By on May 7, 2010

Considering the Suburban so essentially captures the tenuous line between myth and reality in American life, it’s a pity we don’t have 75 years of sales data to put some hard numbers behind the nameplate’s 75 years of history. Luckily, our data does go back to 1995, when America’s whirlwind romance with the SUV was just beginning to get serious. Given that, as Paul points out in today’s history, Suburbans didn’t become popular as family haulers until sometime in the early eighties, it’s safe to assume that 1996-2004 represents the absolute high-water mark for the nameplate’s volume. And ye gods has that volume dropped off ever since.

Of course, those number don’t represent the whole picture. The GMC brand added volume to the Suburban nameplate until GMC renamed its version “Yukon XL” for the 2000 model-year GMT800 machines.

Looking at the data, it appears that the name change didn’t help the GMC version initially. Apparently GM’s logic that

Yukon is a name that clearly means “GMC,” and GMC means “trucks that deliver”

didn’t quite pan out. Launching late in 1999, the un-Suburban didn’t see dramatic sales improvements until SUV mania hit a fever pitch in 2001. Like its Chevy-branded twin though, the bloom was off the Yukon XL by 2005 albeit in slightly less dramatic fashion. This 2004-2006 decline in Suburban/Yukon XL sales roughly coincides with GM’s first major assault on the crossover segment (the Aztek having died out by 2005). Equinox was introduced in 2004, and by 2005 was pulling in over 130k units. Saturn’s Vue was introduced even earlier, and recorded its best-ever volume in 2005 with 0ver 90k units. On the other end of the spectrum, the HUMMER brand was introduced in 2000 and hit its best-ever sales numbers in 2006 (71,524 units), before dropping like a stone ever since.

Nor can we blame the 2004-2006 declines in GM’s full-size SUVs on cannibalism alone, although direct competition wasn’t as big a factor as one might expect. GM’s main competition in the über-SUV segment, the Ford Excursion, peaked at just under 50k units in 2000 (though smaller, the Expedition also peaked in 2000 at 233,125 and has plummeted ever since). Intriguingly though, Ford’s Freestyle saw its best numbers ever in 2005 (76,739), providing more evidence for the theory that crossovers played a major role in this period of Suburban sales declines. That the granddaddy of crossovers, the Lexus RX, crested the 100k unit annual volume mark in 2004 seems to confirm this suspicion. If we take this theory one step further, and accept that the SUV boom was caused by buyers who might otherwise have bought a sedan, it’s possible that record volume for the just-introduced Ford 500 (just under 108k units), Chrysler 300 (144k units) and Buick LaCrosse (92,669 units) played a role in the 2005 Suburban flight as well.

Whatever caused the Suburban bubble to burst shortly after soaring to record highs, a gas price spike in 2005 clearly delineates the beginning of the end.

Already played out as a cultural icon, and under attack from a new breed of crossover competitors, 2008’s gas price shock emphatically ended the Suburban and Yukon XL’s brief tenure as a mainstream transportation option. With gas prices higher than pre-2005 levels and trending upwards, the Suburban would be a lot less popular even if CAFE increases weren’t looming. If GM is going to keep the “longest running continually-built vehicle in America” around much longer, one has to assume that a “if you can’t beat them, join them” strategy is in order. GM has said that the Suburban likely won’t change until 2013. From there, the question is simple: does the Suburban stay body-on-frame and return to its historic commercial-duty volumes, or does Chevy adapt the once-dominant nameplate to the unibody times in order to preserve it as a mainstream model?

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26 Comments on “The Rise And Fall Of The Suburban...”

  • avatar

    I have owned TWO as tow vehicles . My first a 99 and my second a 2001 . Both 3/4 tons with big blocks and I loved them both, The 2001 with the 500 inch big block ( 8.1) was a rocket ship but drank gasoline . 8 or 9 in regular driveing and below 7 toweing. In 04 I migrated to a Duramax Chevy diesel crew cab. Twice the mileage but the 01 SUB is still my favorite for ride, comfort , Handling, brakeing and overall utility. I would buy another if gas was a dollar a gallon again like it was in 2000 when I bought it. GM let all the Suburban fans down when they pulled back on their plans to put the Duramax diesel in the Suburban.

  • avatar

    I was surprised Chevy never really went diesel in the Suburban – it was the one heavy gas guzzler that really needed it. As said above – the Suburban was an excellent tow vehicle – especially the 2500HD model.

    Unfortunately – the Suburban / Expedition / Excursion were the pinnacle of Soccer Mom / Dad wastefulness. I still look at people who daily drive in them to work (single occupant). A friend of mine had a 1/2 ton 1996 model that he used to tow horse trailers – it worked great and he bought some a $500 economy car that needed a little work and use as his commuter car (he was still driving the Suburb on a 40 mile round trip in Northern VA). In just 4 months he paid for the car just in gas saved.

