A growing chorus of analysts and media observers may be trumpeting the end of the sport/utility vehicle (SUV) boom, but so far consumers and automakers don't appear ready to sing along.

"Everytime someone says it's got to peak out, I think to myself, Yeah, the bubble will burst eventually,' but it hasn't entered the equation on our showroom floor," says Russell G. Milne, a Ford dealer in Mount Clemens, MI.

As proof, he notes the 20 cash deposits he had on the new full-size Expedition by the first of October. He says some Expedition seekers are waiting three months or longer, especially if they want the larger 5.4L V-8 engine.

How high is the peak?

"I don't think any of us knows where it stop" says Bernard I. Robertson, Chysler Corp. vice president of engineering technologies and head of Jeep Truck Operations. "In terms of consumers' stated intention to purchase, it's the strongest segment in the U.S."

This year SUV sales in the U.S. will slightly exceed 2 million That's 2 1/2 times the volume of 1991. Most automaker forecasts envision the segment growing by another 20% to 40%, reaching between 2.4 million and 2.8 million by 2001.

Some of those who think those estimates are overly optimistic suspect that buyers may shift from compacts to full-size SUVs. Indeed Explorer sales have run below year-ago levels for six consecutive months. Ford offered an enticing $299-a-month-no money-down lease on the all-wheel-drive Explorer with a V-8 in early September. It worked. Most dealers were cleaned out in less than two weeks. Now the rebates are off on '97 models.

The simple math, however, is that whatever profit Ford gives up on Explorer, it more than makes up for on Expedition. Ironically, Expedition may take away as much from larger truck-based vans like the Econoline Club Wagon as it will eat into Explorer sales.

Meanwhile, Ford trucksters are pushing ahead with an even larger SUV that will compete head-on with GM's Suburban, due in 1999. Even Ford-owned Jaguar wants a piece of the action, with its own luxo-truck scheduled for introduction sometime around 2000.

The appetite for more space and larger engines seems insatiable.

"I wish they would have made it a foot or two longer," says Gabe Aceti of his new Expedition. A Ford employee who lives in Roseville, MI, Mr. Aceti waited two months for his truck, which replaces a Ford Econoline Club Wagon. "My family is shrinking. One of my four kids is in college and another just got married. But I have a lace u north I visit in the winter months, and the 4-wheel-drive will help me get there more easily."

It's not just Ford that has eyes on higher SUV numbers. Chrysler will unveil a new Dodge Dakota-based sport/utility (dubbed Durango) next summer. But nothing larger is in the pipeline now, say Chrysler officials, despite rumors that a Ram-based product is in the works.

"We don't see a big opportunity there," says Mr. Robertson. "Whatever we could do would not generate enough volume relative to the investment we would have to put into it."

More imminently, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and Infiniti will be in the hunt by this time next year.

Not everyone is going to win. There will be price pressure, especially in the traditional compact SUV segment.

Indeed, there are a range of wild cards that could make today's boundless optimism appear foolish in a hurry. The Middle East is as volatile as it has been in at least a decade. Our infatuation with these gas-swilling status symbols has pushed America's oil consumption to the highest level since 1979. Something's got to give, right?

Don't bet on it.

The optimists say those predicting a sudden crash, or even a leveling off, may have to wait well into the next century.

"There's still growth. It's just growth at a decelerating rate," says Paul D. Ballew, economist with J.D. Power and Associates in Troy, MI. "And finding the areas of growth within the segment becomes harder as the decade goes on."

After more than doubling from 1991 (897,000) to nearly 2 million this year, SUV sales will rise another 300,000 to 500,000 annually by 2001, based on a range of forecasts.

But others quickly add a dose of reality and suggest a number of factors that could prevent that from happening, including:

* Production increasing faster than demand,

* High consumer debt;

* A higher Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard for light trucks;

* Growing U.S. dependence on imported oil and the prospect for a 1970's-type oil shock or embargo.

Here are the realities: Capacity is indeed catching up with demand. As recently as 1994 North American production of SUVs fell 250,000 short of demand in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, with Japanese imports like Toyota 4Runner, Nissan Pathfinder and Mitsubishi Montero accounting for the difference says Alan L. Baum, director of Automotive Forecasting for International Resource Network Inc., a Grand Rapids. MI, research firm. Supply and demand this year will balance out at about 2 million units. But by 2000, domestic capacity will exceed projected sales by, about 300,000 vehicles.

A counter to that fact is that SUVs are beginning to catch on in Europe. They're already red-hot in Japan, so Mr. Baum predicts that any extra production simply will be exported. For example, Chrysler already exports a third of the 175,000 Jeep Cherokees it builds each year in Toledo, OH. Ford exported about 20,000 Explorers last year, mostly to Japan and Germany.

Meanwhile, a market previously regarded as one segment - compact sport/utilities - is evolving at both the smaller and larger ends. Toyota's Celica-based RAV4 already has reached 41,000 sales through September, and will easily exceed its projected 50,000 goal for the calendar year.

Early next year, Honda's CR-V will push that end of the envelope even more, with similar offerings from Mitsubishi, Isuzu and, eventually Ford, all coming by the end of the decade.

This small end of the market, according to Ward's Special Research Report SUVs: Reshaping the Automotive Market, is expected to grow from about 194,000 this year (mostly Jeep Wranglers, Geo Trackers, Suzuki Sidekicks, Toyota RAV4s and, next year, Honda's CR-V) to 356,000 by 2001.

Ford is working on mini-SUVs - one based on its Mondeo/Contour/Mystique platform and the other on a Mazda design. GM will stick with its Geo Tracker, built jointly with Suzuki, for a few more years, says David Hansen, Chevrolet category manager for trucks.

