CHICAGO -- Fashions come and go. But if this year's crop of fresh vehicle models is any indicator, big-boned, garage-challenged SUVs do not.
Last week's Chicago Auto Show was a reminder that the U.S. love affair with oversized light trucks never really went away and is now stirring with renewed interest.
Just before the show, Ford Motor Co. rolled out a redesigned Expedition, a product it hasn't bothered to redesign in 20 years. Lest anyone think the past decade of economic recession, green-consciousness and anti-fuel-guzzler mentality has made the Expedition meek, Ford made the new version even bigger, stretching the wheelbase by 3 inches and adding 4 inches to its length.
At the same time, Toyota Motor Corp. used Chicago to unveil a freshened full-size Sequoia, a behemoth Toyota introduced into the SUV mania of 2000 -- and then allowed to age with minimal updating through the recent era of electric vehicles, hybrids and small-car fascination.
The 2018 freshening is not dramatic. It gives the Sequoia a new front-end design, which includes a new grille and LED headlamps, and a few more contemporary touches. More significantly, Toyota has modernized the old SUV's interior with a new instrument panel and information display, and introduced lane-departure alert, adaptive cruise control and Toyota's pedestrian detection technology.
And just to drive home the point that Toyota has no intention of hiding its oversized SUV in the shadows any longer, the automaker also introduced a TRD Sport package for the Sequoia. The TRD badge -- for Toyota Racing Development -- raises the Sequoia's profile even more, adding 20-inch black wheels, Bilstein performance shocks and performance axle treatments.
The net effect of the TRD enhancements? It makes the Sequoia look even bigger.
Bill Fay, general manager of Toyota Division, says Toyota remains committed to its larger vehicles because they compete successfully on quality, durability, reliability and now on safety as well.
While acknowledging the growth in smaller trucks and SUVs of recent years, Fay said the big trucks remain a stable segment.
"It's still a very sizable part of the industry," he said during the show. Although the Sequoia sells at only about 1,000 units a month, "it's good business for us, it's good business for the dealers. Those are good, family buyers, many of whom are new to the brand."
The large SUV segment grew 15 percent last year -- compared with a flat performance for the industry as a whole. Several products in the large SUV segment grew by double digits last year. Sales of the Chevrolet Tahoe rose 17 percent and those of the Suburban climbed 18 percent. Deliveries of the GMC Yukon increased 25 percent and those of the Ford Expedition rose 44 percent -- even before its redesign.
"This is the fastest growing part of the automotive business," said Joe Hinrichs, Ford's president of the Americas, when asked why now was a good time to invest in the Expedition. "We have very loyal customers in this segment. It's a natural connection to our F-series business and our fleet business, which we're very strong at."
But the world has clearly changed since the SUV party days of the 2000s. Vehicles have strived for weight losses to meet tougher federal fuel-economy targets. New technologies have made engines more efficient and -- regardless of low gasoline prices -- U.S. consumers have come to expect fuel economy results better than the 10- to 15-mpg scores of full-size light trucks of a dozen years ago.
The Expedition redesign demonstrates that, while things might look like they used to on the outside, they are different underneath to keep up with the changed world.
Gone is the thirsty 5.4-liter Triton V-8 engine of its past. The new Expedition will launch on only a 3.5-liter twin-turbo EcoBoost V-6 with a 10-speed automatic. And as it did with the F-150 pickup, Ford has remade the Expedition with an aluminum body, a move that cut nearly 300 pounds. But according to Ford, it "reinvested that weight savings" to add more than 40 new features to the vehicle.
The automaker said it will reveal the big SUV's mpg ratings closer to its launch this fall.
Laurence Iliff and Michael Martinez contributed to this report.