Good-bye, SUV

In the past decade, many journalists have written the premature obituary for the traditional full-size, truck-based sport utility vehicle -- you know, the vehicle that has sparked the ire of the world’s environmentalists like no other. Through the ‘90s and into the present decade, fuel spikes would come, SUV sales would slip a bit and journalists would salivate over the demise of the SUV. The end didn’t come, though, and SUV sales remained strong, even through 2007.  

But now, in the midst of another fuel-price jump to record levels, things have changed. Traditional SUV sales this year dropped more than 25 percent in the first quarter versus the first quarter of last year. In auto-industry terms, that’s the equivalent of going off a cliff. But that isn’t the only reason experts say the heyday of the traditional SUV is indeed over. While the truck-based SUV will still be with us in some form or another for several years into the future, the segment will never see the sales levels of the recent past when the traditional SUV reigned supreme, and it may well vanish into the specialty-vehicle niche it occupied before the Jeep Cherokee and Ford Explorer got the segment fired up two decades ago. But it took a lot more that $3.50-a-gallon gas to puncture the SUV’s balloon. In fact, other factors, far more than the recent rapid up-tick in fuel prices, are the keys to writing the swan song of the SUV.

Of those factors, two were most instrumental. The first is the incredible, if largely underreported, rise of the crossover utility vehicle (CUV). Crossovers come in many sizes, but the midsize and full-size CUVs -- essentially car-based vehicles with three rows that can accommodate seven or more passengers -- have become very viable and, as it turns out, very appealing substitutes for full-size truck-based SUVs. They are often somewhat less expensive, offer better ride-and-handling characteristics and use less fuel than their traditional SUV cousins. That’s a compelling parlay, especially in today’s market. The number of offerings that meet this description has grown exponentially in the last several years. Unlike SUVs that evoke an off-road aura, CUVs are designed almost strictly as on-road vehicles with front-wheel rather than four-wheel drive, and without fanfare, they have become the family car of 2008. The evidence is strong that it will stay that way for a while. From virtually nowhere 10 years ago, CUVs now outsell traditional SUVs two to one.