A new market looms for the new hybrid SUV car

Most manufacturers were hoping to hit gold with the new car-SUV hybrid, and she couldn’t see herself driving a minivan. So Dr. Melissa Sundermann ended up with a type of vehicle that most automakers rely on for sales growth: a crossover. Built on the foundations of automobiles, but with many attributes of SUVs, crossover utility vehicles have seen explosive growth since Toyota Motor Corp. began the category with the RAV4 in 1995. In 1996, the first full year of sale of the RAV4 Toyota counted 56,709 of the small crossovers when it had the market to itself, according to data compiled by Ward’s Automotive Group. But sales rose rapidly as other automakers saw the growth potential, topping 2.4 million last year with more than 50 models on sale.


Now, with the 2008 car model year approaching, automakers hope to capture thousands of people like Sundermann who want more space for kids and their trash, and the variety of models and sales is almost certain to grow.

Last year, crossovers outsold truck-based SUVs for the first time, said George Pipas, Ford Motor Co.’s chief sales analyst. “Next year, the category will most likely outperform the mark. of the 3 million, except for a sharp drop in total volume, “said Pipas.

Sundermann, a doctor and mother of two in Ann Arbor, Michigan, felt that her old vehicle, a Volvo pickup, didn’t have enough space. “By driving the kids and carpooling, I just couldn’t fit enough kids in my car safely,” he said.

Sundermann, 37, started looking for big SUVs like the Ford Expedition and Chevrolet Tahoe, but he wanted something smaller with better gas mileage. He also needed three rows of seats and enough space in the back for groceries and other items.

When her husband suggested looking at the Saturn Outlook, a new crossover vehicle, he thought it was strange because his image of the company was that of one that made economy cars.

“With all the options, the price was right. We were impressed that the gas mileage was pretty decent for a larger car,” he said. “I can accommodate all my kids and their friends and all my things and still feel like I’m driving a luxury car.”

Crossovers, which range in size from smaller four-passenger vehicles to eight-seat vehicles, are key products for the Detroit Three as they try to regain market share lost primarily to Japanese competitors. Last month, Detroit’s share of the market fell below 50 percent for the first time in history.

Ford, General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC lost a total of $ 15 billion last year when shocked when high gas prices turned consumers away from pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles to cars and crossovers.

A 2008 Ford Expedition large SUV with two-wheel drive, for example, gets an estimated 12 miles per gallon in the city and 18 on the highway. Ford’s Taurus X crossover, built on a Volvo car platform with three rows of seats, gets 16 mpg in the city and 24 on the highway.

Because they are built on car platforms, crossovers are more maneuverable and ride smoother than truck-based SUVs, said Lonnie Miller, director of industry analysis for RL Polk & Co.

“It offers the best of both worlds. It is a good alternative to a minivan and, in many cases, as big as a gas-guzzling SUV,” he said. As crossovers have grown, minivan sales have fallen, about 22 percent from the first seven months of last year and 12 percent in 2006 compared to 2005. Ford and GM seeing little growth potential , they went out of business. But Chrysler, the inventor and leader of the minivan, sees growth and introduces a new version of its people carrier with a seat that swivels so that passengers can sit on either side of a table.

However, for Sundermann, a minivan didn’t feel right. “It would just define me,” he said. “I lead a sporty and adventurous lifestyle. I’m a mother and a doctor. But I wasn’t ready to drive a minivan,” said Sundermann, who competes in triathlons.

“Some people don’t want to be seen as a traditional suburban mom driving a minivan,” said Sarah Woolson, general sales manager for Saturn of Ann Arbor, the dealership that sold its black Outlook to Sundermann in April.

Crossover sales have increased about 15 percent so far this year. At Ford, where crossover sales are up 44 percent from last year due in large part to the Edge, Pipas believes they will continue to attract buyers of minivans, SUVs and other market segments.

Pipas predicted that in two more years, there will be between 70 and 80 different crossover models that buyers can choose from.

“This whole category has a long way to go,” he said.

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