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Giant SUVs are back in vogue

Rick Newman
Columnist

Remember when gas mileage was a thing? Pfft. How quaint.

With gas prices low and the economy humming along, Americans are rediscovering Giganticus Utilitus, the overgrown rovers the SUV craze spawned in the late 1990s. The Ford Expedition and its upscale cousin, the Lincoln Navigator, were among the first giant utilities back then, and Ford Motor Co. (F) has just rejuvenated both of them, with a new Navigator debuting at this month’s New York auto show.

If you’re wondering what’s left to be stuffed into an SUV, the answer is – electronics. The new Navigator, due to go on sale this fall, will feature six USB ports plus a regular 110-volt outlet. A wifi hotspot servicing up to 10 devices will be standard (though you’ll have to pay extra for the connection). Optional is a wireless phone charger for the storage bin upfront, eliminating the need for those unsightly charging cables. Another option lets you stream videos (from Android devices only) to two 10-inch screens affixed in the second row of seats. No more boredom with that DVD your kids have watched 40 times.

Sure, it’s over-the-top, but in case you haven’t noticed, these are over-the-top times, automotively speaking. Dodge just unveiled an insane modification of its Challenger muscle car, called the Demon, that’s so fast it can pop a wheelie. Sales of large SUVs are up 26% this year over last, according to KBB, while sales of ordinary midsized sedans are down 21%. Sales of electrics, hybrids and other alternative-energy cars are falling too, even though new models, such as the Chevrolet Bolt, are increasingly available. Meanwhile, the average new-car buyer spends more than $34,000 on a vehicle, often splurging on options and fancy trim lines. Lincoln hasn’t priced the Navigator yet, but it’ll probably start in the mid $60,000 range.

How long the good times will continue to roll is a question causing some anxiety in the industry. Overall sales in 2017 are about 5% lower than last year, and it’s possible the appetite for excess will fade. But asked if Lincoln is late to the party with the new Navigator, Ford CEO Mark Fields told Yahoo Finance, “Absolutely not. When you look at the economy and the state of the consumer, they’re pretty healthy. The industry has plateaued, but it has plateaued at a historically high level.”

There’s a nod to efficiency in the new Navigator, which is powered by a twin-turbo V-6 engine instead of the V-8 of yore. A 10-speed transmission ought to help as well. Still, you’re unlikely to hear Lincoln saying much about the Navigator’s fuel economy, which will average around 18 mpg. If you care about that, maybe the dealer can scrounge a subcompact to show you, from somewhere on the back of the lot.

Confidential tip line: rickjnewman@yahoo.com

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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman