The Short List - 2013 Body-On-Frame SUVs
The Survivors of the Crossover Revolution
At one time, the term SUV applied exclusively to body-on-frame vehicles, with early examples being essentially pickups with full-body sheetmetal and another row or two of seats. Most of them even rode on truck-based suspensions, right down to solid rear axles and leaf springs. Today, the landscape has changed drastically. The volume leaders are now compact unibody models, with the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape battling it out month-to-month for first place, both of them totaling more than 200,000 sales a year.
The former volume leader, the Ford Explorer, abandoned its truck roots starting with the 2011 model year, going to a unibody platform shared with the Ford Taurus. The Nissan Pathfinder followed suit for the 2013 model year, going to a stretched Murano platform. The originators of the genre are now the exceptions to the rule, but some stalwarts remain. Below are the remaining body-on-frame SUVs for the 2013 model year.
The Escalade actually dates back to the 1999, a hastily-cobbled response to Lincoln's 1998 introduction of the Expedition-based Navigator, but the one everyone remembers is the breakout 2002 model, with its bold, angular "Art and Science" grille. Although not a particularly high-volume model, the Escalade is a decent seller with a hefty profit margin, particularly the range-topping Platinum models that approach the six-figure mark. There was some speculation a few years ago that the Escalade could migrate to the unibody Lambda platform, but all indications are that the Escalade will continue on a body-on-frame truck chassis, with stronger, more efficient engines and bolder, chromier styling.
These bread-and-butter fixtures of GM's SUV lineup will probably be some of the last models to still ride on a body-on-frame chassis. Despite the seemingly dated architecture, the GMT-900 models have always delivered surprisingly good fuel economy and maneuverability for their size and capabilities, two attributes appreciated by customers who's idea of recreation often includes watercraft, ski boats or campers, and all the associated equipment that comes with those pursuits. An all-new model will be following the 2014 Silverado by a few months.
The Expedition is no longer the sales blockbuster it once was and the current model is starting to show its age, but don't throw in the towel on Ford's fullsize SUV yet. A powertrain update giving it the F-150's 5.0 V-8 or EcoBoost V-6 is practically a given, breathing new life into the platform. However, its long-term prospects are not quite as promising as the GM offerings, as Ford seems steadfastly committed to lightening and downsizing -- and more often than not, that means a unibody platform, as was the case with the Explorer.
For what used to be GM's bespoke "truck" brand, even having the name in the official logo for a period, it's somewhat ironic that the Yukon line is GMC's only remaining SUV that's body-on-frame. Both the Acadia and Terrain are unibody, and the concepts shown in the last few years, most notably the Granite sub-compact, are getting smaller and more car-like. The Yukon and Suburban-sized Yukon XL are such staples of the lineup, we don't see them going unibody for the foreseeable future.
Poised to become the QX80 for the 2014 model year, the second-generation QX56 departs from the Nissan Armada platform to ride on the global Patrol chassis. Although considerably more sophisticated and refined than its predecessor, the new model is still body-on-frame. However, the long-term prospects for Infiniti's luxo-lounge are shaky at best, with Infiniti head honcho Johann De Nysschen essentially saying the V-8 doesn't have much of a future in the Infiniti lineup. Whether that was specifically in reference to the car lineup or the entire brand, we don't know. If you like Infiniti's full-size luxury SUV, it might be advisable to buy one sooner rather than later.
Ever since the Willys MB, the definitive "Jeep" has always been body-on-frame, but Jeep has also been well-known for capable unibody off-roaders since the introduction of the XJ Cherokee in 1984. In fact, the Wrangler is the sole remaining body-on-frame model in the Jeep portfolio, for which thousands of off-road enthusiasts are thankful. Although quite adept off-road, the unibody Grand Cherokee requires quite a bit more modification in the form of rock rails and other bolt-ons to take the punishment the Wrangler is legendarily capable of. The Wrangler may not stay body-on-frame forever, but if the purists have any say, it probably will retain the configuration for at least another generation.
Lexus GX 460
Imagine a Toyota 4Runner with dressier styling, a more luxurious interior and a V-8 engine, and you essentially have the GX 460. As long as the 4Runner is around, the GX will probably be a part of the Lexus lineup as well, as the GX is sold in overseas markets as the Land Cruiser Prado and the GX and 4Runner share an assembly line in Japan. But only selling a modest 11,000 units in the U.S. market for 2012, compared to 48,000 4Runners and more than 95,000 of the popular Lexus RX crossover, it's unknown how much longer the GX will be part of the Lexus lineup.
