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In Defense of Cute Utes

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author photo by Eric Brandt June 2017

Ah, the crossover: every car enthusiast's favorite automobile segment to hate. They're bland, they offer little driving excitement, and they're pretty much designed for people who don't enjoy driving. Worst of all, they're ensuring the extinction of the traditional wagon, which is the hero the car industry deserves.

The thing about a crossover is that it does everything a minivan does, but worse. People buy them because they need a minivan, but they refuse to buy one on the insistence that they're too cool for a minivan -- because, apparently, seven seats and the convenience of sliding doors makes you uncool?

I consider myself a car enthusiast and I totally understand our collective hatred of the crossover. However, there is a specific type of crossover that I must admit makes sense to me. I'm talking about the rapidly growing segment of the subcompact crossover, or the "cute ute."

Suddenly, an automaker can't have a full line without one of these things. There's the Chevy Trax, the Ford EcoSport, the Honda HR-V, the Jeep Renegade, the Toyota C-HR, the Mazda CX-3 and many more. It's the fastest-growing segment in the car industry -- and, in fact, every car I just listed just came out within the last three years.

While the bigger 3-row crossovers are the "off-road-looking" alternative to the minivan, these adorable little cute utes make more sense to me. My wife really digs the Italian flair of the FIAT 500X, so we went and checked one out, along with the Fiat's stablemate, the Jeep Renegade. The two cars were pretty much the same, just packaged differently. The Fiat was very Euro, and the Jeep was cute in a distinctly American way -- like pre-crazy Miley Cyrus.

After walking around the crossover, I went to load up our two-year-old daughter. Thanks to the small size of both models, strapping the car seat into those delightful federally mandated LATCH hooks was a breeze -- and picking up the child and loading her into the seat was even easier.

You see, I'm used to putting her into the back of my Ford Focus ST, which has a pretty low ride height. I have this technique where I drop the child into the seat in a sideways-seated position while trying to keep bending my back to a minimum. Then I crouch down to strap her into her NASCAR-inspired 5-point racing harness. It works pretty well, and I'm still excited about the fact that she has her very own door after years of coupe/3-door hatch life.

But it's a lot easier to load a toddler in and out of the Renegade: I could just stand in a normal, comfortable posture to stuff her in her seat -- no garage yoga necessary. Before I even sat in this vehicle, I started to understand a little more why these subcompact crossovers are becoming so popular.

When I climbed into the Renegade's passenger seat, I didn't have to fall in like I do into the Recaro seats in my ST. Instead, it's about as easy as getting in a recliner, so now I understand why older drivers like these things. And after examining the interior and exterior, I thought the size seemed pretty manageable. When I looked it up later, I discovered why: Its dimensions are nearly the same as those of my Focus.

Once my wife started driving the Jeep and fiddling around with the controls, it was a pretty normal driving experience. The one she drove had the 2.4-liter Tigershark inline 4-cylinder and the 9-speed automatic transmission, which had adequate grunt. More importantly, it revealed another benefit of the subcompact crossover: fuel economy. The Renegade can top 31 miles per gallon on the highway, and the 500X can reach 33 mpg -- not quite economy-car efficient, but not far off, and well worth the slight penalty for the added ease of entry and exit. Of course, pricing is another benefit: Most of these things start in the low-$20,000 range, with some in the high teens -- which is hatchback territory.

So I guess I understand these little things. At the end of the day, a subcompact crossover is like a compact hatch that's easier to load kids in and out of -- but similar in terms of gas mileage and pricing. I understand why my wife wants one, and her next car will very likely be a Jeep Renegade or a FIAT 500X. If you have one or two little kids to haul around and the craving for a hatch and extra ride height that's sweeping the nation, maybe a cute ute is for you. But if what you really need is a minivan, just buy the freaking minivan.

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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.
In Defense of Cute Utes - Autotrader