A former star of the show shines again -- on the sales chart

The SUV, a star of past North American International Auto Shows, is getting second billing at the 2012 edition.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Grand Cherokee's glass-shattering debut at the Detroit auto show.

Barring any last-minute surprises, just two SUVs -- Nissan's Pathfinder concept and Maserati Kubang -- will be trumpeted in one way or another this week.

But in a year we were all supposed to hanker for the Volt or Leaf, or something small or used, it was SUVs that proved a sensation on the U.S. sales chart -- handily outperforming the overall market.

Some of the biggest gains of 2011 came from truck-only and SUV-heavy brands: Jeep, up 44 percent; Land Rover, up 20 percent; and GMC, up 19 percent.

Mid-sized SUV sales soared 48 percent last year, according to Autodata. The Jeep Grand Cherokee; up 51%; Ford Explorer, up 124%; Jeep Liberty, up 35%; and Honda Pilot, up 14%; accounted for the bulk of mid-sized SUV sales last year.

Four SUVs -- Explorer, Grand Cherokee, Jeep Wrangler and Pilot -- each produced volume that topped 100,000 units last year. The Explorer cracked the list of 10 best-selling light trucks last year and the Grand Cherokee just missed it.

Ford's Explorer America concept debuted at the 2008 North America International Auto Show. Photo credit: FORD

Truck-based SUVs were largely abandoned just a few years ago by product planners as gas prices spiked and more Americans discovered crossovers. GM dropped an entire line of mid-sized SUVs in favor of car-based crossovers. Dodge put the Dakota-based Durango on hiatus and Jeep killed the Commander. Sales of the Explorer and Grand Cherokee -- once among the industry's top sellers -- tanked.

Profits tumbled, too, once the SUV party crashed.

In a highly fragmented market the SUV has reemerged as a niche vehicle. Porsche, Audi and VW have enjoyed volume growth after marketing SUVs for the first time. Maserati and Bentley plan to join the party.

The Maserati Kubang concept.

What gives with the SUV renaissance?

Americans still like to ride high and be in command of the road. And we've probably adjusted to gasoline prices that will never drop below $3 a gallon again.

The Wall Street Journal recently summed it up this way: Americans' preference for trucks and SUVs may have been suppressed during the downturn, but it never really vanished.

It helps that the latest SUVs are less truck and more car, with better fuel economy.

And a rising tide -- industry sales are rebounding -- lifts all boats.

But who would have guessed in a jittery year when gas prices flirted with $4 a gallon, the Arab world erupted and the White House set aggressive new fuel economy targets out to 2025 -- a legitimate threat to the Suburban and others –- that the SUV would stage a comeback and pad a few corporate coffers at the same time?

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