Is the midsize SUV dying?

Dying Mid Size SUVs
At $4 per gallon, a motorist can pay $90 to fill up a Ford Explorer.Paul Sancya / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Even in northern Wisconsin, where midsize sport utility vehicles are as common as deer, people are starting to abandon them because of high gasoline prices.

It's one of the last places to back away from the class of SUVs, which includes the once-popular Ford Explorer and Chevrolet TrailBlazer. Some industry analysts are already declaring the midsize SUV extinct.

"They're dinosaurs. Put a fork in them," Erich Merkle, vice president of auto industry forecasting for the consulting company IRN Inc. in Grand Rapids, Mich., said in an interview.

It's no secret that drivers are flocking to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars as the cost of gas marches higher. And midsize SUVs are built on the same frames as trucks, which add extra weight and drink more fuel.

So drivers who want a bigger ride are opting for newer crossover vehicles — such as the Ford Edge or Buick Enclave — that look and perform like SUVs but are lighter because they're built on the same underpinnings as cars.

They're not well-equipped to go off-road, but analysts say few people were using that feature, anyway.

The move away from midsize SUVs is painfully clear to Tonie Mixer of De Pere, Wis., who has been trying for a month to sell her cream-colored 2007 Explorer, which features heated leather seats and a power moon roof.

So far, the only inquires have been from brokers wanting to help with the sale.

"It's the perfect car," she said. "But it just uses the gas because we got the big engine in it."

$90 to fill 'er up
It uses the cash, too. At $4 per gallon, it costs $90 to fill the 22 1/2-gallon tank of a 2007 Explorer. A four-wheel-drive model with a powerful 4.6-liter V8 engine gets just 13 miles per gallon in the city and 18 on the highway.

Mixer has hers on the market, asking $27,995.

"We originally got it to pull our camper, but we're not going to be doing much of that any more," she said.

Midsize SUV sales were down 24 percent for the first five months of this year from the same period in 2007. The decline for May was an especially steep 38 percent, according to Autodata Corp.

People bought about 445,000 Explorers in 2000, at the height of the SUV market, but last year Ford only sold about one-third of that number. And 2008 looks even worse.

For large SUVs, such as the Chevrolet Suburban and for Ford Expedition, sales declines have also been huge. But automakers are betting they will survive — in smaller numbers — because of large families that need the space and people who tow boats and campers.

Ford won't say if the Explorer is headed for the scrap yard, but at the Detroit auto show earlier this year, the company showed off a version built on car underpinnings that it plans to roll out later.

General Motors Corp. and Chrysler won't concede the deaths of their midsize SUVs, either. But GM announced earlier this month it would close an Ohio factory that its the only maker of its TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy models.

Chrysler already had plans to close the plant that makes the Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen.

Once ubiquitous large and midsize SUVs have become symbols of Americans' overuse of oil, said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor who studies pop culture.

Now, many people who bought SUVs when they were trendy are embarrassed by them, he said.

"There are a lot of perfectly normal families who were driving their kids around in these things who now feel the need to show up in your driveway to apologize," he said.

Jack Nerad, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book, says he sees the shift in California, where the image of driving to the wide-open spaces was popular.

"The auto industry moves through cycles and moves on," he said. "I think we've probably moved beyond that outdoor imagery."

Byproduct of bad economy?
But make no mistake, Thompson says — it's mostly about expensive gas.

"The reason that cultural stuff is becoming so powerful is that everybody's consciousness has been raised by the economic issue," Thompson says.

GM and Chrysler have been trying to fight the gas-guzzling image of SUVs with a sophisticated gas-electric hybrid that pushes gas mileage in a large SUV to 21 in the city and 22 on the highway.

Still, the shift from trucks to cars this year was so rapid that Ford and GM executives view it as permanent. Both GM and Ford recently announced huge production cuts and plans to crank out more cars even as U.S. automakers, and even Toyota Motor Corp., continue to see their sales drop.

The shift certainly will cause more red ink in Detroit, where automakers historically have relied on big-ticket trucks for the bulk of their profits.

Nerad says the Detroit Three recognized the shift and have more fuel-efficient models in the works, but they saw it coming in years, not months. The change, he said, was the most rapid he has seen in his 30 years in the industry.

None of this is much help to Mixer, though, who bought her Explorer in March of last year. Gasoline was still around $2.50 per gallon.

"We didn't see this coming at all," she said. "I didn't realize it was ever going to get this bad."