave face on and deliver former bestsellers like the Escalade and the Navigator anyway and hope that customers won't leave them languishing in the parking lot.
Similarly, DaimlerChrysler's (DCX) new gargantuan, 5,441-lb. Mercedes-Benz GL450 was conceived years ago and hit the sales floors at the worst possible time. Although they feel like the man who invested all his money in Confederate war bonds the day before Appomattox, executives still hope that there is enough demand out there from affluent buyers for a $55,675 luxury SUV that gets 18 miles to the gallon on the highway.
Other manufacturers have seen fit to broaden product offerings in smaller segments, however. Given its small size and low price, Acura describes its new, petite RDX as an "entry-level premium" vehicle, not a luxury car. Parent company Honda (HMC) also resisted growing the redesigned CR-V to accommodate a third row of seats, though that feature is becoming common in competing vehicles from carmakers such as Toyota (TM) and Hyundai. Keeping the package small allows the use of a smaller engine; making room for an additional row of seating could add weight and size, and lower overall fuel consumption.
Old platforms may prove able to learn new tricks after all. Chrysler Group is experimenting with new models based on previously popular vehicles. Jeep will offer the larger Wrangler Unlimited, finally building a four-door version of the classic four-by-four. Based on the Jeep Liberty, Dodge will also debut the all-new Nitro. That SUV adopts all the swagger and styling of the division's muscle cars.
The other domestics have largely pinned their hopes on new crossovers, utility vehicles based on car platforms that aim to merge the benefits of both genres. Both Ford and GM hope these vehicles will alleviate the financial woes caused as consumers bail on large, profitable SUVs. The two companies will offer at least three variants built on common platforms. The stakes are equally high for both companies as financial pictures continue to darken.
Until consumers get behind the wheels of those offerings, Ford partner Mazda may provide a telling test-run. Mazda has carved out a niche for itself among an increasingly crowded class of low-cost, high-value imports, with cars and marketing campaigns that foreground fun. It is currently selling the first of two crossovers that purport car-like drivability. Early reviews are giving the CX-7 good marks on that score, as driving the roomy SUV is much like knocking around in a sedan rather than a lumbering SUV.
Flights of pure automotive fancy, meanwhile, still abound. Audi just unveiled an astronomically powered version of its large new Q7 SUV. A descendant of the shockwave-creating R10 Le Mans race car built by Audi, the V12 diesel shown last week pumps out a reported 500 horses. That, Audi says, makes this edition of the Q7 the world's most powerful diesel passenger car.
There are no current plans to import this power train to American shores, company officials said, though the arrival of cleaner diesel fuel this fall leaves the door open for a possible future release.
BusinessWeek.com took a look at the best all-new and significantly revamped SUVs of the 2007 model year: click here for the slide show.