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Here’s Why the Industry Transition Crossovers Is Probably Permanent

Buying an SUV used to be a compromise. Back in the days of the Ford Bronco and the Chevy Blazer, you got greater utility than a car and more off-road capability, but significantly worse fuel economy. However, today’s SUVs are a lot different than they were in the 1990s. Most of them are based on cars rather than trucks — and unibody, front- or all-wheel drive crossovers have exploded in popularity over the past few years. So much so that they’re overtaking traditional 3-box cars as the most popular way to get around.

However, most major car manufacturers are still hanging on to small sedans and hatchbacks. They serve as insurance just in case gas in the U.S. gets expensive again and people flock back to smaller, more efficient cars.

But in the era of the 30 mpg crossover, no matter what happens to the price of gas, I don’t think we’ll ever see an influx of people trading in their Explorer for a Focus. Sales of small cars and sedans have been dropping off a cliff in the U.S. for several reasons. One of the biggest is that crossovers have caught up with their car counterparts in the all-important fuel economy department. The SUV compromise is much smaller than it used to be.

The fast-growing subcompact crossover segment is spelling the end of compact hatchbacks. As the range of crossover sizes gets wider and the smallest ones get smaller, it’s giving shoppers fewer reasons to consider a Mazda3 over a Mazda CX-3. And if a midsize crossover driver decides they want something more efficient, they’re not going to downsize to a compact car — they’re going to downsize to a smaller crossover, because that option is now widely available.

Many of us were scratching our heads at Fiat-Chrysler’s decision a few years ago to terminate the Dodge Dart and Chrysler 200 and not replace them with anything. It turns out that was a smart business move — and now Jeep is printing money, while Dodge gets by as pretty much just a muscle car/SUV brand, rather than the full-range volume brand it was for about a century prior.

If average car shoppers can up-size from a Honda Civic to a CR-V while only sacrificing a small percentage of fuel economy, which one do you think they’ll choose? Especially given the taller ride height and all-wheel drive that so many shoppers are convinced they need. Sales figures prove that shoppers are overwhelmingly showing a preference for crossovers. And as we approach a hybrid/electric automotive revolution, efficiency will be correlated with vehicle size even less.

Another reason the crossover switch is probably permanent is that automakers are more than happy to accommodate the trend. Trucks and SUVs are where almost all of the profits are. Chevy gets away with charging quite a bit more for a Trax than a Sonic even though they’re built on the same platform and, presumably, there’s almost no difference in production costs. If manufacturers can command higher transaction prices for vehicles that are cheap to build, why wouldn’t they?

If you want a new small car or big sedan sometime soon, I recommend acting fast. Volume brands used to have a full line of cars and one — maybe two — SUV offerings. That model is in the process of getting flipped upside down. I don’t think we’re far off from legacy brands like Chevy and Ford offering crossovers and SUVs in every imaginable shape and size plus only one or two sedans, if any at all, and maybe a performance car or two.

Car enthusiasts often have disdain for crossovers for their lack of cool styling and driving excitement, but I remain optimistic. With sporty new offerings coming out, like the Ford Edge ST, I think automakers will still be able to bring affordable, practical performance to the masses. We might just be sitting a bit higher up than we’d like. Find a crossover for sale

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Eric Brandt
Eric Brandt is an author specializing in Oversteer content, new car reviews, and finding the best car, truck, and SUV deals each month. Born and raised in Wisconsin, Eric can often be found exploring the north woods on his 1983 Honda Gold Wing when the weather allows it. Father of four, husband of one, and unapologetic minivan enthusiast. Eric mastered driving stick by having a 3-cylinder Chevy... Read More

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8 COMMENTS

  1. If you had told me in the 90’s that Jaguar and Porsche would one day build so-called “Crossover” SUV’s, I would have laughed and cried. Piloting such vehicles is antithetical to a “driving experience”; they’re for people who hate to drive. Like most women, as women drove the market for these soulless, neutured breadboxes. I don’t care what badge is on the bonnet or what’s underneath, anyone behind the wheel of an SUV or Crossover is in Ford’s waiting room for driverless car heaven (hell).

  2. The Mazda CX-5 is the alternative to the Mazda 3. The CX-3 is based off the Mazda 2, so it’s a substantially smaller vehicle.

    When I bought my CPO 2014 Mazda 3, I did consider a CX-5 as an alternative, but the fact that it was more expensive, worse on fuel, and only offered AWD with an automatic transmission (2.0L with FWD is the only way to get a stick shift CX-5) were the main reasons for getting the 3 in the end.
  3. There is no advantage at all to having a crossover over a car. And new things in the car industry which serve no purpose die off. Fins (while cool) disappeared rapidly after the start of the 60’s, whereas LED headlights at here to stay, due to improving visibility at night. Crossovers, which are basically cars with 1cm more suspension travel, big wheels, and some cheap plastic cladding, and are fashionable today, but not forever. That’s why Ford still build the Focus and Taurus.

    • Umm…not sure I’d use one car that’s definitely dead (Taurus) and another that Ford is going to start importing from China because US sales are going down so severely. 

      And @Eric, while I agree with your overall point, the Mazda3/CX-3 comparison is a bad one. The CX-3 has less cargo room than the 3 hatchback and is an objectively worse vehicle in every way, other than the AWD and ride height (if you want it). 
    • I prefer sedans too, but one “advantage” of crossovers is that when you’re parked next to a truck or SUV, your extra ride height allows you to see through the other vehicle’s back windows or over the cargo bed, which makes exiting the parking spot a little easier (and safer).

      I own a Fusion Energi and an Escape and vastly prefer the Fusion, but for grocery runs during crowded hours, the Escape certainly proves its worth. 
  4. If you really think about it, SUVs predated cars as the preferred form of transportation up until the 1940’s as pretty much all vehicles sat higher off the ground until after WW2. Lot of that was due to the roads being non-existent but the form-factor of a longer roof was there too. 

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