Lexus LX 570
The granddaddy of Lexus SUVs, the opulent and expensive LX 570 is based on the equally-exclusive Toyota Land Cruiser. Ironically, the LX out-sold the Land Cruiser in the U.S. market by a margin of nearly two-to-one in 2012, with 5005 units moving off Lexus lots compared to only 2895 Land Cruisers. Maybe well-heeled customers have less of an issue paying $80,000 for a vehicle with an "L" on the grille than a "T." We see both the LX and Land Cruiser remaining body-on-frame for the foreseeable future.
Since it's tied at the hip with the Expedition, it's safe to say whatever fate befalls the Expedition will also befall the Navigator. In the near-term, it probably means powertrain upgrades that would add the 5.0-liter V-8 or EcoBoost V-6 (or both) from the F-150, as well a freshening inside and out. With the Town Car now gone, many limousine and livery operators are purchasing the Navigator for their "black car" duties, showing some resistance to Lincoln's insistence that the somewhat awkwardly-proportioned MKT is the new "Town Car." Near-term prospects are good, but further out becomes a little hazier.
The G-Wagen seems to be the vehicle that never changes. Certainly, from the standpoint of exterior styling, that's the case, with only minimal changes in its nearly 35-year history. But the G-Wagen gets a powertrain and interior update that roughly parallels the model cycle of the S-Class sedan, so the new models share the same seven-speed automatic and 5.5-liter twin-turbocharged V-8 on the G63 AMG model as can be found on the equivalent S-Class or ML. But the Mercedes-Benz Ener-G-Force concept shows that even a shape as iconic as the G-Wagen is open to a modern interpretation. Whether its ultimate successor will ride on a body-on-frame chassis or join the unibody fray along with the GL and ML is unknown.
The Armada's long-term prospects in the Nissan lineup are unknown. It's nowhere close to being the sales leader, with the compact Rogue taking that title, and fullsize SUVs in general have generally fallen out of favor with many customers. With Nissan corporate aggressively pursuing electrification and a conspicuously "green" image, the nearly three-ton Armada is an outlier. A next-generation Titan pickup is certainly on the horizon, but whether or not the Armada accompanies it remains to be seen.
With the transition of the Pathfinder to the unibody camp, the Xterra is one of two remaining body-on-frame models in Nissan's U.S. lineup. The Xterra sold even fewer units than the larger Armada, but in some regions of the country, particularly Southern California, Xterras are not uncommon. Since it shares so many components with the Frontier pickup, there's a good chance there will be a new Xterra when there's a new Frontier, but that's far from a sure thing.
The Sequoia is a niche product in the greater scheme of the Toyota product lineup, with sales being less than a tenth of the RAV4's and roughly equal to those of the FJ Cruiser. Would the roughly 13,000 Sequoias sold in 2012 be missed if it were discontinued? Perhaps, but with gobal sales approaching 10 million for 2012, the loss of the Sequoia wouldn't make a huge difference one way or the other. We know a new Tundra is coming for 2014, but we haven't heard anything on a new Sequoia. We'll have to wait and see on this one.
Toyota Land Cruiser
Toyota is so large and wealthy, that the number of Land Cruisers it sells is insignificant. Certainly in the U.S., with less than 3000 sales for all of 2012, it's a drop in the bucket, but the Land Cruiser carries a lot of symbolic weight for the brand because many see it as the epitome of solidity, ruggedness, comfort, and refinement, much like the Range Rover. We don't see the Land Cruiser disappearing from Toyota's U.S. lineup anytime soon, but if it did, you could still get the essentially mechanically identical vehicle in the Lexus LX 570. Sure, the Lexus costs a little more, but when you're talking about a starting price of more than $78,000, who's counting?
Although not the sales blockbuster the RAV4 is, the 4Runner sold a respectable 48,755 units for 2012, more than any single Scion model, the Avalon, Yaris, or Venza. For those customers that like a little ruggedness with their utilities, the 4Runner is hard to beat. It's likely to remain a part of the Toyota lineup for some time to come.
Toyota FJ Cruiser
The FJ Cruiser shares many of its hard parts with the Land Cruiser Prado, best known in the States as the Lexus GX 460. As noted earlier, it sells approximately as many units as the fullsize Sequoia, but has a far more passionate following among enthusiasts. However, current-year sales are a fraction of what they were at their peak in 2006, when Toyota sold more than 56,000 of the retro-styled SUV. It is unlikely to see a second-generation.