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A mammoth revival: Who still buys large SUVs?

2015 Cadillac Escalade

General Motors

Russian scientists recently unearthed the remains of a wooly mammoth, an immense, tough, elephantine beast that went extinct about 10,000 years ago. Given the remarkably well-preserved nature of the corpse – hair, bones, blood, and marrow were present and intact – there has been discussion of the possibility of cloning this animal and allowing this deceased species to rise from the evolutionary graveyard.

Cadillac has just reincarnated its own immense, tough, elephantine beast: the all-new 2015 Escalade, which will arrive in dealerships throughout Canada in the next few weeks. Despite its similarities to that prehistoric pachyderm, this luxurious four-wheeler never actually suffered an extinction event.

Sales of basic, large-scale SUVs like the Chevrolet Suburban, GMC Yukon and Toyota Sequoia have fallen by as much as 40 per cent from their peak 10 years ago. With the rise in gas prices in the mid-2000s and the plummet in the economy a few years later, many "casual" full-sized SUV users abandoned these vehicles for mid-sized crossovers, smaller SUVs, or mid-sized cars.

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But buyers of Brobdingnagian luxury behemoths like the Escalade – along with its brethren the Infiniti QX80, Mercedes GL and Lexus LX 570 – remain fiercely loyal. Despite any commodity dips, spikes or corrections, each of these vehicles has sold consistently at around 20,000 units every year.

Who is still buying these leather-lined, chromed-out, gas-hungry land yachts? According to Alexander Edwards, president of automotive industry research firm Strategic Vision, these buyers have some significant differences from the typical luxury buyer. They are more likely to be married and from Generation X. They're twice as likely to have minor kids living at home, and four times as likely to have three or more. And they're less likely to be college grads – though their household income is about two-thirds higher than that of a typical luxury buyer.

Consumer purchase decisions do not occur by compulsion through their slotting into a demographic profile. There are myriad emotional and behavioural needs, known to marketers as psychographics. "People are not simply buying these vehicles because they have a lot of money and a lot of kids," Edwards says. "They're buying them because they have a lot of money and a lot of kids, and a lot of needs that can't be satisfied by a smaller vehicle."

Strategic Vision's surveys of nearly 1,000 owners of vehicles in this category demonstrate that buyers use these big rigs for a multitude of discrete but interrelated tasks. In addition to acting as a shuttle for their atypically extensive broods, they're also utilized as an all-wheel drive, all-weather hauler – for safety reasons. They find use ferrying a large family-sized hoard home from a big box store or shopper's club. They have the capacity to tow a boat, a camper or an off-road vehicle, be it a snowmobile or an ATV. They're also an easy way to tote around aging parents, for whom climbing up into the vehicle's wide doors via step-up power running boards is simpler than climbing down into an average sedan.

Most importantly, says Edwards, buyers see enough value in these vehicles' combination of functionality, safety and luxury to justify the high five-figure purchase price. (The 2015 Escalade starts at $79,900). To wit, these big SUVs are laden with technology and creature comforts like touch-screen navigation; multiple integrated on-board entertainment systems; rows of heated, cooled, and/or power-folding seats; high-end leather, wood and metal trim; and collision avoidance systems like adaptive cruise control, automatic braking and a plethora of airbags. They also tend to be equipped with the highest output and/or most sophisticated powertrain choices within their segment. For example, the new 2015 Escalade will sport a 6.2-litre, 420 horsepower V-8 borrowed from its famous General Motors stable-mate, the Corvette.

While their sheer scale prevents fuel economy from taking a high place on consumers' list of must-haves, efficiency improvements from advanced six- or seven-speed transmissions, direct injection, and cylinder deactivation (shutting down parts of the engine to conserve gas) means that they can return real-world consumption that lands just this side of the purely profligate.

Because buyers see these vehicles as being both highly utilitarian and highly indulgent, they are able to rationalize their purchase as one that would otherwise need to be filled by two vehicles. "Rather than having a luxury sedan and a utility vehicle," Edwards says, these consumers tell themselves, "I can get this alone."

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Buyer fealty and the limited number of choices within the segment mean that the introduction of a new model usually results in a significant bump in market share without altering the total number of vehicles sold in the category. With its all-new offering, Cadillac may see its Escalade sales evolve, stampeding itself back into first place in the pack.

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