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Here's Why the Industry Transition Crossovers Is Probably Permanent

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author photo by Eric Brandt February 2018

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.

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Certified 2018 Mazda CX-3 AWD Touring
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Certified 2018 Mazda CX-3 AWD Touring
Certified 2018 Mazda CX-3
$21,880
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Used 2018 Mazda CX-3 AWD Touring
Used 2018 Mazda CX-3
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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Here's Why the Industry Transition Crossovers Is Probably Permanent - Autotrader