Sunday, September 18, 2011

10 Red Hot SUVs

SUVs are not going extinct — far from it. Small and fuel-efficient models, especially, are taking off. These SUVs have had the biggest sales increases so far this year.

1. Ford Explorer

Ford Explorer
Ford Explorer
Jan - Aug 2011 sales: 75,720
Jan - Aug 2010 sales: 28,104
Price: $28,170 - $39,740
Fuel economy: 18 City / 25 Hwy

People keep predicting the death of the SUV, but it's just not happening. That's because SUVs have changed so that consumers can now find ones that do what they've always loved, including going off-road occasionally, without the things people always hated, like the bad fuel economy and rough rides.

Exhibit A is the new Ford Explorer which, so far this year, has had the biggest increase in number of vehicles sold of any SUV. It probably helps that last year's pre-redesign Ford Explorer sales were Exhibit A in the "SUVs are dead" argument.

While the new Explorer has met with mixed reviews — its ride and handling qualities are more SUV-like than you might think — it's unquestionably much more fuel efficient than the truck-based vehicle it replaces while retaining enough towing, hauling and off-road capability to satisfy the realistic needs of most SUV buyers.

Here are nine more SUVs that have seen the biggest sales increases from last year, according to data from the automotive Web site

2. Chevrolet Equinox

Chevrolet Equinox
Chevrolet Equinox
Jan - Aug 2011 sales: 112,932
Jan - Aug 2010 sales: 76,859
Price: $23,450 - $30,890
Fuel economy: 22 City / 32 Hwy
Many long-time SUV owners have been looking to downsize but don't want go so far as to switch to a car.

"Maybe it doesn't make sense to get a Tahoe right now, but I still want an SUV," said Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of the automotive Web site, paraphrasing the mindset of many shoppers.

Compact SUVs like the recently redesigned Equinox have become the vehicle of choice for these people. With the Equinox, GM engineers achieved car-like fuel economy without expensive hybrid technology.

3. Ford Escape

Ford Escape
Ford Escape
Jan - Aug 2011 sales: 140,842
Jan - Aug 2010 sales: 106,414
Price: $21,240 - $27,920
Fuel economy: 23 City / 28 Hwy
The Escape's rise up the sales charts is really remarkable. Yes, compact SUVs are one of the fastest-growing auto market segments today, but the Escape isn't exactly the newest product.

Despite a redesign in 2008, it hasn't changed a whole lot since its introduction in 2000. Besides the general rush to fuel-efficient small SUVs, chalk it up to Ford's improved dependability and the general popularity of Ford Motor Co. as "the one that didn't take the money."

Higher-than-average spending on sales incentives, according to, also helps.

4. Jeep Grand Cherokee

Jeep Grand Cherokee
Jeep Grand Cherokee
Jan - Aug 2011 sales: 64,869
Jan - Aug 2010 sales: 30,869
Price: $26,995 - $54,470
Fuel economy: 17 City / 23 Hwy
With its combination of off-road capability and on-road style, the Grand Cherokee has long been one of Jeep's most popular products.

Its sales rise this year is largely due to a hugely successful redesign that improved the Grand Cherokee's ride and handling while retaining the all-important, at least for the sake of image, off-road capability.

The most remarkable change is on the inside. The Grand Cherokee's interior now looks like fine furniture, not like lawn furniture.

5. Dodge Durango

Dodge Durango
Dodge Durango
Jan - Aug 2011 sales: 28,935
Jan - Aug 2010 sales: 46
Price: $28,995 - $42,995
Fuel economy: 16 City / 23 Hwy
Durango sales have increased this year by an amazing 63,000%. That's because the Durango wasn't in the production line-up last year, so dealers were just selling off the few lonely strays left on the lot.

Now the Durango is back, built in the same factory as the new Grand Cherokee and sharing most of its engineering. The new Durango trades some of the Jeep's off-road toughness for better on-road performance. It also offers an optional third row of seats not available on the Grand Cherokee.

While its still a car-based SUV, just like the Explorer, Dodge markets the Durango's old-school SUV toughness. In one TV spot, an Explorer laughably loses a tug-of-war with a V8-powered Durango.

Just goes to show, some SUV buyers still want an SUV and not a tall car. And, given the Durango's truck-like capabilities, its fuel economy remains a selling point.

6. Kia Sportage

Kia Sportage
Kia Sportage
Jan - Aug 2011 sales: 29,302
Jan - Aug 2010 sales: 10,477
Price: $18,500 - $28,400
Fuel economy: 21 City / 29 Hwy
Kia is on nearly as big a roll as its sister-brand Hyundai. Two factors, product quality and eye-catching design, are driving their sales run-up.

The sharp-looking Sportage, built in Kia's new Georgia factory, is enjoying a 180% sales increase compared to last year's lumpier-looking model.

7. Honda CR-V

Honda CR-V
Jan - Aug 2011 sales: 124,859
Jan - Aug 2010 sales: 106,928
Price: $21,895 - $28,095
Fuel economy: 21 City / 28 Hwy
The CR-V's sales rise is a healthy — but not mind-blowing — 17%. But any increase at all is especially impressive given that Honda's overall sales are way down following this year's massive Japanese earthquake and tsunami. This run probably won't hold up for long. A redesigned version of the CR-V is due out soon and new models usually slow sales of the soon-to-be-retired version.

But the CR-V is practically the iconic small SUV, so with buyers looking for fuel-efficient choices, it makes sense that many would settle on this one.

8. GMC Terrain

GMC Terrain
GMC Terrain
Jan - Aug 2011 sales: 48,666
Jan - Aug 2010 sales: 30,903
Price: $25,480 - $32,930
Fuel economy: 22 City / 32 Hwy
The Terrain is a squared off version of the Chevrolet Equinox with lots more chrome up front. Like the Equinox, it's easy on gas and also benefits from recently increased interest in the GMC brand. Sales of both the Terrain and the larger Acadia are swinging way up.

9. Nissan Rogue

Nissan Rogue
Jan - Aug 2011 sales: 69,171
Jan - Aug 2010 sales: 53,313
Price: $21,460 - $25,680
Fuel economy: 22 City / 28 Hwy
The Rogue is far tamer-looking than the more recently introduced bug-eyed Juke but, perhaps partly for that reason, it remains far more popular.

Also, while not exactly roomy, the Rogue at least has more usable space inside, while still getting excellent fuel economy. It's fun to drive, too. Overall, it's one of the bright spots in Nissan's line-up during this tough quake-rattled year for Japanese automakers.

10. Kia Sorento

Kia Sorento
Kia Sorento
Jan - Aug 2011 sales: 75,040
Jan - Aug 2010 sales: 59,795
Price: $21,250 - $34,850
Fuel economy: 20 City / 27 Hwy
The Sorento adds another thruster to Kia's rocket-like rise in the U.S. market. The Sportage's slightly bigger brother, the Sorento shares much of that SUVs style and, so far, shares its sales success, too. 

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