Chevrolet and Ford hope to take advantage of a once-in-lifetime shift in buying patterns to repair damage their images suffered in the 1980s and 1990s, and re-establish themselves among the most reliable and desirable vehicle brands.
They hope to combine booming sales of family-hauling SUVs with their large trucks’ unblemished reputation for quality and durability. The goal is to establish Chevy and Ford SUVs as the best you can buy, regaining psychological high ground their cars lost during Detroit’s Dark Ages in the 1980s.
The 2018 Chevrolet Traverse that debuted at the North American International Auto Show in January is a prime example. It has morphed from a rounded family hauler into a squared-off eight-seat SUV that could be mistaken for Chevy’s rugged Tahoe.
“The ’18 Traverse was definitely inspired by the Tahoe and Suburban,” said Rich Scheer, Chevrolet truck exterior design director. “They are incredibly successful vehicles.”
The Suburban is the longest running continually used nameplate in the auto industry. It debuted in 1935 and has never been out of production, a milestone few vehicles approach.
“It’s smart to build on the strength of the Suburban and Tahoe,” Autotrader senior analyst Michelle Krebs said. “The new Traverse is very clearly visually an SUV.”
Look for Ford to use a variation on the same strategy when the next generation of its big Expedition SUV debuts with a strong family resemblance to the Explorer. Like the Traverse, the Explorer is a family vehicle with three rows of seats and less off-road and towing capacity than traditional SUVs like the Suburban and Expedition.
“That class of family-oriented three row vehicles is really taking off,” Krebs said. “It’s one of the best sellers and growing.”
At the same time, sales of cars have cratered. After holding around half the market for years, they accounted for just 37 percent of vehicle sales in January as SUVs and pick-ups dominated.
“The SUV market continues to grow by leaps and bounds,” Ford sales analyst Erich Merkle said. “It’s almost doubled since 2010.”
That shift in demand could create a unique opportunity for Chevrolet and Ford.
“Designers can read the market and tell where people are going,” IHS Automotive senior analyst Stephanie Brinley said. “The first Traverse was designed to compete with mini-vans, but there’s a different mind-set at work now.”
Buyers deserting sedans
Within a couple of years, America’s best-selling passenger vehicle will probably be a compact or mid-sized SUV, ending decades of dominance by mid-sized and compact cars. Family buyers are flocking to SUVs, deserting mid-sized and compact sedans like the Toyota Camry and Corolla, Honda Accord and Civic, Nissan Altima and Hyundai Sonata.
Chevrolet and Ford hope the trend will help them win buyers from the Japanese-brand sedans that became America’s leading family vehicles in the 1980s and 1990s.
“Our goal is to make you feel unstoppable,” Ford SUV marketing chief Michael O’Brien said. “People respond to design attributes that are rugged and strong, like the Explorer.” Ford plans to add five new SUVs to its line-up by 2020, including a new version of the outdoorsy Bronco.
Honda and Toyota have their own popular three-row SUVs, the Pilot and Highlander, respectively, but they lack brand icons of truck toughness like the Suburban and Ford F-150 pick-up, America’s top-selling vehicle for 40 straight years.
“Honda and Toyota don’t have decades of strength in pickups and SUVs. They can’t leverage that history in the way Chevrolet and Ford can,” Brinley said.
The Tahoe and Suburban dominate their market segments, with more than 50 percent of sales.
“They do phenomenal things for us from an image standpoint,” Chevrolet marketing manager Steve Majoros said. “That’s a business opportunity. The new Traverse was specifically designed to have a higher beltline, less rounded body and more upright pillars. The presence of the new model aligns with how people see SUVs.”
The family resemblance opened the door for Chevy to add new models with more equipment and higher prices, like the Traverse RS and High Country. The previous Traverse didn’t compete with high-end models like Ford’s Explorer Platinum, but Majoros expects the 2018 to make more money as well as selling in higher numbers when it reaches dealerships this fall.
Previous SUV booms ended when fuel prices rose. This market shift is less vulnerable, because the SUVs like the Chevy Traverse and Equinox and Ford Explorer and Escape use new structures, engines and transmissions that make them much more fuel-efficient, approaching the mileage of mid-sized and compact cars despite their SUV looks.
Chevrolet and Ford hope to ride that wave of change to the top of the sales tables.