After that? Mr. Hansen hints that the successor to Tracker will be a global program that enables GM to develop vehicles for North America, Europe and Asia off a common chassis architecture.

At the upper end - represented by GM's Suburban, Tahoe, Yukon and Ford's new Expedition - where profit margins run in the neighborhood of $10,000 per vehicle, Fred E. Cook, category director for GMC, sees sales growing from about 320,000 this year to between 450,000 and 500,000, by the turn of the century.

"Maybe that's about where it plateaus," says Mr. Cook.

But at 2.4 million to 2.6 million units annually, SUVS will be double the size of the minivan market.

Where's all the money coming from?

Consumer debt is now about 24% of disposable income, not including home mortgage debt, and that's higher than it has ever been, says J.D. Power's Mr. Ballew.

Haven't we all watched as a brigade of SUVs rolls through a subdivision or into a suburban strip mall parking lot and wondered "Who can afford all these?"

The hangover that comes with maxed-out borrowing clearly will contribute to a general downturn in car and truck sales - as early as 1997 or as late as 1999 - depending on which "expert" you choose. But recessions first hit people who shop at the low end of the price spectrum; consequently much of the sport/utility market will be insulated in a moderate downturn, say many of the industry's product planners.

"These are people whose average age is 46 or 47. More than half are college graduates," says GMC's Mr. Cook. "And their average income is somewhere between $125,000 and $129,000. These people can do what they want and buy what they want."

But can the Big 3 keep building what they want?

Independent industry analyst and WAW columnist Christopher W. Cedergren challenges both the industry's assumption that light-truck sales will soon reach 50% of the U.S. market and the notion that sport/utility sales can grow forever.

"Given where the Big 3 are putting their most investment (in more and bigger sport/utilities), what happens if there is an increase in truck CAFE (corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards or an international crisis or even a recession?" Mr. Cedergren asks. "Some of these truck programs would be the first to go."

As large sport/utilities and full-size pick-ups account for an increasing portion of a company's light-truck fleet, generally, its fuel economy average will decline. For example, Expedition, depending on the engine chosen, averages abut 14 mpg (16.8L/100 km) in city driving and about 18 mpg (13L/100 km) on the highway. That's the same as Explorer with a 5L V-8, but considerably less efficient than Explorer's base 4L V-6, which averages 16 to 18 mpg (14.7 to 13L/100 km) in the city and between 20 and 23 mpg (11.8 and 10.2L/100 km) on the highway.

The truck CAFE standard is not going up, at least not now. Currently, each domestic manufacturer's truck fleet must average at least 20.7 mpg (11.4L/100 km). The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration already has locked in that standard through the 1998 model-year.

But both Chrysler and GM failed to meet the 20.6 mpg standard for the 1995 model year. (It has since been raised to 20.7 mpg (11.4L/100 km). Each company's truck fleet averaged 20.1 mpg (11.7L/100 km) in 1995, according to a NHTSA spokesman.

Under the law Chrysler may borrow "CAFE credits" from prior years when it bettered the standard. Ford also has credits from doing better than the required standard in each of the last four years. But GM has no past credits, so its truck fleet must get more than 20.7 mpg over the next three years or face a prospective penalty of about $47.4 million for its 1995 shortfall. (Preliminary data filed with NHTSA shows that GM met the 20.7 mpg requirement for the 1996 model year just concluded).

"CAFE is the one area we monitor most closely in developing, our future product plans." says Michael Grimaldi. GM's vehicle line executive for full-size pickups and sport/utilities. "We are improving our vehicles performance including better fuel economy, so we are confident we will meet or exceed CAFE as long as it isn't set higher than we can achieve with our best technology."

Neither Mr. Grimaidi nor Chrysler's Mr. Robertson say CAFE is preventing, them from building as many of a given vehicle as they want to produce, but not knowing what will happen with the standard beyond 1998 is making it difficult to plan.

"We find ourselves doing things like restricting options that add weight, and in many cases that conflicts with what customers really want," Mr. Robertson says.

Finally, there is the issue of future oil prices. Surely, there will be a crisis sometime. It has been nearly 20 years since the last major oil shock in the wake of the Iranian revolution.

Total petroleum consumption in the U.S. has climbed 8% since 1991 (from 16.7 million barrels a day to 18.1 million barrels a day for the first half of 1996, the period in which sport/utility sales have more than doubled. And while lighter-weight materials and other improvements in engine technology have improved, the overall fuel economy of our car and light-truck fleet from 14 mpg (16.8L/100 km) in the late 1970's to about 21.5 mpg (10.9L/100 km) in 1994, it is leveling off again. Imported oil accounted for 46.1% of total U.S. consumption for this year's first half. Not since 1977 has U.S. dependence on foreign oil been that high.

In its recently published Annual Energy Outlook 1996, the U.S. Department of Energy predicts that imported oil will grow to 56% of total consumption by 2015. But rather than cite that growing dependence as cause for alarm, the DOE forecasts that world oil prices, as indexed to 1994 prices, will be about $23.70 per barrel in 2010, or roughly equal to where they are now, before adjusting for inflation. In short, not to worry.

"We're not looking at a shortage of oil by a long shot," says Cheryl Trench, executive vice president of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation in New York. "To the extent we can't build more refineries in this country and we require the industry to develop more and more finely tuned grades of gasoline, we might be vulnerable to short-term blips like we went through last spring. But the reason people buy SUVS is that they don't worry about gasoline availability. We don't see that changing."

So what about these rumors that Ford may team up with Airstream for 20-passenger SUV or that GM is working with Winnebago to come up with son of Suburban?

Don't laugh. People in Dearborn, Warren and Auburn Hills are probably working on the business case this very moment.