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Crossovers 101: An Overview

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author photo by Autotrader October 2007

Crossovers are causing the latest buzz in the automotive industry and are rapidly growing in sales and available models. The crossover (a.k.a. XUV, CUV, sport utility wagon, etc.) is undeniably the latest big thing.

On a conventional SUV, built on a truck’s mechanical underpinnings, the body and frame are separate structures. Crossovers, however, are built like cars: the body and frame are a single structure. The end product is a car that has the much desired look and convenience of an SUV, gets better gas mileage, drives like a car instead of a truck and often protects passengers better.

Desired Demographic

In addition to blurring vehicle styles, crossovers are also crossing over demographic lines, attracting a wide variety of consumers. Demographic “segments” that the automakers did not previously focus on have grown both in population and in value (as consumers). Seeing this opportunity, car manufacturers identified many of these groups as the inspiration for new designs.

The Urbanite: The trend for the past ten or so years has been a return to the city. The suburbs still attract a fair share of inhabitants, but cities are undeniably growing as young working professionals shun the 40- or 50-minute commute and move back to urban life, making a large and unwieldy SUV less than ideal in crowded parking lots and decks of high-rise apartments, lofts, and office buildings. For this in-town crowd with busy professional and social lives, the crossover provides a great compromise: it is small enough to fit into tight spaces, has ample seating for friends and colleagues, provides cargo capacity perfect for active lifestyles and maneuvers easily on bustling (and sometimes pothole riddled) city streets.

Young Families: Recently married couples are also commonly drawn to crossovers. Toting their 2.5 small children, their children’s friends and possibly the family dog from place to place makes these young moms and dads safety conscious. Thus, they appreciate the lowered risk of rollover, higher visibility, and increased crash protection. In addition, the young family is often frugal, and the average crossover’s lower cost and improved gas mileage can be very budget-friendly.

Baby Boomers: The nest is now empty, and as a result, these seasoned citizens don’t need room for five anymore. The effort required to climb up into their big cars was never something they enjoyed. Now, the crossover’s lower-to-the-ground design makes entering and exiting a snap and those weekend antiquing and garden center trips a breeze. Also, many manufacturers offer luxury models, providing the creature comforts that many deserve and can now afford.

SUV Backlash

Another reason for the success of the crossover is that it improves on areas in which sport utility vehicles can come up short. SUVs are undeniably popular, and for many reasons: consumers like to sit high, use the optimum seating and cargo capacities and have a commanding appearance. But there are plenty of things consumers didn’t like.

A major and increasingly lamented drawback is fuel economy — or rather, the lack of it. SUVs are notorious for poor gas mileage, making them targets of the eco-friendly crowd, and perhaps making their owners wish for a different vehicle each time the cost of gas skyrockets.

Next comes the handling. Often described as “unwieldy," “jostling" and even “atrocious," the poor handling of some SUVs left consumers longing for the smooth ride of the "ole" family sedan or even the much-stigmatized minivan. In addition, that lack of stability can sometimes be dangerous, as it may lead to a loss of control or the highly publicized rollover. SUVs sit higher off the ground than regular cars, and have a higher center of gravity. This could transfer too much weight during a sudden swerve or sharp turn, causing the SUV to skid out of control and possibly roll over.

Then along came the crossover. Thanks to more fuel-efficient platforms, aerodynamic designs and lighter (yet equally strong) materials, crossovers typically provide far better fuel economy than SUVs and other large vehicles. Couple this with an often lower price, and consumers are finding crossovers to be more desirable than SUVs. Another crossover benefit is that they leave the lethargic and bumpy rides a thing of the past, delighting many former SUV drivers who now feel as though they can zip through traffic with the greatest of ease. The trade-off of having the car-based lower ride and suspension is the reduction in off-roading capability, but many feel the resulting stability and responsive handling are well worth it.

Past and Future

Although they have only recently begun to take the car world by storm, crossovers have been around since the ‘50s. There have been big and small sedans crossed with trucks, wagon bodies placed on truck platforms, vans equipped with off-road suspension and a variety of other combinations. Each decade has a collection of blends that have seen various degrees of success, but none has had as big an impact on the mainstream as this most recent wave of innovations.

These days, the selection of choices has drastically increased from an initial few to a whole host of options. Nearly all automakers are offering a car-based crossover vehicle: Jeep Compass, Ford Edge, Dodge Caliber, Hyundai Santa Fe, Mitsubishi Outlander, Mazda CX-7, and on and on. And the car-based version isn’t the only option with a wide selection. There are several offerings from the truck-based SUTs (Chevrolet Avalanche, Ford Explorer SportTrac, Subaru Baja), minivan-based (Pontiac Aztek, Honda Pilot, Chrysler Pacifica), and wagon-based (Volvo Cross Country, Subaru Legacy), just to name a few.

The crossover is still an emerging trend that has yet to settle on a clearly defined definition (or even on a name, for that matter). The next few years should reveal the aspects that are going to define this segment or how these models will be absorbed by existing body styles. However it plays out, the impacts we have already seen from these innovations have definitely left their mark on the psyche of the automotive consumer and manufacturer.


 ©2006 AutoTrader.com L.L.C.

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.
Crossovers 101: An Overview - Autotrader