How the Heck Are SUV Sales Hot Again?

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The conventional thinking had it that rising gas prices would stifle the sales of SUVs. Lane-clogging Suburbans and Explorers would slowly disappear with loads of drivers turning to smaller, fuel-efficient cars. And yet, even as gas prices remain relatively high, SUV sales have never been better. What gives?

If you had to name a heyday for the American sports utility vehicle, most people would point to the ’90s, when gigantic SUVS such as the Hummer, Lincoln Navigator, and Ford Excursion were first sold to the public. According to CNN Money, 1 in 5 new cars sold in the late ’90s and early ’00s was an SUV. That sounds like a lot of cars—until you find out that nearly 1 in 3 vehicles sold today is an SUV.

High gas prices were expected to hammer SUV sales. In March, when gas prices were soaring, data released from the auto dealership association indicated that as prices continued to rise, demand for SUVs would decline. If gas hit $5 per gallon, prices of large used SUVs and trucks were expected to drop by as much as 20%.

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The market for new and used SUVs hasn’t tanked, of course, at least partly because the newest SUVs aren’t the giant tanks from the ’90s. In fact, sales are strong, and there are a couple main reasons why.

First, and most obviously, despite a few notable exceptions, most drivers are paying well below $5 per gallon. The latest expectation is that the national average will stay below $4 per gallon through the summer. A summertime average of around $3.80 per gallon isn’t cheap, but it’s a lot cheaper than $5, and therefore drivers aren’t desperate to find the absolute most fuel-efficient cars possible.

Second, the SUVs on the market today aren’t the SUVs of old. Several gargantuan models like the Hummer and Ford Excursion aren’t even being made anymore. The fastest-growing SUVs are what might be called anti-Hummers: small, remarkably fuel-efficient SUVs such as the Honda CR-V, Ford Escape, and the new Mazda CX-5. The latter, which Mazda tells CNNMoney is basically “sold out” for “all intents and purposes” due to incredible demand, starts at a little over $20K and gets over 30 mpg on the highway.

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Auto sales overall have been strong so far in 2012. Strong enough, Edmunds reports, to require several automakers to boost production of certain vehicles—SUVs in particular:

Chrysler and Ford just announced shortened or curtailed summer shutdowns to boost production of several models including the Fiat 500 and Jeep Grand Cherokee as well as Ford Explorer and Ford F-150. Honda has added overtime at an Ohio plant to make the CR-V.

Wait, the Ford Explorer? Wasn’t that the quintessential SUV of the ’90s? Well, yes, it was. It was the best-selling passenger vehicle in America for over a decade, and it basically kicked off the SUV craze—earning it a spot in TIME‘s Worst Cars of All Time list.

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The vintage ’90s Explorer, however, has amazingly little in common with the Explorer today. The old version was based on a truck-based design. At some point, automakers realized that few drivers actually planned on taking their SUVs off road. Drivers didn’t like the rough ride provided by older SUVs, nor did they like the poor gas mileage. Today’s Explorer has much more in common with a sedan—it shares design similarities with the Ford Taurus—rather than a truck, most notably with a smaller, more fuel-efficient engine
Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.