The SUV is dead — long live the SUV

Image: The new 2010 GMC Terrain
The GMC Terrain compact SUV, show in New York this week, boasts a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine equipped with fuel-saving direct fuel injection and a six-speed automatic transmission to achieve 30 MPG.Steve Fecht / Gm / EPA

The smart set here in New York has long declared the SUV dead.

That gas-guzzling, pollutant-spewing darling of suburban and rural America is a passé relic of a bygone era, according to the book editors, fashion photographers, literary critics, Broadway choreographers and other practitioners of the bedrock industries that built this country.

They’d better stay away from the New York auto show this week because there they will see car manufacturers showing off their latest off-road contenders, and the majority of the new models unveiled at the show’s press preview earlier this week were SUVs or crossovers. Why? Because while these vehicles may have been declared dead in Manhattan, the residents of the Fly-Over states have kept buying them (to the extent that anyone is buying anything more than food and water these days).

“While the perception coming from the mainstream media is that there is a hatred of SUVs, the numbers don’t show that,” observed Rebecca Lindland, director of auto industry research for IHS Global Insight. “Consumers want a mixture of utility, fuel economy, safety and practicality.”

Included in the array of new car announcements were the Mercedes-Benz ML450, Jeep Grand Cherokee, a revised line of Land Rovers, GMC Terrain, GMC Yukon Denali Hybrid, high-performance “M” version of the BMW X6, Mitsubishi Outlander, Subaru Outback, Mazda CX-7 and Mazda CX-9.

These larger vehicles remain popular. reports that 11 of the top 20 vehicles consumers researched on the company’s web site in March were trucks or SUVs.

“In spite of government and advocacy groups touting the benefits of smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles, Americans seem to have an insatiable feeling that bigger is better,” the company said in a recent press release.

Recognizing this desire, car makers unveiled a raft of fresh 4x4s at the New York show this week, a venue where Ford once omitted the gargantuan Excursion SUV from its display to avoid antagonizing the city’s anti-SUV advocates and editorialists.

Consumers are pragmatic, and they still want the capability of the SUVs they enjoyed in the past, but they also want better gas mileage and a more comfortable ride. A good example of new technology wrapped up in a familiar package is the new Jeep Grand Cherokee, noted Lindland of IHS Global Insight.

The new Jeep features significant upgrades to its construction thanks to sharing much of its underpinning hardware with the Mercedes ML-Class SUVs. But in addition to a new variable-height air suspension system and a programmable four-wheel-drive system that can be optimized for different conditions, is an all-new V-6 engine that provides an 11 percent improvement in fuel efficiency and a 33 percent increase in horsepower.

Similarly, the new GMC Terrain compact SUV, show in New York this week, boasts a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine equipped with fuel-saving direct fuel injection and a six-speed automatic transmission to achieve 30 MPG on the EPA’s highway fuel economy test.

Land Rovers are known for their ability to conquer the grasslands of the African savanna, but the company is also striving to tout their ability to defeat a gas station.

Updates to the company’s signature off-roaders make their engines more efficient, according to Phil Hodgkins, director of product development for Land Rover. Here again, direct fuel injection is employed, though there are no EPA test numbers yet available for the 2010 Land Rover models to quantify the improvement. Land Rover also confirmed production plans for a compact SUV model similar to the LRX concept car it has shown previously.

For improving the efficiency of SUVs, even more effective than the direct fuel injection is adding hybrid electric power. GMC has added the Yukon Denali flagship model to models offering the company’s two-mode hybrid system, which was developed in partnership with Mercedes-Benz, Chrysler and BMW.

While General Motors already offers its two-mode hybrid in many of its full-size pickup and SUV models, the technology makes its debut in Mercedes models with the ML450 hybrid. This V6 hybrid powertrain produces 88 percent of the horsepower of the company’s V8 model, while consuming 47 percent less fuel, boasts Ernst Lieb, president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA.

(EPA fuel economy ratings are expected to be 24 MPG on the highway and 21 MPG in the city for the spacious SUV.)

A quick test drive in Manhattan showed the ML 450 hybrid is smooth and easy to drive in traffic, with well-calibrated regenerative braking. Charging the batteries while stopping can sometimes make braking jerky, which can be especially intrusive in stop-and-go city traffic, but my brief test drive confirmed that the Mercedes engineers have gone the extra mile to make their hybrid system work seamlessly.

With a higher roof and increased ground clearance, Subaru’s new Outback moves closer to the SUV end of the spectrum. But the base 2.5-liter engine also enjoys boosted fuel economy courtesy of improved cylinder head cooling. Subaru engineers also whittled weight and friction from the Outback’s five-speed automatic transmission, and they have added an available six-speed manual gearbox for improved fuel economy.

The mid-size crossover SUV market has become the key family car battleground for manufacturers, so Mazda showed updated versions of its contenders in this segment in New York to keep them competitive.

The new CX-7 two-row and CX-9 three-row SUVs have received new sheetmetal to keep them looking current, and, naturally, their fuel economy has improved. The CX-7 was previously offered only with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, but for 2010 will be available with a frugal normally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder that is expected to achieve 28 MPG on the highway and 21 MPG in the city on the EPA test.

A couple high-performance crossovers also debuted in New York, in the form of the Mitsubishi Outlander GT concept and the BMW X6 M.

The decline of the overall U.S. car market still makes it tough to introduce new models, even if consumers do still want SUVs, acknowledged Ludwig Willisch, president of BMW’s M division, which builds high-performance variants of the company’s cars and SUVs.

There were probably better times to launch a car like the X6 M, he acknowledged, but consumers are excited by the availability of new models in the segment, both in the U.S. and abroad. BMW has received requests from some countries for higher production rates this year, he added.

If hopeful forecasts for a recovery in the second half of 2009 prove true, BMW could be taking orders for more SUVs from other parts of the United States too, but it’s a safe bet that very few of them will be from the book editors and fashion photographers of New York.