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.