Why SUVs are getting bigger and bigger - GM, Toyota, Ford enlarge hefty vehicles
Just when you thought sport-utility vehicles couldn’t get any bigger, they are.
Two of the auto industry’s most hulking SUVs, the Chevrolet Tahoe and Chevrolet Suburban, are growing in size for the 2021 model year.
For customers, that means more headroom, more legroom, and more space to haul stuff.
For automakers, that means more profits because large SUVs are among the industry’s biggest moneymakers, rivalled only by full-size pickups, which are also getting bigger.
Other SUVs, like the Toyota Highlander and the Ford Expedition, have been getting longer and larger, too.
“Size creep,” is how Stephanie Brinley, principle automotive analyst at research firm IHS Markit, describes it.
“When you go out and do clinics on almost any vehicle and you ask what people want, they almost always say they want more space,” Brinley says.
The trend comes as the nation’s SUV boom continues. Steadily low gasolene prices are providing Americans with confidence that they won’t get stuck with gas guzzlers during a sudden spike in fuel prices.
The national average price of gas hasn’t topped $3 since 2014, according to the US Energy Information Administration. That reality, coupled with the rock-bottom unemployment rate and record stock prices, has benefited SUV sales.
It also doesn’t hurt that SUV gas mileage has improved across the board.
Among all SUVs, 28 vehicles in the 2020 model year get at least 30 miles per gallon in combined city-highway driving, compared with only one model in 2000, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“With low gas prices, nobody cares how big they are really, and the fuel economy has improved, too,” says Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at car-buying site Autotrader.
Another factor driving the trend: Americans are getting older, and SUVs are generally easier to climb into than low-riding passenger cars, analysts say.
That’s one reason why GM, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler have discontinued most of their passenger cars, such as the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, and Chrysler 200 while sales of other car that were once stalwarts have plummeted.
When 2019 is over, about half of new-vehicle sales in the US will have been SUVs, according to projections by car-research site Edmunds. Passenger cars will represent about one-third of those sales, while pickups should comprise the rest.
To capitalise on the boom, automakers have also been introducing more SUV models, including three-row options from Subaru, Hyundai, Kia, and Volkswagen for the first time.
To keep customers buying its big SUVs, GM announced earlier this month that it had stretched out the Tahoe and Suburban SUVs. The 2021 Tahoe is 6.7 inches longer than the 2020 model, which is a huge leap in an industry in which one or two inches can make a significant visual difference. And its wheelbase adds 4.9 inches.
That extra size has increased the vehicle’s maximum cargo room by 29.8%.
It’s the latest in a series of increases. From the 1999 model to the 2021 model, GM added 17.7 inches in length to the Tahoe.
Ford has added 11 inches to the length of its Tahoe rival, the Ford Expedition SUV, since 1999, according to Edmunds.
There are dollar signs behind the increases
The average full-size SUV sold for $67,681 during that period, compared with $36,856 for the average full-size car, according to Cox Automotive, which owns Kelley Blue Book and Autotrader. The average midsize SUV sold for $39,278 from June through November, compared with $26,244 for the average midsize car.
“As the competitors grow in size, they want to make sure they protect this cash cow that they’ve got here,” Edmunds analyst Jessica Caldwell said of GM.
The size race is not limited to the traditional Detroit Three automakers.
When Japanese automaker Toyota revealed its redesigned 2020 Toyota Highlander at the New York Auto Show last year, it boasts about the extra size in its bigger SUV. The Highlander has added 10.9 inches in length since its debut in 2001, including adding a third row.
At 194.9 inches, the 2020 Highlander is longer than the 193-inch 1999 Chevy Tahoe.
And it’s not just the industry’s biggest SUVs adding size. The most popular SUV in the country, the Toyota RAV4 midsize SUV, has added 14 inches to its wheelbase from 1999 to 2019.
“People are willing to pay more for bigger vehicles,” Caldwell said.