In the year 2001, for the first time ever, light trucks outsold cars in the United States. The margin was small, but the trend is unmistakable. The term "light trucks" includes pickup trucks, minivans and sport utility vehicles.
We spent a week recently with the Mercedes-Benz ML-500. In evaluating the vehicle, two things stood out: poor fuel economy (19 kilometers per U.S. gallon) and the $52,000 price tag. Well, three things: it did handle a little more precisely than most SUVs.
There are so many sport utility vehicles on the U.S. market now that they tend to all blend into each other. They all share general characteristics: tall, boxy styling, some form of all-wheel-drive, and usually greater ground clearance and higher driving position than most sedans. And, they all seem to attract lots of American buyers.
At last count, there were 54 different SUVs being marketed in North America, ranging from small to huge, inexpensive to outrageous. By one industry estimate, that number will increase to around 75 models in the next several years.
The best-selling luxury vehicle in the United States is the Lexus RX-300, a sport ute. One of the main reasons Germany's BMW has become the second-best-selling luxury line in America is the popularity of its X-5, a sport ute.
Toyota offers five different SUVs here. Honda is adding a third, the Pilot. Saturn, General Motors' so-called small-car line, is introducing the Vue, an SUV with Saturn's customary plastic body panels.
It's easier to make a list of who does not market a sport utility vehicle in America than who does. Britain's Jaguar continues to hold out. Porsche and Volkswagen have no SUV, yet. But they're working on it. Porsche's, called the Cayenne, will debut next year. What's next - Rolls-Royce?
Environmentalists and others rage at sport utilities. They use too much fuel, too much space, too many resources…they're too big and intimidating on the road. Auto enthusiasts don't like them for their unwieldy handling and truck-like ride. And yet, they sell.
Where does it all end? As far as we can tell, it does not. The United States is, as you know, a free market economy. So long as SUVs can produce a profit, and in most cases, it's a big one, auto manufacturers will produce them. When they stop selling, automakers will stop making them and turn to something else. If we're not mistaken, it's called the law of supply and demand.