- The Washington Times - Friday, January 25, 2002

Between now and 2009, hundreds of thousands of Americans will be saying goodbye to big sport utility vehicles and switching to smaller, more fuel-friendly automobiles.

That is one conclusion of a survey of auto industry executives conducted by the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute in Ann Arbor. Auto executives aren't the only ones who have noted a shift in the vehicle-buying habits of consumers. Industry analysts also are finding that consumers are abandoning traditional, trucklike sport utility vehicles for "crossover utility vehicles," or CUVs, because these vehicles are more carlike in their ride, handling and fuel economy.

The comments from auto industry executives mark a "significant shift in consumer buying trends," but do not mean the end of large pickups and sport utility vehicles, said Bruce M. Belzowski, a senior research associate at the university's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. "The coming decade will bring a large, highly affluent group of buyers into the market, buyers who are highly informed, environmentally aware and who may not want to drive what their parents do," Mr. Belzowski said.

The report, which is based on interviews conducted with more than 200 auto industry experts, predicts an increasing concern for the environment, with automakers offering more fuel-efficient vehicles that are also practical and meet consumer needs. The industry executives surveyed worked on the assumption that regular unleaded fuel would cost $1.50 a gallon in 2009.

Study participants predicted that the percentage of small cars sold would rise from about 12.3 percent in 1999 to 13 percent in 2004 and 14 percent in 2009. This group also predicted that the sales of smaller sport utilities, such as the Honda CR-V, which comprised about 6.5 percent of all vehicles sold in 1999, would increase to 8 percent by 2004 and 9 percent by 2009.

In addition to the CR-V these smaller sport utility vehicles, which some have dubbed "crossover utility vehicles" include the Ford Escape, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Subaru Forester, Lexus RX 300, Toyota RAV4, and Hyundai Santa Fe.

Although these CUVs look like traditional midsize sport utility vehicles and have four-wheel drive, they differ because they have car-type unibody construction, instead of the more traditional trucklike body-on-frame or ladder-frame construction. They also get slightly better gasoline mileage, largely because they weigh less than traditional SUVs.

There has been a big increase in demand for sport utility vehicles built with car components that give them a more comfortable ride and make them more fuel-efficient, said Paul Taylor, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association.

Another factor for their popularity is that more people are matching vehicles to their lifestyles and making more sensible choices. "If you need to tow 5,000 pounds, you need a body-on-frame, full-size SUV. But if the toughest road you travel on is gravel and you like to have four-wheel drive when it snows, these CUVs make an awful lot of sense. And if you have two small kids they make a tremendous amount of sense. But if you have four kids and camping gear, Expeditions and Excursions and Suburbans make sense," Mr. Taylor said.

Americans bought 919,869 CUVs during the first 11 months of 2001, representing an increase of almost 96 percent over the first 11 months of last year, according to Ward's AutoWorld, based in Detroit. Industry analysts generally agree we are going to see more crossover utility vehicles. "We're starting to see the changing of the guard," said Jeff Schuster, director of North American forecasting and product analysis for J.D. Power and Associates in Troy, Mich.

"Going forward we see quite a bit of growth, but it's certainly with the car-based products at the expense of the traditional SUVs," Mr. Schuster said. "That's where the growth is and where the majority of the future plans are."

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