With gasoline prices flirting with the three bucks a gallon mark - and that's just for unleaded regular - and sales of thirsty Sport Utility Vehicles starting to choke up because of it, what's the last thing one might expect automakers to do?
Those who said, "Make more of 'em," go to the lead pump, because that's exactly what's happening as the 2007 and beyond new model year begins unfolding.
That began some months ago when General Motors began unveiling new 2007 versions of its biggest, thirstiest SUVs - the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban, GMC's Yukon and Yukon XL and the Cadillac Escalade and extended-length ESV.
Ford, giving its hefty Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator midlife freshenings, also provided them "EL" models adding another 14 inches to their profile.
And those are just redesigned versions, not brand new vehicles or additional and significantly different models.
Taken together, foreign and domestic manufacturers plan to introduce at least 18 new SUV models as '07s and earlybird '08s, the latter meaning they'll be here literally before many outdoor Christmas lights are taken down.
Most are midsize SUVs, the field where many crossover car-based utes reside, but there are a smattering of small, or compact, vehicles and, yes, two large-size newcomers, the Chrysler Aspen and Hyundai Mesa.
Korean-based Hyundai is gunning for Toyota and Honda big time and the new Mesa is only three inches shorter than the Chevy Tahoe. The Aspen, meanwhile comes off the Dodge Durango full-size platform and, of course, can be had with a 5.7L hemi.
The Aspen is but one of five new SUVs coming from the Chrysler Group. In addition, there's the Dodge Nitro midsize that resembles a shrunken Durango; two car-based Jeeps, the Compass and the Patriot; and a rugged Wrangler Unlimited-really a four-door convertible version of the off-roading Wrangler, which gets a redesign to boot.
"Two car-based SUVs from an off-road icon such as Jeep spell victory for the crossover revolution," Consumer Reports observed. It also pointed out "they're the first Jeeps not designed for serious off-roading."
"Chrysler is really going after the mid-size market, but the competition is very strong. Sales of smaller-size SUVs aren't hurting, even if full-size SUVs are off some. People are a little more gas conscious today," said Mike Jensen, sales manager at the Cecconi Chrysler Complex in Niagara Falls.
GM still likes 'em big
While some might think it silly for GM to re-do its big, fuelish SUVs when sales of such vehicles are tail-spinning, the company is kind of caught between a rock and a hard place. Many still want such vehicle, and GM makes a lot of money on each one.
Mark LeNeve, GM North American sales veep, recently declared, "We still believe full-size SUVs remain a vibrant, profitable market. We also believe our new ones are competing vehicles and that we will maintain our market leadership."
Of the approximately 6.5 million full-size SUVs registered in the U.S., about 65 percent were built by GM, according to Edmunds.com.
"Mid-size SUVs seem to be doing much better than the full-size vehicles, which are a little slow. The smaller ones have stayed pretty consistent," said Tony Helta, general manager at the multi-franchise West Herr Automotive Group.
"People who buy the larger ones get what they want. As much as they complain about the gas, it's the vehicle of their choice," Helta noted.
He said while fuel costs may influence some buyers, "It hasn't had a major impact on buying habits, and manufacturers offset much of it with a lot of programs and incentives that make it attractive to buy. Ford's Explorer has up to $5,500 in rebates now. How long will it take to use that much gas?" Helta asked.
In addition, he continued, people like the style of mid-size SUVs. "Plus, they're very comfortable and you have a much better view of the road in them."
In addition to re-doing its big SUVs, GM is also introducing a trio of new car-based midsize crossover SUVs, called the GMC Acadia, Saturn Outlook, and Buick Enclave. They're cousins sharing many of the same components such as GM's 3.6L/270-horsepower V6, with six-speed automatic, front or all-wheel drive, and third-row seating.
Each presents a completely different image, inside and out, to reflect its particular badge. For GMC, Acadia represents the division's first unibody vehicle; the other GMC's are body-on-frame truck underpinnings. The Acadia bows in November, the Outlook during the winter and the Enclave won't arrive until well into next spring.
