If the rumors are right, General Motors is about to significantly shake up the crossover segments with the Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain. According to a story that recently broke on GMInsideNews.com, the two very successful vehicles will soon be available with GM’s eAssist “light electrification” system—and much higher fuel-economy ratings.
Coincidentally, the timing of this news couldn’t be better for the General as there is a surprising lack of green technology available for crossover shoppers. Things actually had taken a turn for the worse a few days ago, too, as it became clear that the Blue Oval would not produce a hybrid version of the all-new Ford Escape. That would have created a rather startling scenario in which no automaker would have been offering a mainstream hybrid crossover for the foreseeable future.
Yes, the Toyota RAV4 will have an electric variant in the near-term future, and that automaker also is trying to position the Toyota Prius v as a crossover alternative. Ford is doing something similar with the coming Ford C-MAX, but the limited range of the former and the softer, “multi activity vehicle” styling of the latter two will greatly minimize their appeal to traditional crossover buyers. Meanwhile, GM will be showcasing two vehicles that are already hot sellers and could soon be boasting better EPA lines than the Honda Fit.
The Toyota Factor
So, exactly how hot have the GM duo been? Volume-wise, the Escape and Honda CR-V are still leading the way by a healthy margin, as reinforced by the September sales numbers. The Escape set a monthly sales record last month, ringing up 20,225 deliveries, and has set new benchmarks in seven of the nine months of 2011. With more than 187,000 sales in the books already this year, the Escape is a sure thing to break 200K for the year. Deliveries of the CR-V haven’t been quite so strong, but with 19,604 sales of its own last month, the vehicle was the second-best-selling crossover in America in September, and it’s still No. 2 on a year-to-date basis, with more than 160,000 sales.
Combined numbers for the Terrain and Equinox, however, have soared to 208,486 units so far in 2011, and that represents 22,407 sales in September, an increase of 36.3 percent for the month, and a year-to-date improvement that tops 50 percent. Significantly, that combined YTD volume would make GM’s pair of crossovers the fourth-best-selling vehicle in the U.S. through September, trailing just the Ford F-150, Chevy Silverado and Toyota Camry.
There are a lot of reasons for the success of the Terrain and Equinox, and it helps that the RAV4 has shed more than 30,000 sales so far this year as compared to 2010. But it’s important to recognize that that’s not the only factor making a difference. The Equinox alone has gained more than 45,000 sales through September, and despite weak performances from a few segment stalwarts, as well as a recent shift away from crossovers (and other vehicles) back into full-size trucks, the crossover segments overall still have a lot of room for growth. Which is why I’m so surprised none of the other automakers are trying to exploit that opportunity with something like eAssist.
Getting an Assist from eAssist
The basic operation of the eAssist setup is simple: The system can capture a modest amount of energy via regenerative braking (up to 15 kilowatts), store that energy as electricity in a compact lithium-ion battery, then leverage that electricity to help power the vehicle during certain driving scenarios. It’s a relatively simple and inexpensive way to boost fuel-efficiency, and already it has been slated for use in the Buick LaCrosse, Buick Regal and Chevrolet Malibu.
To provide some context for how well the system works, consider that the first vehicle with an eAssist powertrain, the LaCrosse, saw its EPA ratings with a 2.4-liter I4 engine rise from 19/30/23 without eAssist to marks of 25/36/29 with the system. That’s an increase of more than 31 percent in the city/20 percent highway/26 percent combined. Applying the same percentages to the Equinox and Terrain, you get potential fuel-efficiency ratings of 30/38/33. The current Fit comes in at 28/35/31.
Needless to say, the difference between the Equinox/Terrain and their rivals could be stark indeed. Excepting the Escape Hybrid, which, remember, is on its way out of production, the GM duo still offers nearly unbeatable fuel-efficiency numbers today, and, technically, still the highest combined mpg ratings. The sole gas-only crossover that can do better than the GM products’ 22 mpg city is the conventional Escape, at 23 mpg, and only the Sportage ties that mark. The Equinox and Terrain can each achieve 32 mpg highway, which is equaled by the RAV4, Sportage and Hyundai Tucson, but the Tucson and RAV4 trail elsewhere. Even with the Kia having the exact same city and highway numbers as the GM crossovers, it’s rated at 25 mpg combined, as compared to GM’s 26 mpg.
Checking the Timeline
The eAssist Equinox/Terrain are reported to be arriving as 2014 models, which means the competition has a lot less than 24 months to come up with a magic bullet here. And while it’s conceivable that that’s enough time for someone else to hybridize another crossover, the current lack of interest in doing so makes the odds of it happening rather long. And that means yet another fuel-efficiency advantage for the General.