General Motors aims to defend its dominant position in the shrunken but still profit-rich market for large SUVs with its first redesign of the body-on-frame trucks in eight years.
GM simultaneously unveiled the 2015 Chevrolet Suburban and Tahoe, along with its platform siblings, the GMC Yukon and Yukon XL, at events in Los Angeles, New York and Dallas last Thursday. I attended the Dallas showing in advance of the press unveil and was quite impressed with the new SUVs.
The SUVs, built on the same platform as GM’s recently launched full-sized pickups, feature a tauter, more aerodynamic look, roomier and more upscale interiors and a quieter ride, and they offer more power and better fuel efficiency, GM promises. The company didn’t disclose EPA ratings.
The SUVs will still be built in Arlington, Texas, and will go on sale during the first quarter of 2014.
Around the time of GM’s bankruptcy in mid-2009, company executives considered abandoning the big-SUV market. Many industry insiders had speculated that rising gasoline prices would wipe out demand for the fuel-thirsty trucks.
Since then, gasoline prices have moderated and GM has hung on to its loyal SUV customers to command a 44 percent share of the segment, according to the Automotive News Data Center. Sales volumes have dropped by nearly half since 2005, but the trucks have become even more profitable amid escalating prices, despite a dearth of new features or content.
Kelley Blue Book pegs the Suburban’s average transaction price so far in 2013 at $54,028, up 21 percent from the average for all of 2008. Tahoe’s average prices are up 23 percent during that stretch, to $49,543.
The redesigned SUVs “will continue to be dominant forces in an important and profitable segment,” GM CFO Dan Ammann said in a statement.
The exteriors of the Chevy and GMC models use new sheet metal for a blockier, more chiseled look. Unlike the case with the current generation, none of the doors or side panels is shared with the full-sized pickups. Inlaid doors fit into the body side openings, rather than overlapping the top of the body, “significantly improving the quietness of the interior” and improving aerodynamics, GM says. The hood and liftgate are made of aluminum to save weight.
The front ends of the Tahoe and Suburban keep Chevy’s signature dual-port grille, which will sport chrome on all models. The traditional stacked headlights are swept-back into the front fenders for a more contemporary look. Fender flares are more pronounced.
The body sides feature more chrome than on the current SUVs, including chrome accents on the handles, roof rail and around the high-gloss, black B pillar.
The rear wiper arm is attached to an integrated spoiler, rather than at the top of the tailgate, giving the rear end a cleaner look. The rear end features LED taillights and a chrome bumper.
Inside, GM promises a quieter ride from reduced wind noise. Designers put an emphasis on storage, including a larger console that can swallow a diaper bag or bulky power tools and support hanging files.
Another storage bin is hidden behind the touch screen. Designers kept the gearshift lever on the steering wheel column to free up console space.
On Denali models of the Yukon, which in recent years have represented more than 60 percent of the nameplate’s sales, an “ambient” air vent extends across part of the dash to waft air or heat through the cabin.
Other new features and enhancements inside include:
• Power fold-flat third-row seats for easier cargo use, addressing one of the chief gripes of current GM SUV owners.
• A “conversation mirror” on the overhead console that provides a panoramic view of the back seat.
• 2 inches of extra legroom in the second row and easier entry and exit.
• An eight-inch touch-screen Chevy MyLink or GMC Intellilink infotainment system on above-base trim levels
• Up to six USB ports and six power outlets
• A rear-seat entertainment system with dual screens and Blu-ray DVD player will be offered on the Suburban and Yukon XL, but not the Tahoe or Yukon.
The SUVs also will come with a slew of safety features that have been added to GM’s latest entries over the past two years, including forward collision alert, adaptive cruise control, lane-change assist, rear cross-traffic alert and a feature that uses directional vibrations in the driver’s seat to alert the driver to a potential crash. Most of those features will be optional or packaged into higher trim levels.
Power comes from the standard 5.3-liter V-8 engine that debuted in the 2014 Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups launched this summer, mated to a carryover six-speed transmission. It will produce 353-horses and 383 pound-feet of torque. The Denali will come with a standard 6.2-liter that returns 420-horses and 460 pound-feet of torque.
The engines feature cylinder deactivation, which shuts off fuel to four of the eight cylinders under light loads, improving fuel economy. Sources have said that GM plans eventually to add an eight-speed transmission to some big SUV models and will likely offer a 10-speed gearbox by 2017.
The redesign marks the 12th generation for the Suburban, which was introduced in 1935 and is the “industry’s oldest continuously available nameplate,” GM says. Through August, GM sold 31,847 Suburbans, up 4 percent.
The Tahoe replaced the Chevy Blazer in 1995 and is the top seller in the large SUV segment, with sales up 22 percent through August, to 54,794 units.
The 2015 Cadillac Escalade, which shares the same platform as the Yukon, Tahoe and Suburban, will be introduced in October.
From the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, sales of big SUVs soared as gasoline prices remained low and the popularity of minivans and station wagons waned.
Sales peaked in 2001 at slightly more than 1 million units. Demand remained near that level until 2005, before plunging 64 percent through 2009 amid spiking gasoline prices and the financial crisis.
During the overall market rebound, SUVs have lost ground to unibody crossovers, which typically offer better fuel economy.
IHS Automotive doesn’t expect a jump in sales of the SUVs despite the redesign. It predicts flat sales of around 185,000 units next year for the four SUVs before rising 5 percent in 2015, to 194,500. I disagree with that assessment. Drivers of current large GM SUVs have been waiting for several years for the new models.
While it’s not a growth segment, GM is taking advantage of its market-leading position and leveraging the cost of its bread-and-butter pickups through the incremental volume that the SUVs reap, says AutoPacific product analyst Dave Sullivan.
He says GM did a better job than in the past at differentiating the design of the SUVs, both from one another and from the pickups, while “adding in some nicely crafted details that we’ve never seen in the past in these products,” such as the fold-flat third row of seats.
John Schwegman, executive director for U.S. product and pricing on GM trucks, says the company’s dominant position makes the market too lucrative to abandon.
“Some people might be saying, ‘Well, is the segment dead? Why would you continue on?” Schwegman told journalists during a briefing last month. “It still represents a very significant opportunity, and because of our market share performance, we’re going to continue to invest in the segment.”