It's a popular notion that the sport utility vehicle is the dinosaur of today's auto industry. Others feel the behemoth SUV still rules the road and will for some time to come.Which side has the correct answer? The jury is still out.
SUV sales have dropped from 2003, when 17.1 percent of vehicles exiting new car lots were traditional (truck-based) SUVs, according to statistics from J.D. Power and Associates. Today, the category makes up 9.5 percent of all new vehicles sold.
The current slump in the auto market also means that SUV makers are carving up a smaller piece of a smaller pie, says Jeff Schuster, executive director of forecasting for J.D. Power. "Not only is the share down, but the volume is down as well," he says.
It's no secret that auto sales, in general, are down. New vehicle sales for the first six months of 2009 are down 35.1 percent over the same period one year ago, according to WardsAuto.com. SUV sales are down 46.9 percent for that same period.
"The current decline in the SUV category is pretty much on par with the decline in vehicle sales overall," says Charles Territo, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "They reflect the market."
But some industry watchers say it goes beyond that. Changes in consumer preferences, roller-coaster gas prices, drivers getting more realistic about needs vs. wants, the credit crunch and a greening of the American consciousness are all likely contributing factors.
Sometimes it's just a case of what's popular. "Styles and people's tastes change," says Jack Nerad, executive editorial director of Kelley Blue Book.
Still, Nerad is confident in the continued demand for SUVs. "The large SUV is doing fairly well -- I think better than some might expect," Nerad says. Ditto the small and medium-sized models, "although the crossovers have kind of taken over," he adds.
The rise of CUVsThere's another major factor in that decreasing market share: the increasing popularity of crossovers -- SUV-styled vehicles that run on car-based platforms, rather than the truck frames that define a "traditional" SUV.
"Currently, the SUV has been under a lot of pressure from other segments, particularly the crossover," says Schuster. Sales of traditional SUVs, meanwhile, "peaked in 2003 and have been declining ever since," he says.
Top-selling 2009 SUVs
Here are the 10 top-selling traditional SUVs, excluding models already canceled, courtesy of J.D. Power and Associates.
|1. Jeep Wrangler||48,890|
|2. Chevrolet Tahoe||32,215|
|3. Jeep Liberty||23,705|
|4. Jeep Grand Cherokee||23,090|
|5. Ford Explorer||17,670|
|6. Kia Sorento||15,736|
|7. Chevrolet Suburban||14,721|
|8. GMC Yukon||14,353|
|9. Toyota 4Runner||10,402|
|10. Ford Expedition||10,392|
Crossover utility vehicles, or CUVs, offer drivers the atmosphere, and some of the hauling and towing capacity associated with SUVS "with less of a truck feel," says Schuster. "In addition, or maybe related to that, we've also seen vehicle manufacturers cancel SUVs in favor of CUVs." So there are fewer choices in SUVs, he says.
Moreover, the line between the two kinds of vehicles continues to blur, says Nerad. With crossovers, he says, "You will see something that looks almost like a station wagon, to something that looks like a traditional SUV."
As for SUVs, "I think the main trend is that they're morphing into these crossovers, and they're becoming the popular vehicles," says Eric Evarts, associate autos editor for Consumer Reports. "I think we're going to see nothing but expansion from the small crossover, small SUV segment."
Are many SUV buyers simply switching to CUVs? It sure looks that way. Combined sales of SUVs and CUVs made up 26.8 percent of the market in 2003, and 27 percent in 2008, according to numbers from J.D. Power.
"I think there is clear replacement taking place," says Bernard Swiecki, senior projects manager for the Center for Automotive Research, a nonprofit think tank.
And makers are beefing up CUV options. "In the past five years, manufacturers have introduced more CUVs than SUVs, and that will continue," says Territo.