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2015 will be big year for small SUVs

Here’s a prediction you can take to the bank: Sales of compact and subcompact SUVs are about to skyrocket.


Here's a prediction you can take to the bank: Sales of compact and subcompact SUVs are about to skyrocket.

I'm sure of this for two reasons:

1. I've been predicting it for two years. Eventually, I've gotta be right.

2. The world's automakers finally caught up with me and got a flock of small SUVs into production. GM, Honda, Lexus and Mercedes are on my side. You wanna bet against us?

"A lot of new small SUVs are coming," IHS Automotive senior analyst Stephanie Brinley said. "Sedan sales are falling and SUVs are on the rise. The SUV body style is changing the landscape.

"People will pay more for an SUV than a hatchback or sedan. That makes them very attractive to automakers."

The Chevrolet Trax, Fiat 500X, Honda HR-V, Jeep Renegade and Mazda CX-3 should all be in dealerships shortly, with more to follow.

"That many vehicles going on sale in a short period will draw shoppers' attention and raise awareness of the segment," Brinley said. The attention should boost sales for existing models, like the Buick Encore, which launched the subcompact SUV movement in 2013. Encore sales started slow, but are up 55 percent this year.

People like small SUVs because of their looks, high seat position that provides a good view of traffic, cargo capacity and the availability of all-wheel drive. Their moderate height — taller than a car, easier to step into than an off-roader — makes them convenient for loading cargo and easy for older drivers to get in and out.

That combination has made small SUVs the hot growth segment in Europe and increasingly popular in Asia.

Most don't have a hint of off-road ability, but neither do popular current SUVs like the Chevrolet Equinox, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.

Every mass-market brand will join the party. Most will probably have new compact and subcompact SUVs, as Jeep has announced it will by 2016. Luxury brands also jumped on the bandwagon, as Mercedes and Lexus did with the GLA and NX, respectively, this year.

There's no official standard for what qualifies as a compact or subcompact SUV. The Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for defining car segments, but has yet to do that for SUVs or crossovers as the car-based utilities are often called. The new models are generally six to 20 inches smaller than vehicles like today's CR-V, Equinox and RAV4.

It's clear the SUVs we've been calling "compact" because they are smaller than a Ford Explorer no longer fit that description. In the new market that's developing, the Explorer is large.

Going forward, it may make sense to consider crossover SUVs with three rows of seats — like the Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Explorer and Toyota Highlander — large or full-size. Vehicles the size of the current Chevy Equinox and GMC Terrain will become midsize, with compact and subcompact below them.

Expect the new versions of the Chevy Equinox and GMC Terrain to get a bit smaller when new models based on GM's global Delta compact vehicle architecture arrive next year. The ritzy Buick Envision may join them on the heels of its successful debut in China this year.

That will open the door for GM to add midsize models slotted between them and the large Traverse/Acadia/Enclave in two or three years.

Bottom line: if you like SUVs, you're about to have more choices than you ever imagined.


US sales of small SUVs

2013: 2,490,287

2014: 2,959,586*

2015: 3,050,310*


Source: IHS Automotive



Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at


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