Big SUVs rumble along as GM shows new models

General Motors, which sells the most truck-based SUVs, unveiled the 2015 GMC Yukon Thursday. The vehicle will have redesigned engines, transmissions, and suspensions.
General Motors via ap
General Motors, which sells the most truck-based SUVs, unveiled the 2015 GMC Yukon Thursday. The vehicle will have redesigned engines, transmissions, and suspensions.

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 unveiled 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,’’ said Ed Williamson, part-owner of two GMC and Cadillac dealerships near Miami, where people often use the V-8-powered SUVs to tow boats.

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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 US market for the truck-based SUVs, and GM controls more than 70 percent of it.

Americans bought about 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 miles per gallon in city and highway driving, those SUVs find themselves next to a gas pump more often than other vehicles.

GM executives aren’t sure if this generation of SUVs will be its last. Government pollution limits and stricter fuel-economy rules in the future could force the company’s hand.

The giant SUVs became the rage in the late 1990s. Gas mileage was of little concern with fuel at just over $1 per gallon.


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 auto website

As the Great Recession arrived, the truck-based vehicles drew scorn from environmentalists who viewed them as icons of excess. Gas topped $4 nationwide in the summer of 2008. Hummer, the poster child for gas-guzzling waste, went out of business. By 2009, large SUV sales had plummeted to 228,000.

Sales of big SUVs hit 237,000 last year, up 4.5 percent from the 2009 trough but still only a quarter of what they were in the boom years.

For GM, the business case for updating the SUVs makes sense. They sell to high-income households for an average of $47,000 each, about $20,000 above last year’s average price of a new vehicle in the United States. Analysts say GM makes at least $10,000 per SUV.


GM had already designed new engines, transmissions, and suspensions for its full-size pickup trucks. Those will be used in the SUVs. All it took was a minimal amount of engineering to make the SUV bodies a little sleeker, update the interiors, and add third-row seats that fold into the floor.

GM says the new models will be more efficient, although actual mileage won’t be announced until a later date.