Rise of S.U.V.s: Leaving Cars in Their Dust, With No Signs of Slowing

Trends come and go. Affordable big-screen TVs and craft beer are welcome to stay. Small-plate restaurants and leisure suits? We’ll live when they’re gone. Last year in the United States, S.U.V.s outsold sedans two to one, a trend years in the making that experts expect will only grow.

For nearly two decades, the Toyota Camry was the best-selling passenger vehicle in the United States. (Pickup trucks are a different category and sales stratosphere, with the top three slots going to Ford’s F-Series, Fiat Chrysler’s Ram and Chevrolet’s Silverado.) In 2019, Toyota’s RAV4 sport utility took the passenger crown with nearly 450,000 sold, putting it in fourth place over all behind the pickups, according to Car Sales Base. Next were the Honda CR-V at over 384,000 sales; Nissan’s Rogue and Rogue Sport, combining for 350,500; and the Chevy Equinox at 346,000. The first sedan on the sales list, the Camry, showed up at No. 8, just shy of 337,000.

“S.U.V.s made up 47.4 percent of U.S. sales in 2019 with sedans at 22.1 percent,” said Tom Libby, automotive analyst at IHS Markit. “By 2025, we see the light-truck segment that includes S.U.V.s, vans and pickups to make up 78 percent of sales compared to 72 percent now.”

The tipping point was not so long ago. S.U.V.s outsold sedans for the first time in 2015, Mr. Libby said, and the market has rushed to sport utilities. Why the seismic shift? It comes down to practicality, ride height, baby boomers and, well, vanity.

“It was time for a change,” said Tom Kearns, chief designer for Kia’s Design Center America. “People appreciate the function, utility and visibility compared to sedans. It’s driven by changing lifestyles, usefulness and technology.”

As for image, his brand’s rugged-looking Telluride has been a home run. “We saw a lot of S.U.V.s looking more like cars,” Mr. Kearns said. “We gave Telluride a big, bold and boxy look because we liked the looks of the old ones.”

Some automotive designers feel it was simply time for a wholesale change of the automotive silhouette.

The first cars looked like horse carriages without Mr. Ed because designers understood the shape and mechanics. In the 1920s, cars acquired a “two-box” form: one for the engine, a second for passengers and cargo. The 1950s ushered in more streamlined “three-box” sedan designs (engine/passenger/cargo). From the ’60s through the ’80s, they became lower, longer and wider as technology allowed more efficient packaging. Today’s S.U.V. two-box forms are similar to cars 90 years old.

Only a blip among automotive sales before 1990, S.U.V.s were primarily large two-door pickup-based trucks like the Chevrolet K5 Blazer, the Dodge Ramcharger and the Ford Bronco. Loading families into them was the hardest part of any expedition. All-wheel-drive cars such as the AMC Eagle and Subaru station wagons were early embers that sent up smoke signals, but the fire began somewhat unnoticed in 1984 with the unibody-based Jeep XJ Cherokee. The blaze jumped the fire line in 1990 with the wildly popular Ford Explorer.

The Explorer’s formula was simple — practical size and height, comfort, plus four doors. Big enough for families, yet the children didn’t have to rappel out of it. Minivans, the primary family haulers that Chrysler pioneered in 1983, had acquired “mom-mobile” baggage.

In the ’90s, “baby boomers and their kids were growing up,” said Erich Merkle, Ford’s head of U.S. sales analysis. “Explorer offered something that minivans couldn’t — status and rugged style to go with good utility.

“Sport utes were more expensive and less fuel efficient,” he continued, “but boomers passing through their peak income and spending years were excited about them because they weren’t minivans.”

Based on the compact Ranger pickup architecture, Explorer was immediately popular and profitable. Jeep’s Grand Cherokee, which came to the market in 1992, advanced the breed, employing unibody construction for comfortable carlike driving. S.U.V.s offered the same elevated driving position as vans but added an outdoorsy image, even if few ventured off road.

