Chicago hotties: SUVs and crossovers debut at 2016 Chicago Auto Show

2017 Nissan Armada

Nissan’s Phil O’Connor debuts the 2017 Nissan Armada before the 2016 Chicago Auto Show.

“The perception…is that compact SUV’s and crossovers are hot. And full-size SUV’s are not.” So said Phil O’Connor, director, chief marketing manager of Nissan North America, at the reveal of the 2017 Nissan Armada before the 2016 Chicago Auto Show. “Well the reality is that the full-size segment is still vibrant.”

The market for the big SUV has been consistently about 250,000 units, and O’Connor expect sales in 2016 to be slightly higher.

Overall, said Mark LaNeve, one third of the automotive market isn’t automobiles, but rather SUVs, and in the next few years that will expand to 40 percent.

It’s not just the low price of fuel that’s driving the shift to SUVs and crossovers, although O’Connor noted that it doesn’t hurt. And it doesn’t hurt, either, that fuel economy gains have helped take the sting out of buying an SUV. LaNeve noted that the 2016 Ford Explorer, for example, has an EPA combined fuel economy rating of 22 mpg. SUVs are rivalling the fuel economy of mid-size sedans of just a few years ago.

LaNeve cited reasons for the growth of the market. There are 80 million millennials reaching parenthood age, having later graduations and having children at a later age. And as they get older, they’ll be looking for something bigger than a small car. Kids, says LaNeve, will drive up purchases. Three-quarters of millennials would decrease other elements of their budgets to buy a vehicle.

Boomers, too, are a potent SUV market force, another 80 million who will want easy-to-get-in SUVs/crossovers that are more capable, especially with the fuel economy of a modern SUV/crossover. Boomers don’t want to drive the big sedans their parents did in their twilight years. So long, Grand Marquis. We knew you all too well.

Ford is so bullish on the future of the SUV/crossover market that LaNeve revealed at the Chicago Auto Show that Ford would introduce four new nameplates in the next four years in markets where they don’t compete now.

LaNeve didn’t say which markets or which nameplates, nor which make. Most speculation seemed to be around which Ford models and markets would be added, with the return of the Ford Bronco, a rugged off-roader competitive with the Jeep Wrangler (though growing in its later years into a two-door SUV based on the F-150 pickup truck underpinnings), being mentioned.

2017 Chevrolet Trax

2017 Chevrolet Trax (c) GM Corp

Another possibility is an SUV/crossover smaller than the Ford Escape, a counterpart to the Chevrolet Trax, Jeep Renegade, Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-3. Since 2010, small SUV sales are up 100 percent, and are greater overall than small cars.

The 2017 Chevrolet Trax, in fact, was debuted at the Chicago show. An international product that arrived in the U.S. in mid-generation—just 13 months after its U.S. introduction, Chevy notes—the 2017 lands with a new Chevrolet front end, the new sheetmetal incorporating Chevy’s “dual port” grille. The rear has been updated as well, with the uplevel LT and new Premier models receiving halogen projector headlamps with distinctive LED taillights.

Chevrolet also gave the Trax’s interior a much needed upgrade, with better quality materials and added technology, including a 7-inch color touch screen multi-information display, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility and optional 4G LTE with Wi-Fi hotspot. Optional safety equipment includes Side blind zone alert, rear cross traffic alert, forward collision alert, lane departure warning. The Trax also gets ten airbags and a rearview camera as standard equipment.

Kia chose Chicago to introduce the 2017 Kia Niro, a compact model that Kia calls a hybrid utility vehicle. Orth Hedrick, vice president product planning for Kia Motors America, said, “The subcompact CUV market continues to be one of the fastest-growing segments in the world, and the Niro offers a uniquely alluring yet practical package that consumers haven’t seen before.”

In terms of a crossover, it’s about as close to a car—or at least a wagon—as a crossover can be, while maintaining a taller profile, sized between the smaller Sportage and the larger Sorento. However, it’s built on an all-new, “dedicated eco-car platform,” designed from the ground up as a hybrid, the first ever for Kia. Niro joins the Soul EV and Optima Hybrid in the automaker’s EcoDynamics line. Designed as a hybrid—with a plug-in version coming later—the Niro places its batteries under the rear seat for a flat cargo load floor.

2017 Kia Niro at 2016 Chicago Auto Show

Kia’s new 2017 Niro reavealed at the 2016 Chicago Auto Show. (click to enlarge)

The Niro eliminates the traditional 12-volt lead-acid battery used for accessories to save weight, incorporating the function into the high-voltage lithium-ion polymer battery system. Kia/Hyundai has developed an all-new, state-of-the-art Kappa 1.6-liter direct-injection Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine specifically for hybrid applications. The front-drive configuration is conventional, but instead of the typical continuously variable transmission, the Niro has a six-speed dual-clutch transmission, which Kia claims is more efficient (oddly, the same claim is made about CVTs) and has a better “driving experience,” with solid shifts instead of a CVT’s often sloppy feel.