SUVs' highway reign may be coming to end, Calif. researchers say

Sales represent 12.1 percent of market in April, lowest level since May 1996

July 09, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SAN JOSE, Calif. - The 15-year reign of the big sport utility vehicle is coming to an end.

Statistics compiled by two California researchers show the car-buying public continues to shift away from large, truck-based SUVs that have dominated America's highways since the early 1990s.

In April, SUVs such as Ford's Explorer and Expedition and Chevy's Tahoe and Suburban represented just 12.1 percent of the U.S. car and truck market. That's the lowest point for that segment since May 1996, according to the Power Information Network, a J.D. Power and Associates affiliate that tracks daily sales at dealerships.

That's bad news for Detroit. Such vehicles are especially important to domestic automakers since Ford, General Motors and Chrysler have sold 86 percent of all large SUVs this year, www.Edmunds.com said. They provide a big source of profits for their makers. While Chrysler has been doing well, both Ford and GM continue to lose market share.

Buyers are increasingly turning to car-based SUVs, the so-called crossover utilities, said Tom Libby, Power's senior director of industry analysis.

Those vehicles can offer all-wheel-drive, seven seats and plenty of cargo room - just like a traditional SUV. But they weigh less and get better gas mileage, and that has meant sales growth.

Libby said car-based crossovers represented a record 49 percent of all SUV sales in April. "We're talking about the end of an era, where truck-based SUVs were growing without any inhibitions, where they seemed to dominate everywhere," he said.

The shift has been promoted by high gas prices, the availability of crossover utilities and the relative age of the truck-based SUVs. Four of the eight full-size SUVs, which come from GM, will be replaced next year.

Edmunds.com, a Southern California-based auto information company, relies on vehicle size rather than breakout sales of truck- and car-based SUVs. Its numbers show that large SUVs represented just 4 percent of the market in April, down from 6.3 percent last December and below the all-time high of 7.2 percent in December 2003.

That category includes the Dodge Durango, Ford Expedition and Chevrolet Suburban and others - all truck-based SUVs.

Sales of mid-size SUVs, which include truck-based models such as the Ford Explorer as well as car-based ones such as the Toyota Highlander, fell to 10.9 percent in April from a record 14.6 percent in October 2002.

Sales of luxury SUVs, such as the Cadillac Escalade and Mercedes-Benz M-Class, have remained steady at about 3.3 percent of the market, and sales of cheaper, compact SUVs, such as the Honda Element and Kia Sportage, are growing. They reached a high of 4.5 percent of the market as recently as February and were at 4.4 percent in April.

According to Edmunds.com, sales of all SUVs fell about 3 percent from April 2004 to 338,311 in April 2005.

But the combined sales of car- and truck-based SUVs remain a huge part of the market. Together, they represented 23.9 percent of all vehicle sales in April, Libby said.

Truck-based SUVs will remain a popular choice for those who tow boats or trailers, and those who want to have off-road fun, he said. But car-based models "offer a very attractive combination of car and truck."

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