When Mazda pulled the wraps off the new MX-5 Miata RF, a new version of its 2-seat roadster, on Thursday, it was one of the rare exceptions at a New York International Auto Show marked by the debut of a score of new sport- and crossover-utility vehicles.
In a variety of shapes and sizes — as well as a broad range of prices — they can be found in every corner of the Jacob Javits Convention Center. And, if anything, industry officials made it clear they'll have still more utility vehicles to unveil in the near future.
"It appears there is no end in sight to the remarkable growth of the crossover market, here and around the world," said Carlos Ghosn, the CEO of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, as he opened up the auto show's annual media preview with a keynote speech.
The shift in the U.S. market has been astounding. Once dominant mid-sized sedans have been rapidly losing momentum, while coupes are little more than an asterisk on the sales charts. Using the broad definition of what the industry calls "light trucks," a term that takes in vans and pickups, as well as utility vehicles, they captured 58 percent of the U.S. market in 2015, and that has surged above 60 percent since the beginning of the year.
Utility vehicles alone could pick up another 10 points of market share before things level out, suggested Joe Hinrichs, Ford's president of the Americas.
Of course, what constitutes a utility vehicle is a rather broad term, as visitors to the New York Auto Show will quickly discover. In early years, they were rugged off-roaders often sharing the underlying, body-on-frame platforms used for pickups. But today, those classic "truck-trucks" have largely faded away in favor of models that share platforms with passenger cars.
The Volvo XC90 is a high-riding version of the Swedish maker's new S90 sedan, for example. The Volkswagen Allroad starts out with the same platform as VW's Golf hatchback. The new Infiniti QX30 is a slightly more rugged version of the Q30 hatchback.
Where manufacturers once tried to make their crossovers look like conventional SUVs, they proudly embrace more distinctive designs today. Mercedes-Benz brings to the Big Apple its new GLC Coupe, an odd amalgam of "ute" and coupe designs.
The idea of having a Mercedes tri-star on a utility vehicle might have seemed far-fetched less than a generation ago. But the German maker has added so many different models it recently had to come up with a new, more uniform nomenclature so buyers could readily tell which was which.
Detroit makers were actually the first to enter the luxury segment with SUVs, starting with the 1997 Lincoln Navigator. A more traditional, truck-based ute, it was neglected for a number of years, and the Ford subsidiary nearly abandoned the model before realizing how well its competitors were doing. Lincoln is grabbing plenty of attention at the New York show with a concept version of the Navigator featuring massive gull-wing doors — which will be traded out for more conventional doors when a production version debuts next year.
Even the most exclusive luxury brands have embraced the trend. Maserati staged the U.S. debut of its first-ever utility vehicle, the Levante. And Bentley is just starting to take orders for its $229,000 Bentayga — which can be ordered with a unique Breitling clock that will more than double the base price. Those ultra-luxury makers will be followed by Aston Martin, Lamborghini, even Rolls-Royce.
Porsche, a name that instantly conjures up images of super-fast sports cars, now offers two utility vehicles, and the Cayenne is, by far, its best-selling product line.
No wonder the New York show brought out the new MDX from Acura, Infiniti's new QX70 Limited, and the makeover of the Buick Encore. That General Motors brand is also showing off the new Envision, a compact utility vehicle it will begin importing from China later this year.
Even before the launch of its two new utes, crossovers had been generating about 66 percent of Buick's total U.S. sales, but within a year or so, said marketing manager Duncan Aldred, "I believe utility vehicles will represent 70 percent or more of our sales in the U.S."
What's behind the surge? Experts suggest American motorists like the higher seating position of an SUV, as well as their ability to deal with rough pavement and bad roads. Virtually everyone agrees that low fuel prices have helped drive the surge, but analyst Joe Phillippi is confident demand would remain high even if pump prices rebound to $4 or more a gallon because the latest utility vehicles deliver nearly the mileage of comparably sized sedans.
"The world is moving away from sedans and other passenger cars," he said, surveying the products on display at the Javits Convention Center. So, "it's no surprise" that, with utility vehicles overwhelmingly dominate the list of new models making a Big Apple debut.