Ford at NAIAS: A New Explorer, and a Prediction that SUVs Are Here to Stay

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Apr 12, 2017

NEW YORK CITY—The North American International Auto Show in New York started out with some fairly scary news--if you love small cars, as I do. At a pre-show introduction, Ford Vice President Mark LaNeve got up and said that not only are SUVs, here to stay, the dominant vehicle on the American scene in 2017, but their dominance is likely to get even more absolute.

The curtain is pulled back on the 2018 Ford Explorer Sport. It's a refresh, not a full-bore redesign. (Jim Motavalli photo)

“It’s the hottest segment, along with trucks and vans,” LaNeve said. “We think it will continue to grow, with more than 45 percent of the non-premium U.S. retail market in the next five to seven years. In 2006, they were just 26 percent of the total market. We don’t see the SUV momentum stopping. The percentage may be going higher, maybe up to 50 percent.”

LaNeve offered reasons for the American consumer’s single-mindedness. Oil prices are still low. The Millennials are aging, starting families and needing something bigger. The Baby Boomers, with the youngest 53 this year, are downsizing and wanting something practical, and so shifting into crossovers (they already buy 30 percent of them). Women want to sit up high. All this, plus the fact, LaNeve said, that auto engineers have narrowed the gap—in fuel economy, performance and appointments—between sedans and SUVs. “There isn’t much of a trade-off anymore,” he said. “A tilt back to passenger cars? I don’t see it. The fuel economy delta is very small now. A 2016 Ford Escape has better gas mileage than a small or midsized car of 2006. ”

The '18 Explorer gets what both the Millennial and Baby Boomer customers want--lots of safety and tech features. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I probably should get over my SUV-phobia, since they are indeed getting decent fuel economy and emissions performance these days, and those are the only important considerations when measuring their impact on the planet. But there’s still the aesthetic element, and there’s no way the basic box can be made good looking—to me, at least.

Ford’s news was a mild refresh of the Explorer for 2018, just two years after the last redesign. In keeping with the consumer’s insatiable demand for more tech and safety equipment, the 2018 Explorer offers an optional 4G embedded modem with a Wi-Fi hotspot that supports up to 10 devices (as far away as 50 feet). 

Ford is planning to add five all-new SUVs in North America by 2020. Clearly, the company is betting on the oil continuing to pump and the public commitment to bigger-is-better not going away anytime soon.

The next CHiPs vehicle: Ford's Police Responder Hybrid checks in with the LAPD. (Ford photo)

Earlier in the day, Ford introduced its new hybrid police car, based on the bestselling Fusion. It’s got the fancy title Ford Police Responder Hybrid Sedan, and it combines a two-liter Atkinson-cycle four with an electric motor and lithium battery for 38 mpg overall. The selling point for the cop customers is $3,877 in fuel savings per vehicle per year, compared to a standard Ford Police Interceptor with a 3.7-liter V-6.

If the Fusion hybrid has a drawback as a police car, it’s in its fairly small trunk. We’ll see if that’s an issue going forward. It comes with “full pursuit capabilities,” combining the electric and gas motors for peak acceleration, so speed shouldn’t be an issue.

Ford, clearly betting that batteries remain the wave of the future, is investing $4.5 billion in electrification. It plans to introduce 13 new cars and trucks in the next five years, including Mustang Hybrid, Transit Custom plug-in hybrid, autonomous vehicle hybrid, and a “fully electric small SUV with estimated range of at least 300 miles.”   

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