Ford, Toyota missing boom in ‘city-size’ SUVs – USA TODAY
Buick Encore started the mini-SUV avalanche in the U.S. that’s now being joined by the Honda HR-V, Jeep Renegade, Mazda CX-3, Chevrolet Trax, Fiat 500X, and the Ford … uh, what Ford?
Did SUV champ Ford miss the boat? Or does it have something about to pop?
And for that matter, where is Toyota, normally willing to battle in any slice of the market?
The mini-SUV market — so-called “city ‘utes” that are smaller than the likes of Honda CR-V and Ford Escape and fit into tight urban confines — didn’t exist in the U.S. a few years ago.
The Mini Countryman, on sale since early 2011, can claim modern progenitor status. But Mini is a mini brand, bought sparingly by people with tastes outside the mainstream. Still, it was the best-selling Mini in 2014.
Nissan’s Juke is considered a mini-SUV by some, and it’s been on sale since late 2010 as a 2011. But Nissan launched it not as an SUV, but a quirky rival to the Mazda3, Scion tC, used BMW 3-series and other sporty cars. And Juke is counted as a car, not an SUV, by sales tracker and category-assigner Autodata.
Historically, the Suzuki Samurai would qualify, but it’s long gone and while it spawned a larger, but still small, model sold as both a Suzuki and a Geo/Chevrolet, it didn’t start a trend.
The real kick-off model in the mainstream was Buick’s Encore, on sale here in January 2013. It quickly became one of Buick’s best-sellers. Now a lower-end version of the same hardware is sold as the Chevy Trax, and it began trickling into showrooms last December.
Jeep’s Renegade went on sale last month and notched 943 buyers — a number likely to grow fast as more become available from the factory in Italy.
The three pioneers — Countryman, Encore, Trax — snagged a total of 72,276 buyers last year in an SUV market that was 5.4 million, according to Autodata. The city-ute tally included fewer than 800 of the Chevy, only starting to hit dealerships in December. The Buick was 67.6% of the total.
From such modest beginnings, automakers and analysts predict, the city-ute segment will balloon to more than 2 million annual sales within a few years.
“The small SUV trend is undeniable. These vehicles are hot, with the potential to easily sell in the tens of thousands or more,” says Kelly Blue Book analyst Karl Brauer. “Neither Ford nor Toyota has shown any plans to jump into this space, which seems crazy given the revenue both companies generate from their other SUV lines.”
Chevy claims it knows exactly who will buy such machines: “Hyper-social, young, more often females than males, who live in urban areas and demand (car) connectivity.”
Ford sells such a model, called EcoSport, in other markets. It looks as if it would fit in perfectly, resembling a down-sized Escape. But Ford acknowledges no immediate plans to make modifications necessary to bring it to the U.S.
Ford nonetheless mentions the EcoSport, suggesting it’s at least on the radar. Ford spokesman Said Deep says, “Ford remains absolutely committed to serving customers with a full family of vehicles and using our One Ford plan to take advantage of profitable growth opportunities around the world.
“We invented the small SUV market in South America with the introduction of the Ford EcoSport. It quickly became the segment leader and is now sold around the world.”
Ford’s then-CEO Alan Mulally said at the Detroit auto show in January 2014 that EcoSport was likely for the U.S. “In time, it’ll be here,” he said.
Ford invented the modern mid-size SUV market when it rolled out the 1990 Explorer, roomy, family-oriented and relatively smooth-driving, it attracted imitators and together they eviscerated minivan sales.
Meanwhile, Toyota won’t comment about a city SUV. It says it doesn’t answer questions about possible future products.
And it seldom has been on the cutting edge of new segments, being a conservative company.
Still, Toyota’s RAV4 — a mini-ute relative to others of the time — did invent a segment and has sold consistently well for the maker since the initial 1996 model was launched.
Jeremy Acevedo, analyst for car shopping website Edmunds.com, says, “If it makes sense for the U.S. market, Ford can relatively easily tweak the EcoSport subcompact SUV the company sells abroad.”
Given that in the wings, “Ford’s ‘wait and see’ approach allows the company to get a good feel for the nuances of the subcompact SUV market; it won’t necessarily preclude Ford from earning a piece of the pie if the company decides to enter the segment,” Acevedo says.
Meantime, KBB’s Brauer says, “I’m sure Buick, Fiat, Honda, Jeep and Mazda are happy to fill the vacuum left by Ford and Toyota.”
Year-to-date mini-SUV sales (per Autodata) for those on sale since Jan. 1: