#CarNews: At Detroit auto show, trucks and SUVs take center stage

Car makers appealed to Americans’ deep love of SUVs and trucks on Monday at the Detroit Auto Show, unveiling a host of choices from luxurious to utilitarian, while also beefing up the humble sedan.

From European car makers to American icons, there were dozens of new offerings for the North American market. While sedans and electric cars were still in the game, the industry clearly favored the large SUVs and trucks that are the source of high profit margins and preferred by US consumers two to one.

To meet Americans’ changing buying habits and preferences, newly offered trucks and SUVs were more luxurious and family-friendly, stuffed with more technology and premium materials, while lower-cost, paired down versions of the same models were also offered for the budget conscious.

In some cases, manufacturers tweaked vehicles to make them slightly roomier and taller than those of the prior generation, in response to consumers who enjoy a greater sense of command over the road.

“Pickup trucks are not just work trucks at all anymore. They are much more seen as family cars,” said industry analyst Rebecca Lindland of Kelley Blue Book.

Analysts said 2018 would be the year of trucks and SUVs, which have been making a dramatic comeback the last several years after a precipitous decline during the Great Recession starting in 2008.

“I think they embody a set of values that are reflective of American culture,” Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said. “The chances of pickup trucks playing a significant role in Europe is between zero and nothing.”

With gas prices still affordable, the economy booming, and unemployment low, US consumers are preferring higher-priced, amenity-laden, large vehicles compared to more modest family sedans and small compacts.

The auto show’s best truck award this year went to the enormous Lincoln Navigator SUV.

“It’s so different than the hype and what Wall Street’s focused on,” said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist at Cox Automotive.

“What Wall Street is focused on is autonomy and Tesla, neither of which are here,” he said. “Pickups are here.”

Marchionne poured even more cold water on white-hot high tech fervor, proclaiming that he knew of no company, outside of high-end luxury models, “that is making money out of selling electric vehicles.”

“Is there any guarantee that we’re creating an economic model that is sustainable and defendable going forward? And the answer is no.”

The top five selling vehicles in the US in 2017 were Ford’s F-150 pickup, GM’s Chevrolet Silverado pickup, FCA’s Ram 1500 pickup, the Toyota RAV4 SUV and the Nissan Rogue SUV, in that order.

These and other large models are highly profitable for car makers. Ford’s F-150 had an average transaction price of $58,000, Lindland said.

– Larger, ‘muscular’ –

Unveilings commenced at a rapid clip on Monday, even after some major car makers debuted new models over the weekend.

Fiat Chrysler offered an updated Ram pickup, boasting of new multifunction USB ports, a 12-inch vertical touchscreen display and support for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, among other features.

In an effort to add some excitement to a waning sedan market, Volkswagen revealed a new Passat — its higher-end sedan — with more than 20 design changes and a sportier option. BMW premiered a new coupe version of its i8 hybrid electric vehicle, promising enhanced power and range.

BMW also expanded its SUV lineup with the new X2 — designed to fit in between its X1 and X3 compact utilities and distinguishing itself in a crowded crossover market with the company’s signature zip and a “distinctive exterior design.”

The auto show gave a boost to three models by awarding its annual best of the year distinctions.

The 2018 Honda Accord was awarded best car of the year, helping the Japanese company’s family sedan best its top rival, the Toyota Camry — also a finalist for the award.

Among utility cars, Volvo’s XC60 SUV was the winner, a much-needed boost for the Chinese-owned Swedish car company as it aims to reassert itself into the American market.

Ford’s massive Navigator won in the truck category, in part because of its towing capability, an awards representative said.

Some automakers tried to stand out in a crowded field of debuts by employing flash and glamour.

Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger emerged from a redesigned Mercedes-Benz G-Class SUV on Sunday night. GM brought out a redesigned Silverado on Saturday against a backdrop of earlier models dating back decades — emphasizing its roots in American history.

“Muscularity is very important in a truck,” said GM’s design chief Michael Simcoe, while introducing the Silverado.

He said consumers are increasingly looking to pair that muscle with modern amenities.

“We have customers who want luxury car levels of refinement and comfort,” he said. “This is the fastest growing segment in the truck business.”

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