STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich. - The big SUV rolls on.
Five years ago, when gas hit $4 per gallon, auto industry analysts boldly predicted that enormous SUVs would vanish like the automobile tail fin.
On Thursday, General Motors is unveiling a completely redesigned lineup of its truck-based SUVs, three-ton behemoths that are still popular with drivers hauling around boats, campers and large families, or who like to sit high or feel safer in a heavy vehicle. The 2015 Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban, GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade will hit showrooms in either late winter or early spring.
``There are some people, especially in our market, who want a product in that segment,'' says Ed Williamson, part-owner of two GMC and Cadillac dealerships near Miami, where people often use the V8-powered SUVs to tow boats to the ocean.
In recent years, buyers have flocked to crossovers, which are car-based sport utilities that are easier to drive, carry just as many people and get better gas mileage. Yet there's still a lucrative U.S. market for the truck-based SUVs, and GM controls more than 70 percent of it.
Americans bought more than 132,000 big SUVs from GM from January through August, compared with around 114,000 in the same period a year ago, even though the sticker price can top $50,000 and a fill-up can cost close to $100. With gas mileage around 17 mpg in city and highway driving, those fill-ups come more often than with many other vehicles.
GM executives aren't sure if this generation of SUVs will be its last. Government pollution limits and stricter fuel-economy requirements in the future could force the company's hand.
ENTHRALLED WITH TRUCKS
The giant SUVs became the rage in the late 1990s. Gas mileage was of little concern with fuel at just over $1 per gallon.
Nissan and Toyota joined the market with the Armada and Sequoia SUVs, trying to take a piece of Detroit's action. By 2001, big SUV sales hit a record of just over 917,000, according to Ward's Automotive. The SUVs accounted for about 5 percent of all car sales that year, driven mostly by people who weren't going off-road or towing something.
``We were really in sort of a truck craze at that time,'' said Bill Visnic, senior analyst with the Edmunds.com auto website.
Sales were fairly stable until 2005, when gas spiked over $3 per gallon as hurricanes pounded Gulf Coast refineries. About the same time, companies figured out ways to put big people-haulers on car underpinnings. The new vehicles became quick hits.