America has long had a fascination with SUVs, and the popular rides have undergone a severe transformation over the past decade. Gas-guzzling behemoths used to own the road and occupied every inch of their lane -- but not anymore. Those types of vehicles are mostly a thing of the past, and the most popular SUVs these days are smaller and can get upwards of 25 to 30 miles per gallon, making them a very popular ride. Let's look at the cream of the crop in sales through July.
1. Ford Escape
Ford's (NYSE:F) Escape tops the list with nearly 179,000 vehicles sold through July, an impressive 20.3% increase over last year. The Escape has been a huge success and is on pace to do something no other vehicle besides the F-Series has done for Ford in nine years -- break 300,000 in annual sales. It also took home the 2013 award for "Best Compact SUV for the Money" from U.S. News and World Report's Rankings and Reviews. Like the CR-V, which came in second, it handles well for a larger vehicle and gets good fuel economy even with the optional four-wheel drive. Check out how sales of the Escape have surged over the years.
2. Honda CR-V
Honda's CR-V comes in second by just a handful of vehicles, at about 173,000 vehicles sold through July. That's only a 3.4% increase over last year, but it topped the U.S. News Rankings and Reviews list of "Affordable Compact SUVs." The CR-V sells well because it offers a nimble ride with a roomy interior and impressive standard technology features. It also manages to get 23 mpg in the city and 31 on the highway. With a starting MSRP of around $23,000, it's no surprise it's a hot seller right now.
3. Chevrolet Equinox
Rounding out the top three is the Chevy Equinox, which sold almost 145,000 vehicles and is up 10.8% over last year. It shouldn't be surprising that two of the top three best-selling SUVs in 2013 are from Ford and General Motors (NYSE:GM). Those two were kings of the gas-guzzling SUV versions and have learned something as consumer tastes transitioned to a more fuel-efficient ride. For the Equinox's 2013 model, it received a new 3.6L V6 engine and got suspension upgrades. It also has one of the industry's best infotainment and navigation packages with the Chevy MyLink system.
The SUV segment is one of the hottest-selling segments in the U.S. market and is a great way for companies to gain market share on their competitors. These vehicles are valuable not only for market share, but for fatter profit margins as well. Standard MSRPs are higher than standard vehicles, and with the extra space, the interior can provide more options -- bringing in extra dollars per transaction.
Smaller SUVs are also catching on overseas, especially in China -- the world's largest and fastest-growing automotive market. As transaction prices rise, as well as the volume of SUV sales, these vehicles become more and more important, and these top three will be key for future success in the world's most important markets.
Ford is in great shape, as it has consolidated its platforms and will really benefit from improving margins as sales of the Escape continue to grow globally -- adding just another reason Ford remains one of the best automotive stocks right now.