Big SUVs dominate LA Auto Show

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Los Angeles — You wouldn’t know automakers are preparing for an all-electric future by looking at the showroom floor at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

Big SUVs are the focal point here. Those are what consumers want, those are what pay the bills. And that’s a shift pushing an auto show recently dominated by electric vehicles and luxury cars.

The new vehicles shown here Wednesday illustrate the undeniable: Automakers don’t know what the future of the industry will look like, but they know bigger, bolder SUVs will sell. Even if California Gov. Jerry Brown and European politicians say they want to ban combustion engines at some point in the future.

“Utility vehicles have become 65 percent of our total volume,” said Jeff Bracken, general manager of Lexus. “It’s hard to know exactly how high is high, (but) when we can combine the utility and the functionality of a utility with the ride comfort of a sedan, it seems to be embraced well by the public.”

The rift between in-demand SUVs and still-unpopular electric vehicles permeated events here. Automakers padded performance car and SUV news with reaffirmed electric vehicle pledges.

The auto industry is “serving the two masters of consumer wants and needs and regulators wants and needs,” said Rebecca Lindland, analyst with Kelley Blue Book. “Those two things do not have a lot of overlap. Manufacturers are trying to overlap those two masters as much as possible, and the products do not always reflect consumer demand.”

The solution could be an all-electric full-size SUV. Various automakers are rumored to be developing one. Ford Motor Co. has said it’s targeting a 2020 release for its long-range all-electric compact ute.

Meantime, the all-new Ford Expedition won the Best Buy award from Kelley Blue Book at the LA show this week. Lincoln, Subaru, Nissan, Lexus, BMW and Hyundai all rolled out new SUVs of varying sizes. While the growing compact SUV segment saw some new models, there was a new focus on bigger utes. SUVs are continually becoming more efficient, and there seems to be room for numerous new models based on what was rolled out at the LA show.

Lexus showed a new three-row RX 350L SUV here. It’s the first seven-passenger RX from Lexus, and answers a call from current customers — and some who opted for other vehicles — for more seating and space in the Lexus SUV. The front-wheel drive variation of the SUV will retail for $47,670. The vehicle will have a hybrid option. Lexus also showcased a full-size LX SUV with the third row removed. This adds cargo space to that line-up.

The Toyota luxury brand wasn’t alone. Other automakers put a spotlight on new or updated SUVs. Subaru and BMW both showed the companies’ biggest-ever vehicles.

The three-row Subaru Ascent targets growing families, a demographic that’s once again become popular as oil prices have stabilized and automakers figure out how to make the behemoth vehicles more fuel-efficient.

BMW showed its X7 iPerformance concept SUV, which debuted in Munich. The six-person vehicle, which will be built at BMW’s South Carolina plant starting late next year, targets real demand. BMW sees space in its lineup for those looking for a bigger luxury SUV.

Lincoln showed off its MKC compact SUV and the re-branded and updated Nautilus crossover SUV. Lincoln President Kumar Galhotra used the Nautilus unveiling to brag about the company’s new Navigator, and its performance in the growing Chinese market, where electric vehicles are strongly pushed by the government. Lincoln expects 70 percent of its Chinese sales will be utility vehicles within a decade.

Nissan debuted its 2018 Kicks, a compact crossover that brings the total number of SUVs in the company’s line up to six. And Hyundai premiered the Kona compact crossover. The aggressive exterior is covered in what Hyundai calls “urban smart armor.”

After BMW showed its big SUV concept, it rolled out several electric cars, including its new plug-in hybrid i8 Roadster. Starting in 2021, the BMW lineup will have a common architecture that will allow vehicles to be built as plug-in hybrids, battery-electrics or conventional gasoline-powered, depending on what’s in demand.

Whether that demand is consumer-driven or government-mandated won’t matter, said Ian Robertson, the BMW management board member in charge of sales.

“I don’t think anybody out there has a very clear position on how markets will develop,” Robertson said. “We will have the ability to grow or to multiple on every one of our structures.”

Nora Naughton of The Detroit News contributed.

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau