BY MARK PHELAN (DETROIT FREE PRESS)
That’s story in the auto industry these days, and it’s not likely to change in 2017. Sales of traditional cars are down, while consumers can’t get enough SUVs. High seating, good sightlines, all-wheel drive and looks that conjure images of rugged, capable off-roaders have made vehicles like the Honda HR-V, Ford Escape, Chevrolet Equinox and Toyota RAV4 the hottest things on wheels.
Cheap gasoline helped the trend, but this SUV boom is less reliant on low oil prices than previous market swings. Modern SUVs like the 2017 Honda CR-V frequently get better fuel economy than mid-sized sedans like the Honda Accord and Ford Fusion.
Sedans will never disappear, but whether you’re shopping, selling or designing and developing new vehicles, the action in 2017 will be on the SUV side of the ledger.
So it’s no surprise that many of the most interesting and important vehicles going on sale this year will be SUVs. Here’s a look at some, and the cars that will fight them to win customers’ attention.
Alfa Romeo Stelvio — This fast and elegant SUV is the key to Fiat Chrysler’s plan to turn Alfa into a leading luxury brand and a major moneymaker. It’s Alfa’s first SUV, so attention will focus on how the Italian brand’s performance and handling translate.
Expectations are high. The Giulia compact sport sedan, which uses the same new architecture and drivetrains as the Stelvio, delighted critics in early tests.
Sales should begin in the first half of 2017.
BMW 5 series — The seventh-generation 5 series sport sedan looks like a chance for BMW to get it right after some of its recent models grew a bit heavy. The new 5 series is up to 137 pounds lighter, but also longer, wider, stiffer and stronger.
A turbocharged 248-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is standard equipment, while the top M550i xDrive model gets all-wheel drive, a twin-turbo 456-hp 4.0-liter turbo V8 and hits 60 mph (96 kph) in 4.0 seconds.
The plug-in hybrid 530e iPerformance model reaches 60 mph in 6.2 seconds and can cover 15 miles on battery power, farther when its four-cylinder engine engages.
Prices start at $51,200, excluding destination charges. Sales begin soon.
Buick Regal and Enclave — Buick’s new sport sedan will have dynamic looks and plenty of technology, based on early looks at its overseas cousins, the European Opel Insignia Grand Sport and Australian Holden Commodore. The three brands share their performance attributes, styling and many features.
Expect the Regal to be around 350 pounds lighter with a longer wheelbase than the car it replaces. It will probably share the Insignia Grand Sport’s fastback profile.
The new Enclave family-carrying SUV is the long-awaited replacement for the model that began Buick’s American resurgence. Expect the new model to lose substantial weight but remain big and roomy, unlike its showroom-mate, the GMC Acadia, which shrank considerably when the new model arrived in 2016.
The Enclave should be Buick’s flagship, so expect the brand to pull out the stops on style, luxury and technology.
Sales of both will probably begin in the second half of 2017.
Chevrolet Equinox and Traverse — Chevrolet is primed to reap dividends from the SUV boom with these two crossovers.
The 2018 Equinox will offer three turbocharged engines — 1.5-liter and 2.0-liter gasoline and a high-mpg 1.6-liter diesel — linked to a new nine-speed automatic transmission.
The Equinox is about 400 pounds lighter than the outgoing model. It’s 4.5 inches shorter, but appears to still offer as much or more room than competitors like the Ford Escape.
The 2018 Traverse is also likely to be much lighter than its predecessor, but Chevy’s promise of room for up to eight people indicates it will not shrink much, if at all. Chevrolet claims the Traverse will have class-leading third-row legroom and cargo space, key bragging points when competing with vehicles like the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander.
Honda Odyssey — America’s best-selling minivan will get more dynamic styling when the fifth-generation model debuts at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on January 9.
Expect Honda to load up on safety features and emphasize, fuel economy, connectivity and kid-friendly features as it squares off against the revitalized Pacifica for minivan leadership.
Jeep Compass — The second time better be the charm for Jeep’s compact SUV. The original Compass, developed under DaimlerChrysler’s stifling management, was a mess, launching with a poor engine and transmission, impoverished interior materials and styling that was consciously intended to appeal to European buyers, not Americans.
The all-new Compass wears Jeep’s American heritage like a flag lapel pin, despite the fact that Fiat Chrysler plans to build it around the world, but not in the US. It looks like the Grand Cherokee’s precocious kid brother and offers upscale interior materials and features.
If it delivers of Jeep-quality off-road ability, the new Compass should be a hit around the world. On sale this spring.
Jeep Wrangler — The iconic vehicle that created the Jeep look and heritage is in for the biggest change in its 75-year history in 2017. The all-new Wrangler is expected to make extensive use of aluminum to save weight and improve fuel economy.
Jeep fans are intensely protective of the Wrangler. They’ll rebel if the new Wrangler’s looks and performance don’t meet or exceed their demands. That’s especially true since there’s a good chance prices will rise substantially. Sales should begin in late 2017.
Kia Niro — What do you get when you combine the hottest trend on wheels — small SUVs — with a 50-mpg hybrid-electric drivetrain? A hit, if Kia has anything to say about it.
The Niro hybrid promises an enjoyable driving experience thanks to a quick-shifting six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. At 171.5 inches long, the Niro is a foot shorter than the Toyota RAV4, but its 106.3-inch wheelbase is 1.6 inches longer, a combination that can contribute to sporty handling.
Unlike most SUVs, though, the Niro will not offer all-wheel-drive, potentially a significant blank spot on its spec sheet. Kia will add a plug-in hybrid Niro in the future.
On sale in the first quarter of 2017.
Kia GT — Little is known about this new model, which will debut at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January. In fact, even the name is a guess: Kia’s keeping mum. The car is expected to be a sport sedan with a low, curving roof in the style European automakers call a “four-door coupe.”
Kia insiders say it’s the kind of car that can change how people think of a brand. If it succeeds, it will help Kia improve its image and introduces a new design theme to succeed the popular “tiger nose” look. This car is a big deal by any name.
It’s likely to go on sale late in 2017.
Toyota Camry — The Camry will have to fight to retain its status as America’s best-selling passenger vehicle in 2017. Expect lots of standard safety equipment, including driver aids like automatic braking and lane keeping assist.
It will be interesting to see whether Toyota follows the industry trend and adopts small-displacement turbocharged engines to boost fuel economy, and whether the Camry continues to be one of the few mid-sized sedans that offers a V6.
On sale fall 2017.
Volkswagen Atlas — Volkswagen’s long-awaited three-row SUV powers the German brand’s hopes of winning American family buyers.
The Atlas’s conservative styling encloses an eight-speed automatic transmission and a choice of V6 or turbo four-cylinder gasoline engines. No diesel. No surprise.
The third row of seats claims room for two adults. Other interior features include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for smart phones and 480-watt Fender audio.
At 198.3 inches long, the Atlas is 1.2 inches shorter than a Honda Pilot.
It goes on sale soon.
Volkswagen Tiguan — VW sat out the early years of the SUV boom, but it hopes to make up for that with two new vehicles in 2017. The Tiguan replaces VW’s current compact SUV, but aims to deliver more room and features to compete with leaders like the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape. VW will reportedly offer both a five-passenger model and a three-row Tiguan that can squeeze in seven.
It goes on sale in the first half of 2017.