The S.U.V.s That Conquered Suburbia


ImageThe 2020 Kia Telluride, which won in the Mid- and Full-Size Family category at Mudfest.
The 2020 Kia Telluride, which won in the Mid- and Full-Size Family category at Mudfest.CreditCreditRyan Douthit/MediaSpigot

For decades, the sedans that dominated American roads had more flavors than Baskin-Robbins: budget-minded, status-symbol, cushy, sporty and everything in between.

Unless you’ve been living under the kind of remote rock an off-roading S.U.V. might crawl over, it’s clear that crossovers and pickups dominate the automotive market today. Less obvious? The sport utility segment has matured so that all of those sedan varieties can still be had, with practicality and a raised ride height to boot.

Not everyone wants to look like Ranger Rick, and the models have adapted. These days you can have your crossover chunky, sleek, luxurious, economical or even high performance.

Here’s why. In 1992, S.U.V.s eked out an 8.8 percent share of the automotive market, with sedans commanding 63.9 percent, according to PwC. By 2017, those numbers had flipped to 42.9 percent for S.U.V.s and crossovers while sedans dropped to 35.5 percent. In short, automakers are chasing the money.

At the recent Northwest Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year competition, affectionately known as Mudfest, 25 writers from the Northwest Automotive Press Association reminisced about the path that S.U.V.s had taken.

At the first Mudfest, in 1995, all but one of the 11 entries used body-on-frame platforms. The Ford Explorer, Chevrolet Suburban and Nissan X-Terra rode like trucks, towed like trucks and conquered terrain like trucks because … they were trucks. The outlier was a tiny new shoelike vehicle with an odd name that Toyota had shipped special from Japan: the RAV4.

This “soft-roader” had all-wheel drive but navigated the muddy mess with a unibody car chassis. The significance of that vehicle can’t be overstated. The makeup of the 2019 Mudfest was nearly reversed from the first. Of the 17 sport utilities competing, only the Toyota 4Runner and Mercedes-Benz G550 had body-on-frame construction.

Mudfest has always been an excellent barometer of this segment’s evolution. It’s a two-day event where automotive journalists test on- and off-road ability and all of the latest technology. This year, the vehicles ranged in size from the diminutive Hyundai Kona to the family-hauling three-row Volkswagen Atlas.

The field is wide open as automakers make a land grab for America’s garages and driveways. It’s easy to forget that the Mercedes M-Class S.U.V., which made its debut in “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” in 1997, is considered to be the first upmarket sport-ute and a huge risk for the German automaker (though historians often ignore Land Rover’s Range Rover, but I digress).

ImageThe Jeep Gladiator, a triple winner at Mudfest, is equal parts Jeep Wrangler, midsize pickup and Leatherman tool.
The Jeep Gladiator, a triple winner at Mudfest, is equal parts Jeep Wrangler, midsize pickup and Leatherman tool.CreditRyan Douthit/MediaSpigot

The luxury S.U.V. bet paid off for Mercedes in a brontosaur-size way, blazing a trail for BMW, Lexus and Porsche to break out of their stereotypes with the X3, RX300 and Cayenne. The luxury winners at this Mudfest were the BMW X7 xDrive 50i in the Full-Size Luxury category, and the Mercedes GLE450 in the Compact and Midsize Luxury segment.

Nowadays, automakers gladly offer any crossover essence you could want. Tugging big toys? Any of the truck-based machines from General Motors, Ford, Dodge, Toyota and Nissan will tow boats, water scooters and campers. Luxury starts with any of the small crossovers (Audi A3, Cadillac XT4 and Lexus UX for starters) and spirals up to the Maserati Levante, Bentley Bentayga and even Rolls-Royce with the Cullinan.

Driving enthusiasts lamenting performance sedans get the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio, Porsche Macan Turbo, BMW X3M, and Mercedes AMG GLC63. Those on more of a budget have the frisky Mazda CX-5 and Acura RDX with Super Handling All-Wheel Drive to consider.

Don’t want to drive a box? BMW started the controversial “fastback” look with its X6 and X4. Mercedes followed with the GLC300 Coupe (let’s point out this has four doors, not two). Acura was not so successful with its slope-backed ZDX.

Mainstream offerings are all over the map when it comes to earning your business. The winner of Mudfest’s Mid- and Full-Size Family category was the three-row 2020 Kia Telluride SX AWD, most likely because of its blend of Chris Hemsworth looks, technology-stuffed interior and fully loaded price of $47,330. For something less Woodsy Owl, Kia’s corporate cousin Hyundai offers a more genteel look with the Palisade.

The sheer number of S.U.V.s that span sport, luxury, economy, hybrid and family segments are too numerous to stuff into this column. It would simply become a list. It’s safe to say that if the vibe can be had in a sedan, it’s available as a sport utility.

The same goes for pickup trucks. At Mudfest, the members evaluated five of them, and each came to the competition with a different mission. The midsize Ford Ranger is an everyday workhorse that hauls bikes and kayaks in comfort. The Ram 2500 Power Wagon can rip a house off its foundation and winch itself over a small mountain of gravel (in case you do those sorts of things). The Jeep Gladiator Rubicon, a triple winner with Extreme Capability, Best Pickup and Northwest Outdoor Vehicle of the Year trophies, is equal parts Jeep Wrangler, midsize pickup and Leatherman tool.

The Nissan Titan and GMC Sierra Denali AT4 were the two traditional offerings, but even the Sierra had its own personality with the trick MultiPro tailgate that’s a step, a standing desk, a load extender and more in one origami-like package. And for luxury, a Ram 1500 Limited or Ford F150 Limited will coddle discerning executives whether they’re in construction or high finance.

The market isn’t resting. Toyota’s RAV4 has risen from its humble beginnings to become the best-selling passenger vehicle in the United States. Ditching its city-slicker looks, the new model clearly took grooming tips from the company’s aggressive 4Runner S.U.V. Curiously, the brand’s 2020 Highlander smooths out its outdoorsy attitude for a more suburban vibe.

The big Mudfest takeaway is that buyers will get a lot more out of their vehicle if they consider their lifestyles and then choose the rig that best fits their needs. That has always been the case when choosing sedans, and now S.U.V.s offer a rich variety of ability and attitude.