"The Enclave is a replacement for the Rendezvous coming next May or June. It is an upper-end vehicle, more expensive than the Rendezvous, which was GM's first successful crossover," said Paul Batt, Buick sales manager at Jim Murphy Pontiac Buick in Cheektowaga.
"The Enclave, Acadia and Outlook are all built off the same platform but we expect the Buick version to have more luxury and be a very quiet-riding vehicle in the Buick tradition," Batt added.
"The Enclave won't be anything like the Acadia. Instead, it'll be quite luxurious. It'll be our Lexus-fighter, but won't cost as much," said Jim Ball, of Jim Ball Pontiac Buick GMC in Orchard Park.
Other midsize newcomers include the Ford Edge, Lincoln MKX, Mazda CX-9, and the Mercedes-Benz ML63, and the Audi's first SUV, the Q7, available since January.
Compact SUVs include the luxury Acura RDX, Infiniti CX35, Nissan Qashqai, and Suzuki SX4.
Disappearing are the Lincoln Aviator and Ford Excursion, but even with that the MKX replaces the former and a stretched "EL" model is added to the Expedition-and given to Lincoln's Navigator.
The following is a breakdown of what's coming (or in some cases, what's already here) for SUVs for 2007:
- Acura: Honda's luxury division has designed its new RDX compact SUV to better compete against the BMW X3. Built off the next generation Honda CR-V platform, the 1007 RDX features a 2.3L/240-hp turbo 4, a five-speed automatic with paddle shifters, advanced AWD, and a sleek design accented by gentle curves. Seating is for five and pricing starts around $33,000. This is Honda's first turbo-powered vehicle and it arrives this summer.
With the all-new RDX, Acura felt compelled to rework its larger MDX luxury SUV, making it more upscale to compete for Cadillac, Lexus and Infiniti customers.
Built on the Honda Pilot platform, the MDX has a longer wheelbase, wider track and lower stance, accompanied by more aggressive styling. The 3.5L/253-hp V6 and five-speed automatic are carryovers, along with standard AWD and three-row seating for seven. The MDX is designated as an '08 and arrives sometime next year.
- Audi: A new small SUV, the Q5, is planned in the $35,000 range to compete against the BMW X3 and Land Rover Freelander. It'll have both four-cylinder and V6 engines, a European debut in '07 and arrive here later as an '08.
Audi's first SUV, the 2007 Q7 luxury SUV, bowed last January. Its platform is shared with the Volkswagen Touareg/Porsche Cayenne but it has a six-inch longer wheelbase to accommodate seven passengers instead of five. The only engine is a 4.2L/345-hp V8. A big brother, the Q8, is contemplated for '08.
- BMW: A redesigned X5 midsize, car-based SUV arrives early next year. The X5 will be longer and have a sportier appearance to distinguish it from the X3. Current engines are carried over but third row seating is added. A diesel version may also be coming. Midlife freshening awaits the X3 in 2008.
- Buick: With the Enclave's arrival, Buick will phase out its first SUV, the Rendezvous, which will continue to be built, unchanged, until next spring, according to Batt. The Rainier, which started life as the Oldsmobile Bravada, has been a slow-seller and faces an uncertain future, he added.
The Enclave will be an '08. Among its features are expected to be 21-inch wheels, a V-shaped hood, traditional Buick portholes, three-row seating, a sunroof between the first and third rows, heritage-based dash with rounded gauges, plus wood and leather trim similar to Buicks of yesteryear.
Meanwhile, the Rainier is unchanged for '07, while the Rendezvous loses its top-line CXL-Plus, AWD, and its larger engine, the 3.6L/242-hp V6.
- Cadillac: The 2007 Escalade upscale version of the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon, has been out for some time, as have the kinfolk.
Escalade's base engine is a new 6.2L/403-hp V8 with displacement-on-demand, or DOD, a six-speed automatic, and rear- or all-wheel drive. It seats eight in a new high- end interior featuring more passenger and cargo room than previous models, plus triple-zone climate controls. Exterior styling with headlights stacked in a tall, narrow cluster mimics the SRX "tall wagon."