  • avatar

    I have some anecdotal evidence of the Suburban’s fall right next door. My Mormon neighbors have one for hauling their five kids and various bulky stuff around. It’s a last-generation variant, I think a 2001, so right from the era of peak sales. They love Suburbans, but this may be their last. They are seriously discussing replacing it with something else when the time comes, partly due to the fuel cost, and partly because they say prices have just gotten too high (I haven’t priced Suburbans lately, but maybe they don’t depreciate like they used to). The list of candidates is short, as they anticipate needing to handle three child seats at once along with space for the two oldest kids, and there aren’t many vehicles that can accomodate all that.

  • avatar

    I would like to see a corresponding graph of Tahoe sales, not to mention all of the similar sized competitors introduced in the last 15 years. My theory is that the Suburban was larger than necessary for many folks, who purchased regardless when no vehicles closer in size to their needs existed. The Tahoe/Sequoia/Expedition stole from the Suburban, as well as the smaller Grand Cherokee.

    • 0 avatar

      The introduction of the Tahoe/Yukon with the third-row seat in 2000 probably encouraged a lot of people to go with the shorter wheelbase models.

  • avatar
    Carlson Fan

    “As said above – the Suburban was an excellent tow vehicle – especially the 2500HD model.”

    Huh? I’ve seen plenty of 2500 Series Burbs but never a 2500HD.

    The Burb could use a diesel but not the Duramax. The fuel economy isn’t that great and once you figure in the added cost to maintain and repair your better off with a gasser. Unless your towing heavy loads through mountian passes and just plain need the power.

    Something smaller and more fuel efficient than the Duramax that you could stick in a 1/2 ton chassis would make sense.

    • 0 avatar

      Rational consideration of the pros and cons of the diesel. However, prepare for VW/Audi TDI lovers to get in your face.

      Diesel lovers are a bit irrational and overzealous in there “Diesel is the answer, what is the question” outlook.

  • avatar

    I have a hard time believing that crossovers are the major culprit in Suburban sales decline. More plausable (at least to me) would be the explosion of sales of quad cab full size trucks which have replaced the Suburban as the family tow vehicle of choice.

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      At the peak of SUV madness a whole lot of people who never tow anything bought Suburbans and Tahoes as a fashion statement. Most of those buyers are out of the market now. Just as your local Hummer dealer :).

  • avatar

    I just drove my Escalade ESV across Phoenix the other day from where I live in the surbubs. It averaged 18.9mpg, mostly freeway, medium traffic. In stop and go it averages around 14mpg.

    A friend of my has a GMC Acadia crossover. He averages about 16mpg overall, not a terribly big difference for the difference in people hauling, towing, and performance.

    For 2mpg I wouldn’t give up the real deal. I agree with Prado above, GM is still getting those customers with quad-cab trucks. Real truck and SUV buyers rarely downgrade themselves unless they exhaust all use for that type of vehicle.

  • avatar
    Justin Crenshaw

    I have owned an 07 Suburban for about 6 months now (I previously drove a 6.0 Silverado). Yes I use it to drive to work, but I have it to tow a race car and to haul large items (wheels, tires, dogs, etc..). Sure I could buy a more economical car for commuting, however there is no way that the payment, gas, maint. and insurance on another car would make up for the gas difference.
    I really think the Suburban gets a bad rap concerning gas mileage simply b/c it is the largest SUV you can buy. I’m not going to say that the MPG is in any way good, however it gets 15 city and 20-21 on the highway and if I cruise slow enough (65 or so, not towing) I can get the cylinder deactivation going and get 24-25 on a steady cruise. I guarantee any number of smaller SUVs don’t do any better than that….4 Runner, Explorer, Grand Cherokee?
    Also, the cost of ownership is very low on the Suburban- insurance and maintenance are cheap compared to other brands. Big picture wise it was the best bet for what I needed.

    • 0 avatar

      I have an 08 Silvy extended cab with 5.3 v8 with cylinder deactivation and 4 speed auto. I get about 18mpg overall and 20mpg on the highway when I’m driving it slow and steady. I would check your #s again as the Suburban weighs a good 1,000lbs more than my pickup does and probably has the same drivetrain. Do you have the 6 speed in yours? It is my bad weather truck, and I also use it primarily to tow a 20′ enclosed trailer and racecar with all the junk inside (and dog). I still bought an old Honda Civic for cheap and use that car to drive to / from work and around. I get 38mpg in it when I’m driving slow and steady. In a years time I’ve paid for that little car in just the savings in fuel.