With no truck architecture in its portfolio, Honda brought the Civic-based CR-V stateside in 1997. Its architecture (like that of the Corolla-based RAV4, which proceeded it) offered nimble driving dynamics.

“We brought that vehicle from Japan with low expectations, and it became very popular,” said Gary Robinson, vice president for product planning at American Honda. “Our starting point was cars that were comfortable and fun to drive. It was our nature to build trucks the same way. Now, crossovers provide the same driving dynamics and fuel efficiency that cars did five years ago with better utility.”

Premium S.U.V.s like Lincoln’s Navigator seemed odd at first, but buyers voted enthusiastically with their checkbooks. At Cadillac, “Escalade gave people the luxury, style and comfort of sedans with better visibility and usefulness,” said Jason Sledziewski, Cadillac’s director of product planning. Plus, there’s the perception of added safety.

Boomers and younger generations continue to drive the S.U.V. market, but in different directions.

“The data says boomers prefer smaller S.U.V.s — they’re empty nesters that don’t need space but appreciate the ride height and easy ingress and egress,” Mr. Merkle of Ford said. “Millennials aged 35 to 44 probably haul children and maybe even their parents. They’re buying larger three-row S.U.V.s for space.”

That tipping point in 2015 was also when the parking space normally occupied by my neighbor Eve’s Volkswagen Beetle convertible (arguably the roundest car on the planet) was conquered by a Jeep Wrangler (the squarest).

“I always wanted one,” she gushed as she hoisted herself into the cabin and drove off to conquer the great outdoors. Actually, pretty sure it was the grocery store.

Beginning in late 2011, Subaru sales increased every month for nearly eight years. Globally, Porsche’s Macan and Cayenne each outsell its 911 three to one. Jeep, considered the crown jewel of Fiat Chrysler, rocketed from moving 300,000 units in 1989 to 1.4 million in 2019.

Jim Morrison, the head of the Jeep marque, credits careful cultivation of the brand.

“Compare a 1940s Willys and today’s Wrangler and there’s clear lineage,” Mr. Morrison said. “Our vehicles are truly capable and end up off road. People in snowy areas need four-wheel drive. The hatch design is useful.”

And Jeep carefully branched out with affordable models like the Renegade and the Compass, high-performance machines like the Grand Cherokee Trackhawk, and the Gladiator pickup.

The S.U.V. shift is not unique to America.

“The higher driving position is desirable everywhere,” said Ralph Mahler, head of product planning for BMW North America. “In Europe, we sell smaller ones like X1, X2 and X3 because roads are narrow, parking is an issue.

“In the U.S., it’s X3, X5 and X7 because roads are wider and owners have garages,” he continued. “Those three vehicles are all made in the U.S. and exported all over the world.”

Ford famously announced that it was largely abandoning the car market in North America, though sedans can be developed from the unibody platforms that the Explorer, Edge and Escape ride on.

“Car sales continue to decline,” Mr. Merkle said. “It’s a tough business proposition, and S.U.V.s are more profitable for us.” (That’s true across the industry: Automakers earn more profit per vehicle with trucks and S.U.V.s.)

Ford is doubling down with a new Bronco to rival Jeep’s Wrangler, an Escape-based crossover called the Bronco Sport and a rumored lifted-wagonlike Fusion Active.

Automakers like Hyundai, Kia, Honda, Toyota and BMW, which are loath to give up market share, continue to support sedans. “Accord and Civic have great loyalty,” said Mr. Robinson at Honda.

Mr. Mahler of BMW agreed: “We are still talking about 40-45 percent passenger cars. That’s a lot of sales.”

The S.U.V. form factor will eventually give way to something different. Electric cars with batteries mounted skateboard-style along the floor allow designers new freedom. Autonomous vehicles won’t need elevated driving positions because no one needs to see the road ahead.

And “some buyers simply don’t want an S.U.V.,” Mr. Sledziewski of Cadillac said. “They want driving dynamics that only cars provide. We’ll keep offering that.”

A return to the sedan? Maybe. But leisure suits? No.

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