The SRX, meanwhile, gets cosmetic changes and a redesigned instrument panel.
Come the '08 model year Cadillac may add a smaller SUV, the BRX. It'll be based on the Chevrolet Equinox/Pontiac Torrent cousins and use the 2.8L/210-hp V6 engine in CTS sedans. The BRX would have no third row seating.
- Chevrolet: GM had little choice but to redesign its biggest SUVs, the Chevrolet Suburban/GMC Yukon XL plus the Chevrolet Tahoe/GMC Yukon. Design and feature-wise they were getting very long in the tooth when compared with both domestic and foreign competition. All four were essentially 2000 models with annual upgrades.
Styling-wise, all get cleaner, more aerodynamic lines, more refined interiors, modest power improvements, plus better handling and braking. Serious effort is given to visually differentiating the Chevy and GMC models.
The Suburban/Yukon XL has a choice of two V8s, a 5.3L/320-hp version or a 6.0L/350-hp mill. They have four-speed automatics and rear- or selectable-AWD. Towing capacity is up to 9,700 pounds depending on configuration. ABS all around is standard, as is seating for nine.
The Tahoe/Yukon are two feet shorter, and have a base 5.3L/320-hp V8 as standard. Later, there'll be a 4.8L/290-hp V8 with cylinder deactivation for two-wheel drive Tahoe's. They're five inches longer than their predecessors, have ABS all around as standard and also seat nine.
The Tahoe/Yukon has been available since January, while the Suburban/Yukon XL arrives anytime now. New midsize Chevrolet TrailBlazer/GMC Envoy arrive next July as '08s, a year ahead of GM's original schedule.
"The Tahoe's styling, driving, handling and general performance make it the nicest full-size SUV we've ever had. It's really a world class vehicle, right down to the new wood-grained dash," said Duane Paddock of Paddock Chevrolet in Kenmore.
"Nationally, Tahoe sales are up over last year. Historically, Western New York doesn't do as high a volume in them as elsewhere, like Texas. Here, people seem to prefer more medium-sized vehicles. The TrailBlazer is doing just fine for us and the Equinox is our bread and butter vehicle," Paddock added.
- Chrysler: After years of living off the Dodge Durango as the corporation's only big SUV, Chrysler is bringing out its own full-size SUV for 2007, the Chrysler Aspen.
Chrysler calls it the "300 of the SUVs," a reference to its highly successful big sedan. It's targeting such big SUVs as GMC's Yukon Denali and Ford Expedition's Eddie Bauer variant.
The Aspen sits atop a Durango platform but styling is completely different, featuring Chrysler's traditional egg-crate grille, ribbed hood similar to the Crossfire, form-fitting taillights and chrome trim. The base engine is a 4.7L/235-hp V8, with the 5.7L/375-hp Hemi V8 as an option. There's a five-speed automatic and choice of rear or four-wheel drive. Seating is for eight and pricing starts about $33,000 It's coming soon..
Chrysler's Pacifica SUV/wagon cross gets a midlife freshening that includes a new headlight treatment, revised air intake, and a modest power boost that takes the current 3.5L/250-horse V6 to at least a 4.0-liter making 260-plus ponies, and a six-speed automatic. It's due by December.
- Dodge: The full-size Durango gets a facelift for '07 and may add a hybrid the company claims will reduce fuel consumption by 25 percent. But, the Durango gets a kid brother in the form of the Nitro, a midsize "cute ute" drawn off the Jeep Liberty platform. There's a familial resemblance to the Durango, beginning with a smaller crosshair grille.
Nitro comes with a 3.7L/210-hp V6, full-time 4WD, a special "load-n-slide" cargo floor and seating for five. Three drive trains are offered, a six-speed manual, four-speed automatic, or five-speed automatic if an upscale R/T model is selected. That comes with a 4.0L/255-hp V8. Size-wise, it's four inches longer than Liberty but 10 inches shorter than Chevy's Equinox.
