The rise of burly high-performance and off-road SUVs and trucks

Key Points
  • As consumer tastes shift further toward SUVs and trucks, companies are diversifying their lineups with off-roaders and fast high performance trucks and SUVs.
  • Consumers are attracted to the "livability" of these vehicles, compared with sports cars and off-roaders of the past.
The rise of off-road trucks

It could be said that Ford decided to get into the off-road truck business at the worst possible time.

In 2008, gas prices were at an all-time high and the U.S. economy was reeling from one of the most severe financial crises in history.

At that time, a tiny team of engineers working with an extremely small budget in Ford's Performance division, where cars the like Mustang, Ford GT, and Focus RS are made, decided to make a truck that evoked the desert racing trucks Ford engineer Jamal Hameedi had worked on for almost two decades prior to joining the Ford.

"Everyone thought we were absolutely crazy for pushing an off-road pickup truck," he said, "Honestly at the time everyone was bailing out of pickups trucks because of gas prices."

The Ford F-150 Raptor was modeled in part off desert-racing trucks, and is best suited for "overland" off-roading as opposed to rock crawling.
Source: Ford Motor Company

And yet it paid off. Sales of the result, the Raptor, have outpaced those of even iconic sports car brands.

"Last year, F-150 in the U.S. outsold the entire Porsche car lineup," Ford executive vice president and president of Global Markets told reporters at an event in Detroit in February. "The F-150 Raptor roars off dealers lots in less than one third of the industry average."

But Raptor does not stand alone. As the entire U.S. auto market shifts further away from passenger cars and toward utility vehicles, automakers are paying what observers say is an unprecedented amount of attention to high-performance pickups and SUVs.

Every American car brand, including Tesla, has some kind of on- or off-road truck or SUV, and many of them are delivering higher transaction prices and selling better than companies expected. In a relatively strong economy with low gas prices, customers are willing to shell out more cash for an off-road vehicle they may only rarely take off-road, if ever.

Fiat-Chrysler's RAM truck brand sells the Rebel and the Power Wagon, both off-road trims available for their pickups. Jeep sells both the off-road Wrangler, which the brand redesigned for the 2018 year. Chevrolet produces the mid-size Colorado ZR2 and the Z71.

And there are more planned. Chevrolet filed a patent last week for another ZR2 brand name, the ZR2 Bison.

Ford is planning to bring back its Bronco, and is planning a smaller off-road SUV. GMC said in March it will introduce the AT4 package across its line of premium pickup trucks.

The GMC Sierra AT4, the first of several models that will offer the off-road package. GMC is aiming the truck at customers who want a more premium pickup with off-road kit such as a locking rear differential and a 2-inch lift right off the shelf.
Robert Ferris | CNBC

High-performance SUVs are not limited to off-roaders either. While critics have argued that SUVs, with their high centers of gravity, are not as good as more agile sports cars and sedans, automakers are making them, and customers are buying.

Luxury car makers such as Porsche, BMW, Mercedes, Bentley, and even Lamborghini have all made high performance SUVs. Lamborghini said its Urus SUV is selling better than the company expected, for example.

Stefano Domenicali attends the Lamborghni Urus World Premier on December 4, 2017 in Sant'Agata Bolognese, Italy.
Getty Images

Ford has added the performance ST trim to its Edge mid-sized SUV and is soon planning to add an ST version of the Explorer.

Perhaps one of the most extreme examples of the phenomenon is the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk, which has a 707-horsepower engine, essentially the same engine found in the Dodge Challenger and Charger Hellcat muscle car models.

"You are seeing manufacturers taking a little bit more risk and launching vehicles that wouldn't have been able to make it in the past," said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting at LMC Automotive, which tracks the auto industry.

These are generally low volume vehicles, but they can be quite profitable for brands, significantly raising average transaction prices over base or lower trim models. Executives CNBC spoke with were tight-lipped about specific numbers, for what they said were competitive reasons.

Ford Off-Road vehicle
Source: Ford Motor Company

But for example, average transaction prices so far in 2018 for the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk are $93,530, according to Kelley Blue Book. The less expensive high-performance Grand Cherokee SRT has an ATP of $71,444. Those compare with an average ATP of just $43,107 for the rest of the Grand Cherokee lineup.

A crew cab Chevrolet Colorado ZR2, has an average ATP of $43,757, compared with an average of $34,446 for all other Colorado trucks. And a Ford SuperCrew Raptor brings in an average transaction price of $68,919, compared with an average of $48,152 for F-150 SuperCrew trucks excluding the Raptor.

"I think what you are finding is for relatively low investment the manufacturers can get a very high image vehicle on the road and also charge a nice price for it," said George Peterson, president of AutoPacific, a research firm. "It is also a way for the engineers at these companies to have fun."

Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Concept
Source: General Motors

The off-road and on-road vehicles each target different segments, and fill different needs. But both have one thing in common: they bring exceptional performance traits to vehicles that can also be used as daily drivers.

Off-roaders have been around for awhile, but they historically have not been what the industry calls "livable."

That means in the past they have tended to be optimized for driving in certain conditions, and have not always been comfortable to drive.

But advancements in engineering have changed that. While these vehicles can still perform off-road, manufacturers say they are now designed to be driven on pavement as well, making them more suitable for use as an everyday vehicle.

For example, Chevrolet has outfitted the off-road ready ZR2 with a suspension system made with supplier Multimatic. Ford took its own steps with the Raptor. GMC's AT4 line is aimed at buyers willing to pay a higher price for a luxurious truck with off-road capability. And Jeep redesigned its Wrangler for the 2018 model year to make the iconic off-roader better for daily driving.

Guests drive a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon on a simulated off-road course at the Chicago Auto Show on February 8, 2018 in Chicago.
Getty Images

"The new Wrangler is very easy to live with and probably will have repeat buyers," Peterson said.

Jeep stayed true to its heritage by keeping the capability, and unique features like the the folding windshield and removable doors. But it feels more like a modern vehicle.

"The ride is much better," he said. "It is quieter. It is not as spartan. It has most of the new electronic safety and convenience features available."

Automakers say "livability" is partly what draws buyers to its fast on-road SUVs as well.
Specifically, performance (high-speed, quick acceleration) SUVs allow drivers to enjoy driving a quick vehicle that handles well and is fun, but also flexible, perhaps more flexible than a specialized sports car.

Take the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk for example.

"It is truly a higher performance vehicle in terms of acceleration, speed handling and braking," said Scott Tallon, head of Jeep Product Marketing for Fiat-Chrysler. "But, when you are driving it normally, it is quite comfortable, you can get five passengers inside, you can put things in the back."

2018 Jeep Cherokee Trackhawk
Source: Jeep

Of course, there are potential constraints on the growth of these segments. Higher transaction prices are great for companies, but they obviously mean customers are spending more money. And some of these vehicles burn more gasoline than base models or those with different trim packages.

The Raptor, for example, gets an EPA-estimated 15 miles per gallon in the city and just 18 on the highway. Compare that with the F-150 EcoBoost, which starts at almost half the price of the Raptor and gets an EPA-estimated 19 miles per gallon in the city and 25 miles per gallon on the highway.

So if gas prices spike or car buyers begin opting for more budget friendly vehicles, the market for these vehicles could dry up.

But for now, automakers are content with selling a low volume model that can act as a halo for their truck brand, and bring in margins for the company. And many of them simply like the vehicles.

"We make these cars for ourselves," Hameedi said. "For Raptor we didn't have a market research study. We are all performance enthusiasts, and if we like the car or truck, there will be a whole line of performance enthusiasts we know will like it too. I have been doing this since 2002, and that has held up."