SUVs --- MORE MONEY, MORE TRUCK
By Steve Parker
It wasnt too long ago that trucks belonged on the farm
and decent families drove four-door sedans.
Boy, has that changed! Car and "light" truck sales
are now split almost 50/50 in the US, with the ubiquitous
"sport/utility vehicle" (SUV) responsible for the
huge uptick in truck sales the past ten years.
Like cell phones, PDAs and robotic dogs from Japan,
SUVs have become a "must have" in these early years
of the 21st century. And like all products which imbue themselves
into society, they have broken into price and feature segments.
The luxury SUV, those costing well over $35,000, have become
the hottest-selling machines in the country.
While fewer than five percent of all four-wheel drive SUVs
ever see any off-road activity, the luxury models leave the
pavement even less often. The story about the firm in Beverly
Hills which will come by your home and throw mud on your SUV
to make it look like youve been roughing it may be more
than apocraphyl --- theres more than a kernel of truth
in any joke.
But Ill leave it to the sociologists to explain why
so many of us think "bigger is better", and are
willing to pay for all that size.
Like so many things automotive, the trend started in California,
but Texas had a lot to do with the birth of the SUV, too.
West coast surfers enclosing their pickups to protect their
boards, wet suits and who-knows-what-else (the covered truck
beds even served as, well, beds) had a big part in "inventing"
the SUV for the general public.
Down south, where the Chevrolet Suburban had long been known
as the "National Truck of Texas", the idea of taking
the family truck off the ranch and into town for dinner or
even (gasp!) the opera, started to take hold.
And there was an entire generation sick of station wagons
and minivans (those staid Badges of Family). Detroit put two
and two together and began new marketing campaigns with their
existing trucks (Suburban and Blazer from GM, Grand Cherokee
from Jeep, Bronco from Ford --- lets not forget OJs
contribution to SUV awareness worldwide).
A new term (SUV) was invented and we were told that these
trucks were sexier, hipper and way more useful than old-fashioned
wagons and minivans. Voila, the American auto industry was
resurrected, saved from the imports for the time being. In
the late 80s, Asian and European manufacturers were
not yet building American-style full-sized trucks. The market
belonged to the good ol USA.
Some more SUV history:
In the mid-80s, a company in Escondido, CA started
importing something called Laforza ("the force")
from Italy, a semi-military SUV-like vehicle powered by a
Ford V8 and outfitted with a luxury interior. The price was
a then-ridiculous $35,000, so of course it became popular
only among certain Hollywood-types.
Laforza still sells in small numbers, and the company is
concentrating on producing a diesel-powered armored security
version of the truck (translation: kind of bulletproof) at
a base price of $100,000.
That same Hollywood crowd also became aware in the 80s
of a military vehicle from Germanys Mercedes-Benz called
the Gelandewagen (earth wagon). So boxy and ugly it was, G-wagen
was proclaimed tragically and unknowingly hip. Kind of like
a road-going Judy Garland. Academy Award-winning director
Steven Spielberg was often spotted tooling around LA-LA Land
in his G-wagen.
One small company, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, specialized in
importing the trucks and parts to the US, while Mercedes-Benz
corporate looked the other way.
This year, Mercedes decided to get in on the luxury SUV cash-cow.
The G-wagen is part of the official Mercedes line-up, known
as the "G-class" (at a base price of $72,500 a copy).
The Santa Fe outfit is still in business, however.
Today from the USA, Lincolns Navigator is more popular
than ever, and the Escalade from Cadillac has kept that division
of GM alive for the past two years. Both are regularly featured
in sometimes-violent rock and rap videos, much to the manufacturers
official consternation, but the respective sales departments
Both trucks are built on existing chassis (the Escalade is
closely related to the Suburban, Navigator to the Expedition).
Adding more horsepower, interior leather, a softer suspension
and a plethora of electronic goodies and doo-dads commands
tens of thousands more in entry price than their lesser cousins.
An Escalade can base price between $49,000 and $52,000. A
Navigator topline model starts at over $54,000.
How many sales? Out of about 120,000 Cadillacs sold between
January and September of 2002, fully 40,000 of them have been
Escalades. Out of 125,000 Lincoln cars and trucks sold in
those same nine months, about 21,000 were Navigators.
General Motors does seem to have an ace-in-the-hole for 2003
AM General, the company which makes the Hummer, has been
purchased by GM.
The original Hummer will still be made, starting at around
$70,000. But all eyes are on the new H2, built on a GM pickup
platform, but retaining the Hummers look. H2 starts
at around $50,000.
DaimlerChrysler sells both the M- and G-class Mercedes SUVs.