Dodge has positioned the Nitro between the Durango and the Caliber, its sport hatchback replacement for the Neon. A traditional October launch is planned and pricing may be a teen surprise.
- Ford: The Number Two automaker unveils its new midsize crossover, the Edge, this fall. It's slightly smaller than the Freestyle, but sportier and is built on the Ford Fusion/Mazda6 platform.
Power comes from Ford's new 3.5L/250-hp all-aluminum V6 with a six-speed automatic and front- or all-wheel drive. (That engine is hybrid-capable, suggesting a green model may be in its future.)
"The Edge is positioned midway between the smaller Escape and the bigger Explorer, said Helta at West Herr. It's six inches longer than a target, the Nissan Murano. It starts about $27,000 and runs into the mid-$30s loaded. It debuts in September.
The Edge also gets two sisters, the new Mazda CX7 and a more luxurious version, the Lincoln MKX.
(The Edge also has a strong Buffalo connection, Helta pointed out. Ford's Buffalo Stamping Plant has been upgraded to produce many of its body parts, which will be shipped to nearby Oakville, Ontario, for final assembly.)
Ford's oh-my-gosh-big Expedition is reworked at midlife and a new six-speed automatic replaces the four-speed gearbox with the holdover 5.4L/300-hp V8. There's freshened exterior styling and a strengthened frame for a smoother ride. An EL model is added to replace the discontinued Excursion. It's 14 inches longer than the standard Expedition and has 24 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third seat.
"The extra length is good for larger families and those who need to carry lots of cargo," Helta observed.
The small Escape, its near-clone Mazda Tribute, and perhaps Mercury's Mariner, are up for redesign in '08. with a spring, 2007 debut. The Escape's redesign is reported to be strong, particularly out front, to match the Expedition. Larger headlights, a three-bar grille and freshened interior are on the docket.
- GMC: Differences between the Chevrolet and GMC models are little more than skin-deep and are covered under Chevrolet.
GMC is also getting a new midsize SUV that won't also be called a Chevrolet. Instead, it's the Acadia, and is paired with the forthcoming Buick Enclave and Saturn Outlook, except it's supposed to be more heavy duty than either.
The Acadia will have unibody construction like a car, a 3.6L/270-hp V6 with a six-speed automatic and will seat eight in three rows. "It will be slotted between the Yukon and Envoy, and be a little smaller than the Yukon. It should also be very fuel-efficient," Ball said.
- Honda: The midsize CR-V gets a strong re-working with an all-new platform shared with the rookie Acura RDX and Honda Civic. The 2.4-liter inline four engine is beefed up to about 200-horsepower. A hybrid is expected for 2008.
- Hummer: The H2 gets a midlife freshening, to include an unspecified bigger engine room.
- Hyundai: The South Korean manufacturer continues to add models, and will bring out the biggest Hyundai yet, the 2008 Mesa, early next year.
It fits above the '07 Santa Fe, already here and has a 113.6-inch wheelbase, a foot longer than the Honda Pilot and only three inches shorter than a Chevy Tahoe.
The Mesa gets the 3.8L/263-hp V6 from the Azera sedan, but may boost that to 280-hp. There'll be a four-speed automatic and on-demand 4WD. It seats nine.
A redesigned '07 Santa Fe has been around since spring and was upgraded from compact to midsize with the older four-cylinder engines replaced by 2.7L and 3.5L V6s turning 170 and 200-hp respectively. It has a more refined appearance and is part of a two-year, seven vehicle challenge to archrival Toyota.
- Infiniti: Nissan's luxury arm is planning a series of entry-level crossovers, starting in 2007 with the CX35 luxury vehicle. It would be positioned below the FX 35 and FX45 models and built on Nissan's front-mid-engine platform in the $30,000-$35,000 category, to compete with the BMW X3. A base CX25 will use a 2.4L inline four while the CX35 gets Nissan's 3.5L/280-hp V6.
- Isuzu: As the Chevy TrailBlazer/GMC Envoy goes, so goes the Isuzu Ascender. Beyond that, nothing.
- Jaguar: Still no Jag SUV.
