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These Are the Cars That Act Like SUVs

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author photo by Justin Hughes May 2018

Ford will be "exploring new 'white space' vehicle silhouettes with vehicles like Focus Active that combine the best attributes of cars and utilities -- such as higher ride height, space and versatility." That's what Ford's Sam Schembari told me when I asked him about the company's recent decision to discontinue all cars except the Mustang and the "Focus Active," a crossover version of the Focus. While I won't debate whether or not Ford's decision is wise, I will point out some examples of cars that act very much like SUVs, turning the line between them into more of a large gray area.

Subaru has been adding 4- or all-wheel drive to cars since way back in 1972, with the truck-like part-time 4-wheel-drive giving way to a full-time system during the 1980s. In the absence of having any genuine SUVs of its own, Subaru added the Outback trim level to the Legacy wagon, followed by the Outback Sport version of the Impreza. Both of these came in wagon form only (except for the uncommon Outback sedan, which lasted three generations), featuring unique body cladding and taller springs coveted by Subaru rallycrossers everywhere.

In 1997 Subaru introduced the Forester, its first unique SUV-but-not-an-SUV model. Though it touted a tougher, boxier design than the Outback and Outback Sport, it still shared most of its underpinnings with the Impreza. Despite the popularity explosion of SUVs, Subaru didn't introduce one of its own all the way until 2005, when the Tribeca came out. It was a bit of a flop, so we won't dwell on it.

Eventually, the Outback and Forester grew up, becoming genuine SUVs in their own right. But Subaru still offers a car-like option today: the Crosstrek. Despite looking tough, and even tougher with the modern trend of modifying it for off-road use, the Crosstrek shares its platform with the Impreza and WRX -- and it's essentially a lifted Impreza wagon. Its 152-horsepower boxer engine, shared with the Impreza, is underpowered for its class -- and, unfortunately, Subaru has not seen fit to offer the WRX drivetrain in the Crosstrek, even though it would fit.

But Subaru is not the only company to have built an SUV-like car. In the 1980s Honda made a wagon version of the Civic, sometimes called the WagoVan. Rather than just a Civic sedan with the roof extended to the rear, the Civic wagon shared almost none of its body panels with other Civic models, despite its similar appearance. Although Civics made between 1988 and 1991 are collectively known by their "EF" chassis code, the wagons were technically not "EFs," but "EEs."

The Civic wagon came in basically two versions, and I've been lucky enough to own one of each. One was a front-wheel-drive model, which became popular with some of the more quirky tuners because Hondas are like Legos, and any standard Civic engine swap would work in the wagon. But the top-of-the-line Civic wagon featured Honda's Real-Time 4 Wheel Drive system, known to the rest of the world as all-wheel-drive. Available with both manual and automatic transmissions, the manual version offered an "SL," or super-low, gear that was shorter than first. Presumably, this was intended substitute for a low-range transfer case. I only know of one other car that had this feature -- the famous Porsche 959.

Then there's the Mercedes-Benz GLA. Mercedes-Benz calls it a crossover -- but it stands just 60 inches tall, making it a mere 1.9 inches taller than the Ford Fusion midsize sedan. It shares its platform and powertrains with the Mercedes-Benz CLA, but Mercedes knew a wagon would never sell to U.S. consumers -- so they jacked it up a few inches and called it a crossover.

The GLA drives a lot like the car, and the seating position is very car-like -- to the point where you'd never really know you were in a vehicle that was supposed to be an SUV when you were behind the wheel, unless you read all the Mercedes-Benz marketing materials noting this. The GLA is barely even a tall hatchback, like many crossovers -- really, it's just a hatchback. And I have no idea how they got it onto that rock face pictured above.

But even in Ford's soon to be nearly all truck and SUV lineup, a car-based sleeper exists: the Flex. Sure, its large, tall profile makes it look like yet another SUV. But the Flex's secret is that it's not really an SUV; instead, it's a station wagon.

Aside from the elevated seating position, there's nothing off-road oriented about the Flex. It's super comfortable, with the middle of the three rows offering its passengers even more space than the front seats. It drives like a car, gliding down the road and comfortably soaking up the miles. My wife drives a 2012 model, which hides yet another secret under the hood: a 3.5-liter EcoBoost engine. That's a twin-turbo V6 sending 355 hp to all four wheels. It's not super fast, but a drag race between the Flex and my Subaru WRX would be quite evenly matched -- and my WRX isn't slow by any means.

Further proof that the Flex is not an SUV comes from my experience with it at last year's Empire State Performance Rally, where my wife and I led the sweep team that cleans up the carnage if and when rally cars crash. In 2016 we used a Toyota 4Runner, which is one of the few truly truck-based SUVs left on the market. It did the job admirably, which even meant dragging a crashed Impreza -- with two locked wheels -- off the road.

The Flex, on the other hand, struggled with the rough rally stages, primarily because of its 20-in wheels and low-profile street tires. Its low 6-in ground clearance was another issue as we kicked up loose rocks on the gravel road while driving at higher speeds than we ever would if the road wasn't closed to all but rally traffic. On one of the last stages of the day, the dashboard's tire pressure warning light lit up, and soon I noticed the handling getting a bit too vague. A sharp rock had cut the sidewall and flattened the tire. Having nothing more than the tiny temporary spare, we were out of the rally.

But the Flex's failure as a rally sweep vehicle only proves that it should be considered a car, not an SUV. Only the height of its long roof prevents it from being accepted -- or, more likely, rejected -- by the public as a station wagon rather than an SUV. And the Flex, along with the other vehicles mentioned here, is just one of many models that blurs the line between car and SUV.

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These Are the Cars That Act Like SUVs - Autotrader