M-class is built in America, and, on the same Mississippi
assembly line, so will the powerful new Chrysler Pacifica
sportvan SUV slated for sale in 2004 or 05.
Ford has had two rare failures in the SUV and sport-utility
truck market (SUT --- an SUV with a small pickup bed). Though
their huge Excursion came out of the gate with strong sales,
the company saw sales dwindle and cancelled the vehicle. Fords
Blackwood, the first luxury SUT, never caught on and was also
>From Asia, the Lexus LX 470 is Emperor of SUVs, starting
at $62,000. Its not much more than a gussied-up version
of the classic Toyota Land Cruiser (even has the same 4.7
liter V8 engine and drivetrain). But it has bells and whistles
which Mr. Toyoda never dreamed of when he was busy making
(copying?) his version of the Land Rover (which became the
Land Cruiser). LX 470 is made in Japan.
Toyota also markets the Sequoia, built on the companys
full-sized Tundra pickup, with prices ranging from the low
$40s. Its the first Japanese entry built on an
American-style pickup truck chassis, and its made in
Nissan is planning their own full-size pickup next year,
and you can bet the company will build a luxury SUV on that
same platform as quickly as they can come up with a name and
price for it.
But its Europe where real luxe SUV excitement is happening.
The UKs Land Rovers luxury 2003 Range Rover is
a completely new vehicle, larger and more powerful than any
previous Range Rover. Prices start at just a tick under $70,000,
including its BMW-built V8 engine producing 282 horsepower
and a stump-pulling 324 foot-pounds of torque.
BMW has had great success with their X5, an SUV built on
a modified 5-series car platform, supplying a more comfortable
ride and better handling than can be had from a traditional
truck-based SUV (these car-based vehicles are called "crossovers").
Base prices start under $40,000, but for the 340 horsepower
4.6 liter V8-powered X5, start writing that check at about
the $62,000 mark.
BMW says plan on seeing another car-based SUV from them around
2004, the X3, built on the 3-series platform.
And its only a matter of time until the engineers at
BMWs high-performance "M" works get their
hands on these machines and turn them into racing-capable
Volvo is building the XC90 for 2003, with prices starting
at about $34,000. There are two engines available, including
a five cylinder 2.5 liter turbo, and a 2.9 liter six cylinder
engine with twin turbos pumping out a somewhat respectable
260 horsepower. The smaller engine can be had with front-wheel
or all-wheel drive, while the larger powerplant comes with
all-wheel drive only.
XC90 doesnt truly fit into our "luxury SUV"
category, but its an important vehicle, coming from
one of the most respected names in motoring. Incidentally,
Volvo, like Land Rover, is owned by Ford.
Volkswagen and Porsche are bringing out versions of the same
SUV sometime in 2003.
The VW will be called "Touareg" (the name comes
from a people in the African Sahara known as the "knights
of the desert").
VW's 2003 SUV will start in the $30,000 range, but a top-of-the-line
model powered by a 395 horsepower 6 liter W12 engine will
sell for more than double that amount.
Porsches ultimate SUV is called Cayenne (as in hot
pepper). Cayenne S, with a 335 horsepower 4.5 liter V8, starts
at $55,900, while the monster 444 horsepower twin-turbo version
will set you back $88,900.
Cayenne made its public debut at the Paris Motor Show in
late September and arrives in dealerships in early 2003. About
25,000 will be built the first year of production, with most
of them headed to the US.
Porsche-philes, those who live and breathe all things Porsche,
see "their" company making a truck (!) to be something
well beyond sacrilege. But those less emotional know that
in todays world, a company must do what it must do in
order to survive and continually build sales worldwide.
In 2005 or so, look for a VW-built crossover SUV from Audi
As long as fuel prices stay relatively stable, industry analysts
say luxury SUVs are here to stay. But manufacturers know our
peculiar American dream world of low gas prices will not last
Dodge is planning a hybrid gas-electric engine for one of
their pickups in 2004 (called "Contractors Special")
which will get 25 percent better mileage than a gasoline-only
model. That powerplant will eventually find its way into an
As with so many things automotive, its technology which
will keep these vehicles coming down the assembly line, technology
which will make them lighter, safer and more fuel efficient
while keeping many of the positives which attract so many
About the Author
Steve Parker is a two-time Emmy Award-winning journalist living
in Palm Springs, CA, where he produces and hosts automotive-related
radio and TV shows) Steve Parker THE CAR NUT / THE CAR DUDE.
Over 30 Years of Emmy-Award Winning Automotive Journalism on
TV, radio, in newspapers and magazines.