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From the Field
By Steve Parker

It wasn’t 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, PDA’s 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 you’ve been roughing it may be more than apocraphyl --- there’s more than a kernel of truth in any joke.

But I’ll 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 --- let’s not forget OJ’s 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 Germany’s 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, Lincoln’s 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’ glee.

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 and beyond.

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 Hummer‘s 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 discontinued.

>From Asia, the Lexus LX 470 is Emperor of SUVs, starting at $62,000. It’s 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 company’s full-sized Tundra pickup, with prices ranging from the low $40’s. It’s the first Japanese entry built on an American-style pickup truck chassis, and it’s made in Indiana.

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 it’s Europe where real luxe SUV excitement is happening.

The UK’s Land Rover’s 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 it’s only a matter of time until the engineers at BMW’s high-performance "M" works get their hands on these machines and turn them into racing-capable trucks.

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 doesn’t truly fit into our "luxury SUV" category, but it’s 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.

Porsche’s 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 today’s 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 called "Magellan".

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 forever.

Dodge is planning a hybrid gas-electric engine for one of their pickups in 2004 (called "Contractor’s Special") which will get 25 percent better mileage than a gasoline-only model. That powerplant will eventually find its way into an SUV.

As with so many things automotive, it’s 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 buyers.

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.