Just when you thought America’s affair with SUVs couldn’t get any more torrid.
SUVs, and even some passenger cars, are now spawning SUVs – essentially, new variations on existing vehicles – as automakers scramble to keep sales humming.
Even passenger cars are starting to spin off SUVs, as Ford is prepared to do.
As the Los Angeles Auto Show gears up for press previews this week, automakers are poised to take the wraps off of a new assortment of large vehicle models that continue the industry’s transition away from small cars.
Take, for example, the Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport.
VW – long known for its passenger cars, such as the Beetle and Jetta – is pursuing what it calls an “SUV offensive” to catch up to competitors, and it’s going swimmingly. Two years ago, the automaker introduced its first-ever, three-row large SUV, the VW Atlas.
The Atlas has performed so well that VW figured, why not replicate it?
So the company is now coming out with the 2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport, a two-row midsize SUV. It shares the same wheelbase as its larger sibling, and it’s only 2.8 inches shorter and 2.3 inches lower.
“It’s basically an SUV world, and we just live in it,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher at Cox Automotive, who oversees content for Kelley Blue Book and Autotrader. “Every single manufacturer is looking for the next SUV version of a popular model, whether it’s an extension of an existing SUV nameplate or a non-SUV nameplate that they’re making it into an SUV.”
There’s a practical element to the trend, too.
“When a company spends a ton of money establishing a name, it makes sense to piggyback on that,” said Michelle Krebs, analyst at Autotrader.
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But how much is too much?
SUVs now make up nearly 48% of industry sales, up from 27% a decade ago, according to Edmunds. That growth has come at the expense of passenger cars, which have plummeted in popularity to about 30% market share. (The rest is pickups.)
But the days of guaranteed success for any new SUV model are gone.
Edmunds analyst Jessica Caldwell said automakers are now scrambling to find niche areas where they can sell new models.
“We’re hitting the point at which the ceiling for SUVs has been reached,” she said. “For automakers, it is a time in which you have to be a bit more strategic. You can’t just throw any SUV out there and it’ll do well – because that’s how it felt for a while.”
Case in point: Nissan sought to duplicate the success of its popular Rogue SUV by making a more compact, swifter version called the Rogue Sport. But multiple analysts cited rumors that the Rogue Sport won’t last.
Brauer questioned whether spin-off sporty SUVs will make it.
“Everyone rushed into that market and they overwhelmed it,” Brauer said. “I don’t know if there’s the volume that the manufacturers are assuming for how many nameplates are trying to be there.”
Nissan spokesman Brian Brockman said in an email that the Rogue Sport “remains an important part of our strong crossover lineup” after a redesign for the 2020 model year.
While automakers are cloning SUVs, they’re also drawing from the DNA of passenger cars to breathe life into new SUVs.
The latest and buzziest example, tied to the Los Angeles Auto Show, is Sunday’s introduction of the Ford Mustang Mach-E.
The electric SUV is billed as “inspired” by the Mustang sports car, a Ford icon that has been the star of movies, parades and garages for decades.
The vehicle reflects Ford’s attempt to show that electric vehicles don’t have to be wimpy. In fact, as any aficionado knows, their drivetrain generates instant torque, erasing any doubts about their capability on the road.
But will the Mustang pass muster in its new form as an SUV?
“It’s a Mustang,” Caldwell said. “Anything to do with that word is going to get a lot of attention.”
Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.