- Jeep: DaimlerChrysler's third division takes dead aim at the car-based midsize crossover market with the introduction of two new Jeeps for 07, the Compass and Patriot. They share a platform with the Dodge Caliber and many variants won't carry Jeep's "trail-rated" badge, meaning they're more suited to the highway than dirt tracks.
The '07 Compass is Jeep's first front-wheel drive model and, like the Patriot, comes with a base 2.4L/172-hp four and is only slightly smaller than the Liberty, except for height, where it's six inches shorter. Three transmissions are offered-a five-speed manual, all-wheel drive, or continuously variable automatic. ABS, traction control and an electronic stability control system are standard. Looks are a cross between the Liberty up front and a Grand Cherokee in back.
The Patriot, a compact SUV with a more squared-off look than the Compass, shares its powertrain and transmission options but can be had with an off-road package that's trail-rated. It has more of a Liberty silhouette than the Compass, which has a somewhat rounded roofline. Both seat five and are expected later this year, with pricing in the upper teens for base models.
Jeep is giving the feisty Wrangler SUV convertible a much-needed redesign featuring a more militaristic styling, removable roof and door panels, a fold-down windshield and a bigger engine, the 3.8L/205-hp V6 from Chrysler minivans. A six-speed manual is standard, with an optional four-speed automatic. It's also five inches longer and will also come in a new four-door version, the Wrangler Unlimited. A fall debut is planned.
Jeep has dropped its Liberty diesel for '07 because it can't meet tougher new federal emissions standards and Chrysler decided it wasn't cost-effective to develop a newer version.
However, Jeep does plan to market a new Jeep Grand Cherokee diesel early in 2007. The 3.0L/215-hp common rail diesel is built by Mercedes-Benz in Europe and gets an estimated 19 miles city and 23 mpg on the highway. A comparable Jeep V8 has an overall mpg rate of 14 combined city and highway miles.
- Kia: The Sorento midsizer gets an updated design to more closely resemble the smaller Sportage, along with a reworked dash. The engine is upped to a 3.8L/262-hp V6 from a 192-horse 3.5L plant. A five-speed automatic is the only transmission. Towing capacity is boosted from 3,500 to 5,000 pounds, nearly the equal of a V6 Explorer.
- Land Rover: The Defender small SUV, missing for a decade, returns in the spring as an '08. Details are skimpy, but look for a rugged frame based on the LR3, with much aluminum bodywork. They'll be in short supply; production is capped at 25,000.
- Lexus: The JX470 luxury sport version of the full-size Toyota Sequoia is reportedly ticketed for '07. But, it was originally planned for this year. Stay tuned.
- Lincoln: The Aviator midsize is replaced by the MKX, which stands for "Mark 10." It's Lincoln's first crossover and shares its chassis with Ford's new Edge. It uses Ford's 3.5L/250-hp V6 with a six-speed automatic. Square gauges provide a Lincoln retro look, along with nickel and walnut trim. The MKX also features a LED taillight strip on the back and a glass roof.
The MXK targets the Lexus RX330 and Cadillac SRX. It goes on sale this fall and a stretched version is expected in a year.
Lincoln's Navigator has its front and rear fascias redone and the waterfall grille is gone in favor of a broad crosshatch design. Last year's 5.4L/300-hp V8 is a carry-over. Like its Ford Expedition cousin, the Navigator gets an extended length version.
- Mazda: The new midsize CX-9 comes this fall looking every bit like a stretched CX-7, which it is, to accommodate three-row seating. Built on a Mazda6 chassis, it's almost a foot longer than the Honda Pilot, a chief competitor. It seats seven instead of five.The Ford 3.5L/250-hp V6 is featured, along with a six-speed automatic. The CX-7 arrived last spring as an '07 comes with Mazda's 2.3L/244-hp turbo four engine.
Mazda's Tribute compact skips an '07 model and jumps right to 2008 next April with minor changes. Ford may give it a hybrid next year.