  • avatar

    I’m curious how the Tahoe fared in the same time-frame; did the Tahoe siphon sales away from the Suburban?

    • 0 avatar

      Almost certainly; if the meme is that these vehicles were largely driven around town, then shaving about a foot off the back wouldn’t hurt for parking these units.

      Backing up would be somewhat easier too.

  • avatar

    I don’t think GM should kill the Suburban. Everyone who needs its passenger carrying and towing capacity will move to a full-size van. That market is dominated by Ford. If anything, make the current Suburban an “XL” model and use something like the Traverse as the standard model.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    Here in Texas, where the Suburban is the State Vehicle, I’ve seen perhaps fewer Suburbans but not a tremendous reduction.

    Although domestically I lean towards Ford, I never understood how the Expedition could pull so many sales away from Chevy when it came to the Suburban/Tahoe (and certainly not with the Excursion!); the Chevys are by far the better looking vehicle.

  • avatar

    The decline of the Suburban (as well as Expedition, Yukon, et al) began once consumers began having trouble accessing home equity easily from their homes and credit cards. As they purchased fewer tow-toys, the need waned. As existing ones came off lease, consumers were able to choose from inexpensive, low mileage options as the credit crunch caused many to face more difficult times in arranging for financing….

    Until property values even out and employment picks up, these large vehicles are going to remain more of a “niche” vehicle – – they most likely will never attain the volumes they once had but should rebound especially the Suburban once it gets a major refresh, etc.

  • avatar

    In 1995 Suburban did have a diesel option but it was the junk diesel GM had before the Duramax.

    There probably are a combination of reasons for the Suburban’s drop in sales but IMO the price of gas played a large role. Keep in mind the size of the tank-fillups are in the $100 range and unless you’re wealthy that’s an attention getter.

    Reminds me of when Lutz was asked how the spike in gas prices would effect large SUV sales four years ago and his response was until it reached $5/gal there would be no effect. Once again he couldn’t have been more wrong.

  • avatar

    Here in central Texas I’m seeing fewer new Suburbans and Tahoes but an increase of Acadias and Traverses and whatever that Saturn equivalent is called. One barrier to my owning one is they just don’t fit in most new garages if you want to keep anything else in there which you do because there are no basements. Around here, almost all of them sit outside at night. It’s even worse for a long bed truck. If you want a 4WD model you really need an 8 ft. high door. I sleep better with the vehicles locked in a garage at night plus this is hail country.

  • avatar
    Carlson Fan

    Bitsy – Your right on the money!

  • avatar

    I think the folks who NEED a Suburban will continue to buy them. The poseurs won’t anymore. The Suburban is REALLY expensive these days as they have become quite luxurious, which is bound to hurt sales too. Plus as others have said, the rise of four-door pickups eats into them too, especially on the commercial side of the business.

    My folks had a 4×4 diesel Suburban for many years from the early-mid 80’s to tow thier boat. It was pretty basic, three vinyl bench seats, crank windows, but did at least have A/C. Great truck, sold it when they didn’t need it to tow a boat anymore. Took my driver’s test in that thing!

    Mind you that was an old-school non-turbo diesel (135hp?), but it was still rated to tow 10K pounds or some such, which it did just fine – that was a BIG wooden cabin cruiser. Just not particularly quickly. I don’t get why you need 400hp to tow, that is all 80,000lb trailer trucks have (admittedly with 1000lb-ft+ of torque). So you go slow up hill? You shouldn’t be towing a 30ft cabin cruiser 80mph anyway.

  • avatar

    What continues to amaze me is that GM had this market completely to itself from the time that the International Travelall got axed around 1976 or so until the Expedition EL in 2007. Dodge was rumored to have a Suburban-fighter after its 94 pickup came out, but killed the project. That decision had to have cost Chrysler a LOT of money.
    Ford never scored a direct hit before the 07 EL. The Excursion was bigger (and more expensive, IIRC) while the Expedition was smaller, particularly in the cargo area aft of the rear seats. Neither hit that happy medium for hauling, towing, family comfort, performance and looks.

    I think that the fall of the Suburban is about two things – first, gas prices. If gas were still $1.25/gal, I would probably own one of these right now. (Either that or another Club Wagon). The other factor is demographics. There was quite a baby boomlet in the early-mid 90s. Most of the owners of these vehicles that I knew had 3-4-5 kids, dogs, carpools, baseball teams, and all of that. My kids are in this demographic, and with the kids being older and doing less family stuff, lots of folks are either keeping their old Burbs on the road or downsizing, but they are not investing in a $50k gas hog that they will not need in another year or three.

  • avatar

    Deception thru bad graphing, please contact your Jr. High Math teacher and do better. Thankyou

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