Is it just me, or is my generation getting a wee bit domesticated? While performance cars still rule, truck sales continue to soar, and crossover popularity unfurls a new foothold, the oh-so American SUV has been quietly gathering steam for a fresh run. Long past are the days when SUVs were little more than brick-shaped, V8-toting, cement-brick-riding monstrosities, as the auto industry reforges these machines into something far more multifaceted.
Take Ford for example. The Blue Oval has done a fantastic job of making its Explorer a keepsake for over two decades and, since its debut in the 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park, it has consistently sold well as an alternative to traditional family vehicles. It has without question grown both in size and sex appeal over the years, and with all of the tech and torque modern buyers crave in this latest generation, it’s no wonder sales numbers are up across the board for Ford’s SUV line.
According to a Ford press release, the company recorded 115,228 SUV sales in the first two months of 2016 alone, making it “the best calendar year start for Ford SUVs in history.” Ford’s analysis goes on to show that of all new vehicle registrations in the U.S., millennial buyers between the ages of 25 and 34 have made the Explorer a best-seller once again, as well as the best-selling midsize SUV with women.
Maintaining its status as the best-selling midsize SUV in America, the Explorer remains an iconic slice of Americana and an example of what is really happening in the auto segment as much as the millennial generation’s metamorphosis. Deny it all you want, but many of us are settling down and having kids, and since minivans aren’t for everyone, the SUV steps forward to take center stage.
“It’s an example of need-based growth,” says Erich Merkle, Ford U.S. sales analyst. “Millennials have begun forming families and those families are growing – in terms of the number of children as well as the size of those children. Explorer provides the space those families need today and tomorrow, while maintaining the image they want to project.”
While practicality may seem more important than “maintaining an image,” if you talk to any millennial father about whether he would rather be seen driving a modern SUV or a minivan, the answer is going to be overwhelming. What’s even more surprising though is what the mothers have to say (the Explorer remains the hottest midsize SUV seller among women and all), and since it is neither too soft- or hard-lined, you can see why visually it appeals to both sexes.
By doing things like offering sport appearance packages that are both attractive and practical, Ford has produced sales figures in the first two months of 2016 that are double that of the rest of the domestic SUV market — up 16% over last year. In February alone — which just so happened to be the company’s best-ever February for SUVs — sales were up 28% over 2015, as double-digit percentage increases for all six Ford SUV nameplates were recorded.
This means that competing SUV manufacturers are surely assessing what Ford has done to achieve such stellar growth in the midsize SUV sector in order to improve their vehicles, marketing strategies, and sales incentives. Expect the competition to get pretty fierce — fiercer than usual at least, which is good for potential buyers as automakers look to outdo one another in order to make a sale. Turbocharged, tech-filled, and going autonomous, it’s a good time to start researching which family hauler fits your family unit best.
Additionally, the millennial demand for these vehicles will be there for the next 18 years at least, so don’t expect Ford to remain at the top the entire time — especially with companies like Volvo and Land Rover offering more luxury for the money than ever. Kids outgrow the third row, miles pile up on the odometer, trade-ins get scheduled, and conquest sales occur often. It’s a cut-throat, fast paced industry, and the forever fickle buyer will always get their way, regardless of what automaker they ultimately opt for when it is time to sign.
Lastly, there is little risk in the foreseeable future of the SUV falling into disfavor the way the station wagon once did. Americans like having a third row seating option that folds flat, various engine options engineered for economy and towing, and all of the security an all-wheel drive system can offer, especially since the Toyota Sienna remains the only all-wheel drive minivan out there.
The Explorer checks all the right boxes in all of the right places, and there’s very little about the latest generation for buyers to dislike. Which leaves us with just two questions: How long can Ford hold the midsize SUV crown, and what vehicle has what it takes to one day usurp the exalted Explorer?