Demand for mid-sized SUVs has collapsed like a pricked balloon.
For a variety of reasons -- chiefly the SUVs' high prices, poor fuel economy and relatively harsh ride and handling -- consumers are switching to crossovers.
In the first six months of the year, U.S. sales of four of the best-selling nameplates in the mid-sized SUV segment -- the Ford Explorer, Chevrolet TrailBlazer, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango -- are down 20 to 30 percent.
To be sure, sales of the Nissan Pathfinder have held steady, and sales of the Toyota 4Runner are up a bit. But for the first six months of the year, sales for the entire segment are down 14.1 percent, according to the Automotive News Data Center.
It's rare to see a product segment collapse so quickly, especially one that was solidly profitable just a few years ago.
General Motors has responded by canceling plans to redesign the TrailBlazer in 2009. Instead, GM will roll out more crossover vehicles. The automaker has recognized that the mid-sized SUV segment is showing no signs of recovery.
But not all players are bailing out. Cisco Codina, Ford Motor Co.'s U.S. sales chief, says the company is "pretty bullish about continuing to have an Explorer as it exists today." If GM kills the TrailBlazer, he says, "We'll be happy to sell to Chevy owners."
Despite the Explorer's declining sales, Codina says, Ford has a large group of Explorer owners who appreciate the vehicle's utility. The Explorer is the best-selling vehicle in the mid-sized SUV segment, he says.
Ford will entice crossover buyers with vehicles such as the Edge, which debuts late this year. But Ford will hang on to its truck-based SUVs.
"Ford has really defined that segment for a long time," Codina says. "I would say it's hard to envision 2012, so for the time being, we need to have the Explorer."
Likewise, Toyota is sticking with the 4Runner, which is built on a pickup platform. Through June, U.S. sales of the 4Runner are up 5.4 percent. And because Toyota sells that vehicle worldwide, it does not rely on any one region to prop up 4Runner sales.
"Toyota doesn't do many dedicated vehicles for many markets," says Jim Hall, vice president of industry analysis at AutoPacific Inc. in Southfield, Mich. "They try to be as flexible as possible. That's Toyota's strength."