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Luxury Automakers Find Bigger Is Better Again

<p>There’s still solid demand for massive luxury SUVs, despite an increasing focus on fuel economy.</p>
Image: The 2015 Lincoln Navigator
The new 2015 Lincoln Navigator is unveiled in Detroit on Jan. 21. Lincoln Motor Co. Ford’s luxury arm says the new Navigator will have more than 20 upgrades, from bigger wheels and a leather-wrapped steering wheel to a 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 engine to replace its old V8. Carlos Osorio / AP file

It helped launch an all-new market segment when it debuted 17 years ago, and with the official debut of the 2015 Lincoln Navigator at the Chicago Auto Show, Ford Motor Co. makes it clear that the era of the big, bling-mobile is far from over.

Despite an increasing focus by automakers and buyers alike on fuel economy, there’s still a solid demand for massive luxury SUVs like the Navigator and similar products from Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Infiniti and General Motors ─ which has redesigned its own full-size Cadillac Escalade for 2015.

“I think we made significant improvements in every area of the vehicle,” says Andrew Frick, Lincoln’s marketing manager, adding that while millions of American motorists might be downsizing, for plenty of others, traditional, full-size SUVs are “exactly what the customer wants.”

The Navigator and Escalade both made their debuts prior to the new millennium, at a time when truck-based sport-utility vehicles were the hottest things on the road and American motorists were living by the traditional “bigger is better” mantra. At its peak, the truck segment surged to more than 50 percent of new vehicle sales.

But rising gas prices began to affect purchase decisions. Many buyers found a more fuel-efficient alternative in a new wave of car-like crossovers, and some even migrated back to sedans and other passenger cars.

But there’s always been a niche for those who want classic SUV capabilities, especially in the form of full-size rigs like the Navigator and Escalade and their more mainstream siblings, such as the Chevrolet Tahoe ─ which is also getting a complete makeover for the 2015 model-year.

“There’s a loyal following that just keeps coming back.”

And as fuel prices have dropped and stabilized, there’s been a surge back to SUVs, even though there are fewer true “truck-truck” models on the market than a decade ago. Pickups have also gained momentum, with sales of full-size models last year surging to just under 2 million, or nearly double the tally during the depths of the recession.

So, if you include all the various offerings that are traditionally counted in the truck column ─ including pickups, SUVs, vans and crossovers ─ it’s significant to note they collectively accounted for a full 53 percent of the U.S. market last month, up from 49.9 percent a year ago.

“There’s a loyal following that just keeps coming back,” analyst Dave Sullivan, of AutoPacific Inc., says of full-size luxury SUVs such as the new Navigator, and he says that trend is likely to continue “as long as fuel is still relatively cheap.”

The segment is not huge, accounting for just about 50,000 units in 2013, with sales “expected to go to the mid-50,000 range” in the coming years, according to Lincoln’s Frick. (The Navigator's MSRP starts at $56,165 for the 2014 rear-wheel drive model, while the Escalade starts at $63,745.) But that was enough growth to convince both Ford and GM to remain in the market. They had considered abandoning their Lincoln Navigator and Cadillac Escalade models during the depths of the recession.

Such vehicles do face challenges. They’re the poster cars for those who hate automotive excess ─ and face stiff new fuel economy standards that go into effect in 2016 and again in 2025 when the industry, overall, must deliver an average 54.5 miles per gallon.

Makers of full-size models, domestic and foreign, are struggling to find ways to get there, whether by adopting new lighter-weight designs, switching to smaller engines or even adopting more advanced hybrid powertrains.

But as long as they can meet the mileage mandates, and as long as there’s demand there, few expect these full-size bling machines to go away. The luxury market, in general, is surging ─ perhaps a reflection of the growing U.S. wealth gap ─ and such products deliver enormous profits that makers like Ford and GM say they’d be foolish to ignore.

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