Carmakers Seek to Satiate American SUV Lust, With Electricity

By · March 03, 2011

For nearly two decades, automakers have had a keen awareness of America's infatuation with sport utility vehicles. And though the SUV market may never again reach the heights that it did during the early-2000s, the question for carmakers isn't so much whether Americans still want to drive the vehicles but whether they can be made practical in an era of energy uncertainty and rising fuel economy standards.

Recently Toyota, General Motors, Ford, and Mitsubishi have worked to develop plug-in SUVs in the hope of one day reconciling America's large vehicle love affair with the host of environmental and economic drawbacks that come with their popularity.

SUVs Sales Are Going...Up

In February, sales of light trucks were up 32 percent over last year, as the credit market for car shoppers reportedly loosened, allowing for a 27 percent overall increase in vehicle purchases in the United States. The numbers were strong across the board for the auto industry, but the continued triumph of SUVs during a period when gas prices have steadily climbed back to levels not seen since 2008 was a bit of a head-scratcher to some analysts.

The last time oil climbed beyond $100—eventually soaring to more than $140 per barrel and bringing the national average price for gasoline above $4 per gallon—many drivers were left lamenting their SUV purchases. As consumers looked to cut fuel consumption, the used car market flooded with barely-used gas-guzzlers, and carmakers pushed their next-generation green vehicle R&D programs into overdrive. But as the economy hit a slump and gas prices fell to multi-year lows, consumers found their way back to larger vehicles.

Easier to Sell Big Electrics?

For electric vehicle makers looking to break their plug-ins into the broader market, the appeal of cheap, 30-mpg vehicles with MSRPs tens of thousands of dollars below the most affordable EVs may be difficult to surmount. The primary draw of cars like the Chevy Cruze and Ford Fiesta to most consumers isn't so much their fuel efficiency as their price tags—which position them among the most affordable new cars available.

But SUVs are a different story. Many of the most iconic models of the SUV era—from the Hummer to the Chevy Tahoe—actually carried sticker prices in the same range as the first wave of mass-market plug-ins. Does that mean that there will be many drivers trying to decide between spending their hard-earned money on a Chevy Volt and a Land Rover LR2? Probably not. But what if there were vehicles that offered the size and luxury of an SUV without the high residual cost—not to mention guilt—of fueling one? After all, there's plenty of room for batteries on a larger vehicle, even if it means the extra vehicle weight will require bigger packs.

Here's a rundown of what's coming up in the plug-in SUV segment:

Toyota Rav4 EV

Toyota Rav4 EV

Last year, Tesla and Toyota embarked on a multi-level partnership that will soon see the release of the first fully-electric vehicle the company has sold here since it halted sales of the legendary old-school RAV4 EV. For its second battery-electric, Toyota opted to again target the small SUV segment, this time using battery technology and electric vehicle engineering know-how borrowed from Tesla. In November, a prototype of the second-generation RAV4 EV revealed at the Los Angeles Auto Show, with Toyota announcing that it would test 35 of the cars over the course of the next year, culminating in a market launch sometime in 2012. Pre-production models of the SUV are said to be regularly hitting 100 miles of range.

(Tesla is readying an all-electric SUV of its own, the Model X, which CEO Elon Musk says will debut sometime later this year.)

GM Voltec SUV

GM Voltec SUV

For more than two years, rumors of various plug-in SUV models based on the same powertrain technology employed in the Chevy Volt, have circulated around the web. Chevy confirmed its interest in such a vehicle when it unveiled its MPV5 concept in Beijing last spring, a Voltec-powered five-seat crossover with an all-electric range of about 32 miles. Since then, there has been talk of several similar models possibly heading for production—under the Chevy Amp and Cadillac SRX monikers. GM has yet to confirm either vehicle, but has admitted that plug-in crossovers are among the options under consideration for broadening the deployment of Voltec technology.

Mitsubishi PX-MiEV

Mitsubishi PX-MiEV

Mitsubishi first unveiled its PX-MiEV PHEV at the Tokyo Motor Show in 2009, with production planned to begin for 2013. The mid-size SUV is said to carry an all-electric range of roughly 30 miles, with a projected fuel economy of 119 mpg. The powertrain consists of a four-cylinder, 114 horsepower gasoline engine and dual 60-hp motors providing front and rear wheel electric drive capabilities. Mitsu hasn't shared many additional details about what we can expect out of a production version of the SUV, but if the vehicle is really on pace for a 2013 release, we should hear more soon.

Ford Escape Plug-in

Ford Escape PHEV

Though Ford seems to have pushed back plans to bring a plug-in hybrid version of its popular Escape SUV to consumers, about 150 are being used as part of a test program coordinated with local utility companies throughout the country. The small SUV has a reported range or about 30 to 35 miles, capable of mixing gas and electricity as needed regardless of the battery's charge level. Reports from the test program place the fuel economy of the vehicle somewhere between 100 and 120 mpg. Ford has admitted it has doubts about whether the timing is yet right for a plug-in SUV, but the popularity of the standard Escape model and impressiveness of its hybrid sibling could make the platform the perfect place to kick off a plug-in SUV wave.

New to EVs? Start here

  1. Seven Things To Know About Buying a Plug-In Car
    A few simple tips before you visit the dealership.
  2. Incentives for Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars
    Take advantage of credits and rebates to reduce EV costs.
  3. Buying Your First Home EV Charger
    You'll want a home charger. Here's how to buy the right one.