Long Live the SUV
Four reasons why sport utes will survive the current gas crisis and economic downturn.
High fuel prices have swept across the automotive landscape like an ice age, cooling off sales in all vehicle segments. But the sport-utility category has been hit especially hard. “Year to date, sales of large SUVs, like the Chevrolet Suburban, are down 37 percent, and sales of mid-sized sport utes, such as the Ford Explorer, are down 34 percent,” says David Lucas, vice president of Autodata, a leading supplier of sales information to the automotive industry.
Despite a reduction in fuel prices near the end of October, the downward turn in our economy hasn’t helped, either. Although car buyers want the size and capabilities of an SUV, they aren’t willing to pay SUV prices. As a result, many car buyers are turning to crossovers (a utility vehicle built on a car chassis, instead of truck underpinnings). “Crossovers offer all the benefits of a traditional sport-utility vehicle — room for five or more passengers, tons of cargo area, elevated driving position, etc. — as well as the better handling characteristics, more aerodynamic body styles and smoother ride of a car,” says Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis for J.D. Power and Associates. “They are an appealing alternative for those who need a larger vehicle, but don’t want to pay a lot for one at the dealer or feed it at the pumps.”
While most industry experts agree that the future of large- and medium-sized SUVs isn’t exactly bright, they all agree that the category has a lot more life left in it. “There will always be people who need a vehicle with a lot of room for passengers and their possessions and enough towing capacity to haul all of their toys, and they won’t mind paying for it,” says Libby. The SUV’s chameleon-like versatility and on- and off-road capabilities will sustain its lifespan for some time to come. And here’s why:
1. Space and Pace
Most people don’t think of the SUV as a high-performance automobile. But if your adrenal gland is an active participant in the driving experience, there are SUVs out there that can deliver a serious shock to the system. The Porsche Cayenne is one such concoction. It is designed to meet a distinct vertical niche: the performance enthusiast who wants more space and more pace, and the capability to keep it on the pavement. This isn’t a rock-crawling off-road specialist. It’s an SUV with the soul of a sports car.
We recently spent some quality time in the GTS, positioned between the S and the Turbo in the Cayenne hierarchy, and can report that it possesses quick reflexes, tons of grip and plenty of power, thanks to a 405-horsepower 4.8-liter V8. With an as-tested ticket price of $87,000, the GTS is a bit pricey and isn’t a fuel miser (EPA fuel-efficiency is rated at 11 mpg in the city and 17 mpg on the highway). But it is a whole lot of fun to drive.
The Infiniti FX50 is another sports car with the silhouette of an SUV. It draws power from a 390-horsepower 5.0-liter DOHC V8 backed by a slick-shifting seven-speed automatic transmission, and is surprisingly agile in the twisties. Fuel economy is a little better than the Cayenne (14/20 mpg city/highway), and the price tag ($56,000) is also a little easier to swallow.
Both these vehicles will satisfy the thrill-seeker who must have a vehicle that seats at least five and has plenty of cargo space. But neither comes cheap.
2. Comfort and Style
If you like posh interiors wrapped in leather with burled wood inlays at every turn, this subsection of SUVs is right up your alley. Just as their swift-footed counterparts satisfy the adrenaline junky, these plush rides satisfy the sophisticate who wants to ride around town in style and comfort, yet still needs the size and capabilities of an SUV.
The benchmark players in this niche are from Lexus, Acura, Audi and Land Rover. Lexus has the X-factor in its RX, GX and LX models. Acura offers its plush MDX. Audi brings its all-new Q7 to the table. And Land Rover has the Range Rover Sport and Range Rover models.
As lavish as some Land Rovers have become, they have not strayed from their off-road roots. During a recent visit to the Land Rover Experience Driving School at the Quail Lodge in Carmel, California, we got a firsthand look at just how off-road capable the stylish, luxurious Range Rover can be. The Experience is a program designed to familiarize participants about the workings of four-wheel-drive systems and how to drive a 4x4 in a trail-savvy manner. While teetering on two wheels, we were ready to spread the Grey Poupon on finger sandwiches. Comfort was never a problem, even while negotiating the most rut-riddled terrain.