NEW YORK - Whether classic or futuristic, the cars at the New York International Auto Show are nothing if not flashy. As automakers unveiled the latest models to get consumers revved up, the theme this year seemed to be "go big or go home," but more specifically, go with an SUV.
Automakers across the board offered new SUVs and crossovers, reinforcing the sector's popularity among consumers. Technological developments have increased the fuel efficiency of these vehicles, abolishing the image of SUVs as gas guzzlers.
The Lincoln Motor Co. nearly stole the show with its large SUV concept car, the Navigator. American actor and company spokesman Matthew McConaughey even made an in-person appearance alongside Lincoln President Kumar Galhotra, who described the current market for SUVs as "red hot."
"The segment of large premium SUVs is very strong. It’s about 170,000 units here and globally it’s much bigger. The markets that are important to us are North America and China and the Middle East. So we paid a lot of attention to those customers and their needs," said Galhotra. "These are customers who need a lot of space to move their friends and family and cargo. And this is a customer that also needs a lot of capability."
As a concept car, it’s not likely the Navigator – with its grand gullwing doors and concertina steps – will make it to your local dealership. The vehicle’s luxury sensibility, however, eventually will trickle down to production models. Lincoln executives hope the stylish elements will differentiate the brand in the increasingly popular SUV segment.
"Consumers like to ride in SUVs. They like the little extra bit of height that they get. They like that that package feels more utilitarian," said IHS Automotive senior analyst Stephanie Brinley.
"That interest has been there and what we’re seeing is automakers are meeting that demand," Brinley added.
One of those automakers is Cadillac, which showcased the hard-to-miss XT5. With its bold style, the XT5 is for drivers who want to stand out.
"There are people who want a distinctive car, something that is a face in the crowd, that stands out more," said Uwe Ellinghause, Cadillac chief marketing officer. "This remains one of our major differentiators."
But, looks aside, will SUVs still cost you at the gas pump? No, as it turns out.
"Due to lightweight technologies, the weight of these SUVs is no longer so different to a sedan as it was in the past," said Ellinghause. That decrease in weight translates to better mileage in the long run.
"The delta between a sedan and a comparable SUV for fuel economy is one or two miles to the gallon. It’s not that strong. So even if gas prices do come up again, it’s still a manageable penalty," said Brinley.
That penalty becomes even more manageable when you factor in electric hybrid technology, like that of the Volvo XC90.
Lex Kerssemakers, president and CEO of Volvo Cars of North America, pointed out how the company’s XC90 SUV was one of the most fuel-efficient of the category.
"Volvo has elected to go for very fuel-efficient, four-cylinder turbo engines combined with electrification. We offer plug-in hybrid technology, which gives 53 mpg in a big car like the XC90," said Kerssemakers.
Over at Buick, where SUVs comprise nearly 60 percent of sales, the Buick Encore is the market leader in the small SUV segment.
Rob Peterson, marketing manager of Buick crossovers, noted that bigger isn't always better when it comes to SUVs.
"It’s tough to find parking spots when you have a larger SUV," he said. "The Encore has dimensions which work great for parking spots."
Peterson explained the consumer demand for SUVs. "Much of the move toward SUVS has been driven by the increased capability of SUVs, but in addition, the driving performance, which tends to be much more like a sedan. So people are getting sedan-like performance with [the] drive position of an SUV and the functionality of an SUV as well, and I think that’s moving the industry [and] a lot of customers to these segments.”
Whether they go for a small, large or crossover SUV, this year U.S. consumers will have plenty to choose from.