The SUV name game
Frames fade away, but automakers are loath to call them 'crossovers'
Next time a TV spot for an SUV comes on, watch closely. You'll notice that it's pretty much the same as SUV commercials of a decade ago.
Images of a vehicle splashing through a creek? Check. Images of mud splattering the body panels? Check. A forest setting, some boulders, some rocks? Check, check and check.
This is what SUVs are all about and always have been about.
But in 2012, things have changed. Fewer vehicles are technically SUVs -- a designation for cabin vehicles built on truck frames. Instead, they are more than likely crossovers, built on a more refined unibody architecture. But automakers aren't trumpeting the change in their marketing.
"Most people have no clue what's underneath their car," says Ralph Gilles, Chrysler Group's senior vice president of product design. "They just want it to be comfortable. They want it to be the best fuel economy they can get. They want affordability, and they want it to ride well. It's up to us to decide what technology will deliver all that."
The tricky part is telling that to consumers. Or rather -- not telling them.
U.S. consumers may think they want a vehicle that crawls through mud and rocks. But the industry has concluded that what most of them really want is a quiet ride, comfortable rear seating and decent fuel economy.
So automakers are tiptoeing through a new reality. They continue to market the toned-down vehicles as SUVs because ruggedness is at the heart of the segment's mystique.
"People want this image vehicle that has -- in their minds -- off-road capability," says Dave Mazur, Nissan North America's vice president of market intelligence, in charge of market and consumer research. "But all they really mean by 'off-road' is the ability to drive out onto a muddy soccer field, or to drive over the ridge of snow made in the parking lot by the snowplow.
"People thought they went off-road," Mazur says. "The vast majority of SUV owners are not mudders."
One by one, popular SUVs have forsaken brawn by slipping from truck architecture to unibody car chassis.
Nissan will join the trend this year when it brings a redesigned mid-sized Pathfinder to showrooms, becoming the latest exile from the rough-and-tumble truck-based tradition. Nissan says the new Pathfinder will be roomier and offer three rows of seats, a quieter ride and 25 percent better fuel economy.
Last year it was the Ford Explorer. The Dodge Durango changed before that, and the Mercedes-Benz M-class changed a few years earlier.
But like its competitors, Nissan has no intention of discontinuing the SUV designation. Even though consumers clearly want smoother riding vehicles with improved fuel economy, they are still drawn to the imagery of mountains, remote cabins and snow-clogged back roads.
"We have a long heritage with the Pathfinder," says Jon Brancheau, Nissan's vice president of marketing, who will be responsible for crafting a new image for the reconstructed vehicle this year. "People have associated the vehicle with an active SUV lifestyle for a long time. We don't have any desire to give that identity up."
It is a tricky transition.
Chrysler’s Gilles: Few people care about “what’s underneath.”
SUVs under pressure
Fuel-price concerns and the social sting of driving a behemoth utility vehicle have taken some of the charm from the SUV segment. The crash of 2008 made automakers rethink their lineups and search for lighter cars and smaller vehicles. And now proposed federal rules that would require the industry to hit an average fuel economy of 54.5 mpg by the 2025 model year are driving more change in the SUV segment.
A unibody chassis allows for better fuel economy. A decade ago, the most fuel-efficient version of the truck-based Dodge Durango offered 15 mpg combined city/highway driving. In its remade unibody form, the Durango gets 19 combined, including 23 mpg for highway driving.
A unibody chassis also opens the door to using hybrid powertrains, should the market so dictate. Shoehorning the battery module into a truck frame would make interior space more cramped.
Those reasons, plus consumer taste, have spurred a proliferation of crossovers. "Crossover" has become the widely accepted descriptive banner over almost everything that sits higher than a car but is not a pickup, minivan or based on a pickup frame architecture.
But there are crossovers and then there are crossovers. The Ford Escape is a crossover. The wagonesque Toyota Venza is a crossover. The sleek Mercedes R class, the Acura RDX "Urban Achiever" and the zippy Nissan Juke are crossovers.
The trend toward more SUV-like crossovers is something different. It is a repositioning of popular vehicles to be more refined, but still hold tight to the woodsy demeanor that made their reputation.
Ford continues to market its redesigned Explorer as an SUV rather than a crossover. Advertising for the Grand Cherokee emphasize its ability to take on the elements -- regardless of whether anyone ever will.
"There are many vehicles that claim to be just as capable off-road as the Jeep Grand Cherokee," a TV spot for the Grand Cherokee taunted last year as the vehicle splashed in slow motion through a mountain creek. "But without triple-seal doors, a raised air-intake system or even a watertight drivetrain, just how far off road are they talking about?"
How much towing?
Ironically, the segment-roiling Grand Cherokee has never been built on a truck frame since it debuted in 1993 as a unibody vehicle -- what critics back in the heyday of SUVs dismissed as a station wagon on steroids.
Towing capacity is another tender issue in marketing the new generation of SUV nameplates. Traditional SUV buyers were convinced that they needed towing muscle. That could only come from the pack-mule strength of a pickup frame.
But automakers say the reality is quite different.
"We've learned that people really don't tow," Nissan's Mazur says. "That was a bit of an education in the industry. Most of the people who do tow tow less than 5,000 pounds. Those who tow 7,000 pounds or more -- their trailer, their camper, their horse trailer -- are going to buy a bigger vehicle anyway."
It is the difference between towing a personal watercraft vs. hauling a large boat. And it explains why the entire SUV market is not evolving into unibody platforms. Big rugged frame-based SUVs still satisfy some consumers.
Cadillac recently hushed rumors that it was contemplating moving its Escalade off body-on-frame truck architecture to embrace the unibody concept. That won't happen.
Instead, Cadillac next year will shore up the Escalade's design and improve its trucky underpinnings for the next generation. Then Cadillac will add what it calls a new SUV. That model will be built on the Lambda unibody architecture, in common with General Motors' other big crossovers, such as the Buick Enclave and GMC Acadia.
In other words, Cadillac will split its SUV market in two -- a big and brawny SUV on one side, with 7,600 pounds of towing capacity; and a more refined and comfortable SUV-like crossover on the other.
QX56 keeps trucking
Product planners at Infiniti are one step ahead on this strategy. The luxury brand surprised audiences in March 2010 when it unveiled the redesigned 2011 QX56 SUV.
Amid the industrywide shift to unibodies, Infiniti balked. It modernized the big QX but kept it on truck rails, with a tip of the hat to customers who wanted its 8,500-pound towing capacity.
Instead, Infiniti this month launched production in Smyrna, Tenn., of a new unibody vehicle called the JX. It is designed on an architecture it will share with the upcoming redesigned Pathfinder.
Like Cadillac, Infiniti will offer a choice: a rugged boat-hauling truck-based SUV and a roomier and not-as-tough "SUV" that is built like a car.
Muses Chrysler designer Gilles: "There are some things that a truck design can do very well. But most of what an SUV customer really wants now, we can do it best with a unibody design."
You can reach Lindsay Chappell at email@example.com.