At Chicago Auto Show, trucks and SUVs hit the gas

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Chicago — Less than a decade ago, Americans traded trucks and SUVs for more fuel-efficient cars, sacrificing utility to save money at the gas pump. What a difference a few years make.

Last year, sales of pickups, SUVs and crossovers accounted for nearly 60 percent of all sales in the United States, an uptick of almost 4 percentage points from the year before. Any automaker without a strong lineup of those profitable vehicles is feeling the pinch. To that end, carmakers rolled out new and updated trucks and SUVs this week at the Chicago Auto Show. Big-cab options and expensive trim packages enhanced existing lineups.

“Trucks are now becoming more the main family vehicle,” said Fred Diaz, who oversees trucks and light commercial vehicles for Nissan Motor Co. in North America. “The second the recession was over, trucks continued to rise.”

Nissan on Thursday rolled out the final two models in a five-model overhaul the company began just over a year ago when it introduced the new Titan and Titan XD pickups. In Chicago this week, it pulled the covers off the King Cab versions of the trucks. It’s an attempt to expand sales of the pickups into the commercial area.

Diaz said the remake of the Titan was well-timed. Trucks are becoming more fuel-efficient even as gas prices have significantly declined since a peak in the summer 2014. And carmakers are helping drive the move to pickups and SUVs by giving them the plush interiors and advanced technology treatments once reserved for cars.

“Basically everything you had in a car, you now have in a truck,” he said. “You see the entire industry has shifted from an area of dominance with cars. Now you see that trucks are overtaking cars, and that trend is going to continue.”

According to Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst with IHS Automotive, the industry has undergone a long-term “fundamental change.”

“When the entire (truck and SUV) market went down, the buyers who wanted those vehicles weren’t buying anything at all,” she said. “I think a lot of people just waited it out for a lot of different reasons.”

When times got better, they something they liked: “They like to sit up a little higher, they like a more flexible space inside,” Brinley said. “They fit really well into people’s lives.”

Automakers’ investments in utility vehicles echoed throughout the Chicago show this week. Toyota showcased a new trim level for a trio of vehicles, giving more options on the Sequoia SUV, Tundra pickup and RAV4 crossover. Fiat Chrysler debuted a sporty 2018 Dodge Durango SRT three-row SUV, due out this summer. General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet brand showed premium trim levels for the Silverado and Colorado.

Speaking Thursday to kick off the Chicago Auto Show, Ralph Gilles, Fiat Chrysler’s head of design, said the company’s Ram brand is “no longer (just) for working.” And he says the Jeep brand continues to see growth.

“It’s not just a U.S. phenomenon,” he said. “It’s actually global ... the (utility vehicle) thing is here to stay.”

Ford Motor Co. on Tuesday introduced a fourth-generation Expedition with an aluminum body — a first for a mass-market SUV. The high-strength aluminum-alloy body and redesigned steel frame shave up to 300 pounds off the SUV’s total weight, depending on trim level. The introduction came on the heels of plans confirmed in January to bring back the Ranger and Bronco by 2020, with an updated aluminum-body F-150 planned for 2018.

Ford SUV sales have increased by 80 percent over the last five years, due in large part to baby boomers and older millennials, according to Craig Patterson, Ford’s large-SUV marketing manager. The new EcoSport compact SUV, expected in dealerships in early 2018, brings Ford’s SUV lineup up to five vehicles. Ford also has plans for two more unannounced SUVs.

“We’ve got a lot more product coming, as you see the people switch from cars to SUVs... We don’t think it’s turning around,” Patterson said Thursday. With lower gas prices and better fuel economy, he says, “Now I can get my cake and eat it, too. Even if gas prices were to go up, people would still stay in the utilities.”

Ford’s passenger-car sales are declining, but they still make up a significant piece of the the company’s business. “There’s always going to be a market for a midsize car, for a sports car, for a luxury car ... it’s just not going to be as large in the future,” Patterson said.

Echoing Patterson, Brinley and others said there isn’t much that could buck the trend toward trucks and SUVs, except for massive regulatory changes from the Trump administration — and that seems unlikely.

“Everybody needs a truck,” said Jim Morrison, head of Fiat Chrysler’s Ram brand. “Some people need it every day, some people need it every week, so that’s America. Combine that need with all of the technology — stuff that makes these trucks incredibly easy to live with every day — the truck segments are going to continue to grow.”