With US gas prices at historic lows and ever-more economical engines, sport utility vehicles (SUV) increasingly rule the road -- and not only in the United States.
At least that's the message from the Los Angeles Auto Show, which opened to the public Friday.
"Customers feel the idea of freedom," said Jim Farley, vice-president of global sales at Ford, presenting the US car maker's new Explorer at the LA show, which runs until November 30.
"We have reached a tipping point," where SUVs are more popular than sedans and have entered the mainstream, Farley -- whose company is the biggest SUV maker in America -- told AFP.
Nearly one vehicle in five sold globally is an SUV, while in the United States the figure is one in three.
The car category has come a long way since its early days, when SUVs were huge things mounted on a truck chassis, guzzling gas and equipped with four-wheel drive for rough terrains.
In 2008, when gas prices were at their peak, the market appeared permanently stalled.
But these days SUVs -- or crossovers -- are rarely seen off road and are frequently built on a car chassis.
There is a whole range of formats, from the biggest including the Ford Escalade, Toyota Sequoia or Jeep Grand Cherokee to the most compact like the Mazda CX-3, the Honda CRV 2016 and the Volvo 2015 XC90, all unveiled in LA.
US car sales rose by six percent year-on-year in October, led by SUVs: specialist brand Jeep (part of the Fiat Chrysler group) is up 52 percent, but the trend extends to others, including Honda, Toyota and General Motors.
- Symbol of success -
Bill Fay, vice-president of Toyota in the United States, said October sales were the best monthly results in 10 years, fueled by a strong demand for SUVs.
Mid-sized 4x4s are the biggest segment of the US car market, and there is a growing demand for compact SUVs, said Jack Nerad, an analyst for the Kelley Blue Book, which surveys US auto prices.
The spacious vehicles are also wooing motorists with their practicality: high driver seat for good visibility, comfortable and big enough even for larger families with hefty luggage.
In some countries, such as China where SUVs are also in high demand, they are a symbol of success.
"In China it is less about utility, more about status. Bigger is better," Jessica Caldwell, an analyst with car website Edmunds.com told AFP.
But besides seducing families and ordinary motorists, SUV makers also want to reach the so-called 0.1 percent. Porsche has led the charge for that wealthy segment with its highly successful Cayenne.
The German automakers' top-tier rivals are also trying to muscle in on the action, such as Jaguar which unveiled a prototype crossover, the CX17, a year ago.
"The reception was phenomenal," Jaguar North American product manager Tim Philippo told AFP.
The high-end brand has benefited from the experience of its British sister company Land Rover, which has long specialised in luxury 4x4 vehicles. Maserati and Bentley are also developing their own versions.
Bentley's website depicts its new vehicle heading off into desert dunes, saying: "The new Bentley SUV is changing how people think about all-terrain vehicles.
"In the eyes of Bentley, the SUV is not just supremely capable in any environment, it is also supremely comfortable -- and with new vistas on the world, you will see through new eyes," it says.