Kia and Cadillac join crowded market for three-row crossovers

DETROIT — When the Kia Telluride concept debuted in 2016, designer Tom Kearns had a “gut feeling” that the brand had hit the right marks with the boxy creation.

His gut proved correct, and last week, the production version made a rugged entrance on a hilly course at Detroit’s Cobo Center in a stunt out of the Jeep playbook.

Now, the Telluride must pull off another daring stunt: making its mark in a market that’s already brimming with new and established three-row crossover options, from humble Chevrolet and Ford models to sumptuous ones from Lexus and Audi.

The Telluride isn’t the only latecomer to the three-row circus. Its platform mate, Hyundai’s Palisade, is due up soon, as are the new XT6 from Cadillac and Lincoln’s Aviator. Still more are arriving in SUV segments, including three-row Jeeps and Rivian’s all-electric entry.

They’ll all have to contend with newcomers such as the Subaru Ascent, Volkswagen Atlas and Lexus RX L. Together with incumbents such as the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, Nissan Pathfinder, Chevy Traverse, GMC Acadia, Buick Enclave, Mazda CX-9 and the newly redesigned Ford Explorer, they make three-row crossovers one of the most competitive categories in the industry — and an increasingly diverse one, with varying designs, price points and powertrains, including hybrids and plug-ins.

The marketplace appears ready to absorb the new product. Fuel prices are low. U.S. sales of large crossovers rose 11 percent to 935,337 last year as more families graduated out of cars and minivans. Minivans managed just over half that volume.

Three-row large and midsize crossovers remain among the most profitable light-truck segments, prized for their ability to play the roles of minivan, truck and luxury vehicle all in one.

For Hyundai and Kia especially, they offer an important way to keep car owners brand-loyal as their families and needs grow.

But for those former car and minivan buyers, affordability of large crossovers could be an issue down the line, and some analysts wonder whether the segment could suffer a competitive squeeze if the economy slows.

Brian Moody, executive editor of Autotrader, thinks $35,000 is a good base price for the segment, although he added that consumers who want amenities such as leather trimmings and sunroofs will have to drop more than $40,000 in most cases. The luxury contenders, meanwhile, start in the mid-$40,000s.

“I think that if manufacturers can make their mark and make the right combinations, the survivors are going to quickly rise to the top,” Moody told Automotive News. “But eventually, years down the road, you’re going to come to a conclusion that we can’t have all of these conversations about [affordability] and then say, let’s make more big, expensive cars.”

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