New York Auto Show: SUV frenzy takes center stage

Sport-utility vehicles once again took center stage at the New York International Auto Show as automakers bet that booming sales won’t fade away.

Toyota, Cadillac, Hyundai and other top brands are competing to win over the growing number of buyers who are ditching sedans in favor of crossovers. SUVs will comprise half of the U.S. new-vehicle market by 2020, according to Ford’s estimates. The market’s shift is particularly strong for luxury car makers, given that eight of the top 10 luxury vehicle models sold in the U.S. during the first two months of 2018 were premium SUVs, according to J.D. Power.

Hoping to capitalize on America’s appetite for larger vehicles, the industry rolled out a flurry of SUVs at the 2018 New York show.

The fifth generation of the Toyota RAV4, the best-selling vehicle in America that isn’t a pickup truck, will arrive later this year. A hybrid version will launch in 2019. RAV4 sales have doubled over the past five years, a sign of the segment’s rapid growth, Toyota noted.

Hyundai unveiled a refreshed Tucson and new Santa Fe, plus the all-electric Kona crossover that will beat Tesla and other rivals with an estimated range of 250 miles per charge.

Volkswagen’s Atlas Cross Sport concept bears a close resemblance to the final product, which will enter production in Tennessee in late 2019. The two-row Cross Sport is built on the same platform as the roomier Atlas, a three-row SUV that has lifted the German manufacturer’s U.S. sales.

On the luxury side, Cadillac showrooms will get a third SUV model when the XT4, a small crossover, goes on sale in the fall. Lincoln introduced the Aviator, a midsize option that will replace the current MKT. Fiat Chrysler’s Maserati had the Levante Trofeo on display for the first time, marking the newest edition of the brand’s lone SUV. Honda-owned Acura revealed the production version of the 2019 RDX, the brand’s second best-selling vehicle last year.

“The compact SUV segment is one of the largest and most competitive in luxury,” Henio Arcangeli, senior vice president at American Honda, told reporters gathered at the show. “And there are simply no weak players.”

With a wide range of new SUVs on the horizon, automakers are in a fierce competition to attract buyers in all corners of the market, including electric vehicles, as overall U.S. new-vehicle sales cool down.

“[The] New York Auto Show’s list of SUVs debuting in coupe, battery electric, plug-in and sport form not only demonstrates this proliferation of micro-niche vehicles, it sets the stage for a major battle to catch the eye of consumers,” said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analysis at Edmunds.

Through February, total U.S. sales this year are down 0.8% at nearly 2.46 million vehicles. SUVs, pickup trucks and vans are responsible for 67% of that total, as the light-truck category grew 5.9%. Meanwhile, passenger cars posted an 11.9% decline in sales compared with the same period in 2017.

Automakers will report March sales data on April 3. The month is expected to bring a 3% increase in sales versus a year earlier, Edmunds projected.