They account for 62 percent of sales so far this year.
Americans want bigger, faster and more luxurious SUVs — and automakers are more than happy to fulfill the booming demand.
New SUVs dominated media previews this week at the New York International Auto Show, the latest sign that the shift away from traditional cars is more than a short-term trend.
And the new vehicles are all about muscle. Ford Motor released a more powerful version of its extra-large Lincoln Navigator. There were high-octane offerings in the Jeep and Mercedes-Benz lines. And General Motors moved to cement its leadership in the category with a midsize model capable of towing a 20-foot speedboat.
In short, with oil prices half what they were three years ago, and President Donald Trump vowing to cut back on fuel-economy regulations, automakers are raising the stakes in the SUV segment.
“We don’t think that the rate of growth of SUVs will necessarily continue, but we do believe the shift to them is permanent,” says Mike Manley, head of Fiat Chrysler’s Jeep division.
Pickup trucks and SUVs have accounted for about 62 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States so far this year, compared with 57 percent in the first quarter of 2016, according to the research firm Autodata.
That extends a trend line that has inched upward since gasoline dropped below $3 a gallon in 2014.
The big U.S. auto companies have been the greatest beneficiaries of the public’s appetite for high-riding, spacious SUVs, which generally earn bigger profits for manufacturers than do mainstream cars.
In March, more than 70 percent of the vehicles sold in the United States by GM and Ford were trucks and SUVs. The proportion was even higher, about 85 percent, for Fiat Chrysler.
All three Detroit automakers and their foreign rivals are working overtime to add new or updated SUVs to their lineups.
The trend worries environmentalists because SUVs generally burn more gas than smaller cars, generating more of the harmful emissions believed to cause global warming.
Some automakers are also adding electric cars to their portfolios, but not in volumes equal to the proliferation of SUVs.
But Trump’s move to cut back regulations — starting with his announcement last month that his administration would revisit the Obama administration’s fuel-economy standards — has given the industry less motivation to devote resources to electrified models or smaller, high-mileage passenger cars.
And while companies are committed to electric-car programs, company earnings are heavily dependent on feeding consumers’ appetite for new and improved SUVs.
“The fact is these larger vehicles have been extraordinary profit centers, especially for the domestic manufacturers,” says Jack Gillis, public affairs director for the Consumer Federation of America, a nonprofit group that supports stringent fuel-economy rules.
As long as gas prices remain low, he says, the SUV boom is likely to continue. But once prices begin to rise, consumers may become less enamored with the larger models.
For now, the market for SUVs is seemingly growing by the day.
Some brands have been completely revitalized by the proliferation of SUVs, which now come in sizes ranging from compact to extra-large.
The Buick division of GM, for example, is introducing a new version of its midsize Enclave SUV at the New York show.
That follows the addition of two smaller sport utility models to the brand’s lineup. And where Buick was once synonymous with cushy sedans, it is now tilted heavily toward SUVs.
“Up to three-quarters of our sales now are SUVs,” says Duncan Aldred, head of the Buick division. “That’s how much Buick is on the track with the market.”
And although it is considered a midsize SUV, the Enclave is large enough to accommodate three rows of seats.
Aldred says the typical customers drawn to Buick SUVs included families with young children who required considerable space and older drivers who appreciated the rugged capability and utility of a high-riding model.
He says fuel economy was rarely a major consideration for consumers shopping for an SUV.
The existing Enclave model gets about 17 mpg in combined city and highway driving, but the new version shown in New York is expected to improve upon that performance, once it is certified by federal regulators.
New technology, for example, allows for the engine to shut down and restart when the vehicle is idling, saving fuel. “The old perception that SUVs are terrible on fuel economy is going away,” Aldred says.
Some of the newest SUVs also cater to consumers interested in prestige, luxury and, above all, comfort.
One such vehicle, Ford’s new Lincoln Navigator, is bigger and more powerful than the model it will replace and is packed with features like a dial that selects from six modes set for varying weather conditions and terrain.
And while Ford is pushing luxury, other automakers are taking SUVs to new levels of speed and performance.
Mercedes-Benz announced plans to produce powerful new versions of its big GL SUV that can achieve as much as 500 horsepower.
Fiat Chrysler’s Jeep brand is going even further with its Grand Cherokee Trackhawk edition, which can generate more than 700 horsepower and hit a top speed of 180 mph.