Amer­i­cans want more; SUVs are de­liv­er­ing

New fea­tures help­ing drive boom­ing mar­ket

USA TODAY International Edition - - MONEY - Nathan Bomey

LOS AN­GE­LES – Six­teen cup hold­ers. Twenty-eight speak­ers. Off-road ca­pa­bil­ity.

Au­tomak­ers in­tro­duced new fam­ily ori­ented SUVs crammed full of those fea­tures and many oth­ers at the Los An­ge­les Auto Show, aim­ing to at­tract buyers who are rapidly ditch­ing sedans. It’s the lat­est com­pet­i­tive di­men­sion in the fren­zied SUV boom – and much of it is tar­geted at fam­i­lies who want more room for their kids, their stuff and their ad­ven­tures.

With pas­sen­ger cars set to be­come vir­tu­ally ex­tinct at Gen­eral Mo­tors and Ford – and al­ready vir­tu­ally gone at Fiat Chrysler – au­tomak­ers need to find fresh ways to make their SUVs stand out. And they know Amer­i­cans love the idea of more. And not just more room. More con­nec­tiv­ity. More safety. More fun.

“It helps them differ­en­ti­ate their prod­uct among the sea of new prod­ucts and new SUVs,” says Jes­sica Cald­well, an­a­lyst for car-buy­ing ad­vice site Ed­munds. “I think we’re go­ing to con­tinue to see au­tomak­ers find new niches that don’t ex­ist yet.”

Any­thing to win over buyers be­cause as com­pe­ti­tion heats up, it’s not enough to sim­ply have SUVs in the show­room now, like it used to be. They must be com­pelling.

“Whether it’s cup hold­ers or USB ports or a pow­er­train or get­ting into the back eas­ier, what­ever fea­ture is (go­ing to stand out in) that seg­ment is what au­tomak­ers have to focus on,” says Stephanie Brin­ley, an an­a­lyst at IHS Markit.

For ex­am­ple, Hyundai bragged at the LA Auto Show that its new three­row Pal­isade SUV has 16 cup hold­ers. That’s two cup hold­ers for ev­ery pas­sen­ger in the eight-seat ve­hi­cle.

“Cup-holder count has be­come an ob­ses­sive point, a fixa­tion,” says Karl Brauer, ex­ec­u­tive pub­lisher at Kel­ley Blue Book. “I don’t think most con­sumers are that wound up, but I do think it be­comes a talking point and a bul­let point in a press re­lease for man­u­fac­tur­ers.”

Talking points or sub­stan­tive el­e­ments – ei­ther way, the new fea­tures are adding up:

❚ Crea­ture com­forts: In ad­di­tion to 16 cup hold­ers, the 2020 Pal­isade will have seven USB ports for de­vice charg­ing. Ap­par­ently one un­lucky pas­sen­ger will have to face the prospect of di­min­ished bat­tery life. The Pal­isade also has a roof vent de­signed to diffuse the stream of air to al­low oc­cu­pants to con­trol the flow of the wind. Hyundai says it’s a first in the in­dus­try.

The new Lin­coln Avi­a­tor SUV has an op­tional au­dio sys­tem with 28 speak­ers, cre­at­ing what the Ford lux­ury brand called an “au­then­tic con­cert-hall ex­pe­ri­ence.” The Avi­a­tor also comes with op­tional seats that can be moved in 30 di­rec­tions. ❚ Configura­bil­ity: Amer­i­cans love the idea that they can cus­tom­ize their larger ve­hi­cle’s in­te­rior – which em­anates in many re­spects from the mini­van seg­ment. Even if they rarely move the seats, they like the idea that they can. And it’s be­com­ing eas­ier than ever in SUVs. The Pal­isade comes with thirdrow power seats. No longer will ve­hi­cle own­ers have to use their mus­cles.

“Now it’s like, it’s not just fold-down seats – it’s power fold-down seats,” Brauer says. ❚ The abil­ity to go off-road: Honda re­vealed a new SUV of its own at the LA show: the Pass­port, which is larger than the pop­u­lar CR-V mid­size cross­over but smaller than the eight-seat Pi­lot SUV.

Honda’s Amer­i­can divi­sion se­nior vice pres­i­dent, He­nio Ar­can­geli Jr., was care­ful to de­scribe it as “more rugged and pow­er­ful than CR-V but more per­sonal and sporty than the fam­ily fo­cused Pi­lot, with even bet­ter off-road per­for­mance.”

The Pass­port comes with an “Ad­ven­ture Pack­age,” which has run­ning boards, a trailer hitch, fender flares “and more for out­door week­end get­aways,” Honda says. Will Pass­port own­ers ac­tu­ally go on off-road ad­ven­tures? Doesn’t mat­ter. The idea is what counts.

“There’s an old quote in the car in­dus­try that says, you can sell a young car to an old per­son, but you can’t sell an old car to a young per­son,” Brauer says. “You can sell a sporty car to a fam­ily, but you can’t sell a fam­ily car to a sporty per­son.” ❚ Ac­ces­si­bil­ity: Call it ac­ces­si­bil­ity. Call it con­ve­nience. Call it lazi­ness if you want. But sev­eral of the new SUV mod­els de­but­ing at the LA show offer the abil­ity to un­lock and start the ve­hi­cle with an app. The Avi­a­tor is the first Lin­coln model to get what the brand calls its “Phone As A Key tech­nol­ogy.”

Ap­par­ently the key is one fea­ture Amer­i­cans don’t need.

HYUNDAI

SUVs are now crammed with cup hold­ers and USB ports.

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