- Mercedes-Benz: New for '07 is the muscular midsize ML-63 to fit into the redesigned M-Class, already here. It has a 6.3L/510-hp V6 with a top speed of 155 mph and a seven-speed automatic that can be shifted manually via a button on the steering wheel. A special grille and fascia distinguishes it from other "M" models.
A new "X Class" small luxury SUV is in the works for '08 targeting BMW's X3.
- Mercury: Appears to be standing pat on SUVs.
- Mini: It doesn't have SUVs.
- Mitsubishi: Mitsu doesn't have much development money but the compact Outlander is redone on a new Lancer platform and comes late this year. Slightly longer and wider than the seven-seat Montero dropped this year, the Outlander has third row seating for seven, a fold-and-tumble second row bench, updated interior, a more powerful 2.4L/167-hp four, and a six-speed automatic. A 3.0L V6 of undisclosed power may follow for the U.S. market.
- Nissan: The normal pre-launch quiet reigns at Nissan. About all that's publicly known is that the large Armada is due for a midlife design change, a new midsize Pathfinder may be in the works for '07. A new compact crossover, Qashqai, is planned for 2008 and may appear next year. It's supposed to look like a downsized Murano and is an alternative to the compact Xterra.
- Pontiac: The Torrent, corporate twin to the Chevy Equinox, is new this year.
- Porsche: A redesign is coming next year for the luxury midsize Cayenne.
- Saab: This GM division had planned to introduce the 9-6X midsize "sport activity vehicle" off the Subaru B9 Tribeca, but it was cancelled after a falling-out with Subaru. Instead, the midsize luxury crossover won't arrive until 2008 and be built on the planned Cadillac BRX platform. The proposed name is 9-4X.
- Saturn: The new midsize Outlook is coming this winter. It has a wider track and longer wheelbase than the Toyota Highlander. The Outlook has front- or all-wheel drive, the same 3.6L/270-hp V6 as its GMC and Buick cousins, a six-speed automatic, and third-row seating, plus new under-the-floor storage cubbies. The Outlook may even be priced under $30,000.
The midsize Vue had a facelift this year and GM is letting its European Opel division design an '08 replacement. It's a year out but probably have a higher roofline than the current model.
- Scion: No utes here.
- Subaru: Freshened this year, the Forester awaits an '08 redesign.
- Suzuki: Suzuki brings the compact SX4 to market in September as one of the smallest SUVs around, with a sticker to match-somewhere in the mid-teens.
The SX4 is a couple inches shorter than the puddle-skipping Aerio car, and comes with a 2.0L/143-hp four, choice of a manual or automatic transmission with front or automatic AWD and a clean, two-tone design. The SX4 only weighs 2,900 pounds so acceleration should be nifty. It seats four.
The Extended XL-7 gets its second generation restyling to make it larger. It's built off the Chevrolet Equinox platform, but is eight inches longer to accommodate third row seating. There's a 3.6L/250-hp all-aluminum V6 engine-a big upgrade from the previous 185-hp mill. It has rear- or part-time 4WD and a five-speed automatic.
Although seating is nominally for seven, the third row is the children's section.
- Toyota: The '07 FJ Cruiser midsize 1960s off-roading throwback has been going great guns for Toyota all year. Redesigns are expected for the midsize Highlander and large Land Cruiser but details are lacking. The Highlander, however, is expected to get bigger, be built off the luxury Avalon sedan platform and receive a significant power boost, to about 280 horses, up from 215.
- Volkswagen: There's still talk of VW fielding a shortened, more affordable version of the Touareg, to be built on a Golf platform. It would be about the size of a Jeep Liberty, with the un-cute name of Marrakech.
- Volvo: This Ford division is planning a compact XC50 to be a cross between the current XC70 and XC90 models. Built on a Land Rover Freelander platform, it would be small, like the BMW X3, and have Volvo's basic in-line five-cylinder engine. A new 3.2L/235-hp straight six would go in high-end models. They're a year out.
The heavy XC90, Volvo's first SUV, gets a midlife upgrade that includes adding the 3.2L engine to replace the current 2.5L/208-hp turbo five.