DETROIT — The world’s automakers are asleep at the wheel.
While customers clamor for more SUVs like the Toyota RAV4, Ford Edge, Chevrolet Traverse, and Honda HR-V and as electric-drive technology advances rapidly, it’s virtually impossible to find an electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle in the fast-growing urban-utility vehicle segment.
Mitsubishi builds the world’s best-selling plug-in hybrid SUV. Mitsubishi, for crying out loud.
That’s no knock on the Outlander, but it demonstrates a shocking bankruptcy of imagination at Chevy, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Toyota, and Volkswagen. Each of those brands literally builds millions more vehicles than tiny Mitsubishi. But the little brand with the triple-diamond badge was the only one that understood: At the intersection of growing environmental awareness and soaring SUV sales is a new class of vehicles that deliver the height and room of an SUV and run on batteries at least some of the time.
Most people buying urban utilities don’t care about off-road ability or towing capacity. Half of them probably aren’t sure if they’ve got all-wheel drive.
They just want to sit up high, see what’s around them, and have a big space behind the rear seat.
A meaningful number would love to plug in for their daily driving and slash how often they have to buy gas, but the leading automakers have declined to build plug-ins and EVs with the height and room that made SUVs a hit.
Put your conspiracy theories aside. This isn’t the mythical case of car companies and oil companies conspiring to put a lid on electric vehicles.
In some ways, it’s worse: an epidemic outbreak of shortsightedness and timidity that’s kept a ruthlessly capitalistic industry from capitalizing on an open space in the market. Automakers all thought SUV shoppers wanted to tow trailers and go off-road, when most couldn’t care less.
Even as SUVs commanded an ever-rising share of the new-vehicle market, the leading automakers underestimated how much people will pay for utilities, and misunderstood how they use the vehicles: A plug-in hybrid of a boat-hauling Lincoln Navigator is the answer to a question nobody asked; a plug-in Honda CR-V might have dominated a new market. Instead, the Outlander and even newer new Kia Niro plug-in went on sale this year and rule with a handful of sales. Tesla sells the electric the Model X electric SUVs, but with prices starting at $140,000, it’s an outlier, too.
The next couple of years will see plug-in hybrid SUVs with better sales prospects arriving, probably including versions of the Chevrolet Equinox and the next-gen Ford Escape.
If done well, they’ll likely sell well, and high-priced execs at automakers around the world will scratch their heads and ask, “What took us so long?”
Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic.