- The Washington Times - Friday, January 3, 2003

In time almost everything changes. That includes sport utilities.
Once designed for people who wanted the comfort of four-wheel drive for weekend ski trips or the towing capability for their boat, the SUV in the past five years has transitioned to basic transportation.
As a result, the demand for cars is diminishing. In 1997, cars were 55 percent of the market; last year that figure dropped to 50 percent, according to J.D. Power and Associates, the market research firm.
In the automotive industry the category "light trucks" includes SUVs, pickups and minivans, but the growth is all in SUVs. Power data show that SUVs accounted for 16 percent of the market in 1997; last year they were almost 22 percent.
In the past when people traded their cars for SUVs, they had to make a compromise, said Ed Molchany, Ford Division sport utility vehicle marketing manager. They got a truck that could carry a lot on bad roads in bad weather; they gave up a smooth carlike ride.
"But all the manufacturers have responded by making their SUVs more carlike in the way they ride and handle either by improvements to existing vehicles or with new crossovers," Mr. Molchany said.
Crossovers are vehicles that use many of the mechanical parts of cars but offer a package that looks more like a sport utility and offers four-wheel drive. The result is a vehicle that looks like a truck but doesn't drive exactly like a truck.
Five years ago there weren't any crossovers in the SUV segment, said Jeff Schuster, director of North American Forecasting with Power in Troy, Mich. But now, that is where the growth is. Crossovers, 5 percent of the market in 2001, are projected at 12 percent in 2007.
"There are so many variations of the original idea of an SUV that it's fitting almost everyone's needs at this point, no matter what those needs," Mr. Schuster said.
There are people who want a rugged SUV they can take off-road or use to haul a trailer. On the other end of the spectrum are people who want a vehicle with confident SUV styling but don't want to give up their creature comforts, which include sunroofs, power-adjustable seats and a third row of seats.
"A very important evolution has been the additional seating capacity with the third row," said Susan Jacobs, auto industry analyst and president of Jacobs & Associates in Rutherford, N.J. "A lot of households are accustomed to minivan seating and versatility, but they don't feel stylish when they are driving a minivan."
A few of the larger SUVs, such as the Chevrolet Suburban and Ford Expedition, have offered third-row seats for several years, but their interiors felt cramped and access was uncomfortable. That is largely because traditional, truck-based SUVs have a solid rear axle instead of the independent rear suspension used in cars. A solid rear axle, which moves along with the suspension, forced designers to leave more room above it, where the seats are, than they do with an independent rear suspension, in which the axle housing stays affixed to the frame.
Ford redesigned the 2002-model Explorer using an independent rear suspension that allowed engineers to lower the floor 7 inches and get a decent amount of room in the third row. An independent rear suspension also gives a truck the more comfortable carlike ride and handling.
It was the trucklike design of SUVs that kept a lot of manufacturers from profiting.
Car manufacturers, like BMW, didn't have experience with a truck-based vehicle like the Explorer, said Michael Flynn, director of the University of Michigan Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. "It would be hard for them to come up with a truck platform. Everything would be brand new, extremely expensive and risky."
The carlike independent rear suspension, which first showed up in the United States in smaller Japanese SUVs, such as the 1996 Toyota RAV4 and 1997 Honda CR-V, paved the way for many other manufacturers to enter the growing SUV segment, Mr. Flynn said.
Suddenly car manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and BMW could build a product using many car components. This revolution led to the increasing popularity of the SUV.

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