Crossover 101

By Rex Roy, AOL Autos

(AOL Autos)

Crossovers, as a class, have become the most popular vehicles in the U.S. What’s so surprising is that this class of vehicles didn’t even exist 20 years ago, and even a decade ago nobody was using the term. According to Ford Motor Company sales analyst George Pipas, nearly one of every four vehicles sold in the first half of 2010 was a crossover.

But what actually makes a crossover a crossover? Are these vehicles accidental factory-floor collisions of cars and traditional SUV’s, or something better planned? The answer is intriguing, because like just about everything else in the world of automobiles, it’s not as simple as it seems.

Crossover Pioneers

Automotive mash-ups are nothing new. Engineers and designers are always trying to invent new solutions to meet people’s driving needs. Combining body styles or technical features goes back decades.

For instance, the 1957 Ford Ranchero combined the utility of a pickup truck with the body of a sedan, or at least the front part of a sedan. The low-slung pickup made a great light-duty hauler that rode and drove much better than contemporary pickup trucks. Similarly, the 1963 Jeep Wagoneer took a fairly conventional station wagon body and set it atop a tough, four-wheel-drive Jeep chassis. The big Jeep proved such an ideal solution that the Wagoneer soldiered on into for four decades.

Another crossover pioneer was the 1980 Eagle from American Motors. Available in sedan, wagon and coupe body styles borrowed from the AMC passenger car line, the Eagle had genuine off-road capabilities. It stood out then and now as being America’s first mass-produced passenger car with a four-wheel-drive system of any kind.

“Cute Ute’s” Go Mainstream

Following the growing popularity of traditional truck-based SUVs in the mid-1990s, manufacturers looked for ways to deliver the same tough styling, utility and all-weather versatility in vehicles that didn’t drive like pickups.

Toyota and Subaru led the industry. In 1995, Toyota introduced its Corolla-based RAV4. Looking like a shrunken SUV, it was an immediate hit. Subaru made its own hit with the Outback, essentially a Legacy wagon with a lifted suspension and some body cladding. Crossovers were beginning to catch on.

Volvo was an early crossover leader in the luxury segment with its 1997 Cross Country XC70. Swedish engineers toughened-up the standard V70 station wagon with a raised suspension, body moldings, and all-wheel drive. The wagon quickly became Volvo’s top-selling model and continues to be the most popular station wagon in the U.S.

Toyota created another hit with the 1999 Lexus RX 300. Loosely based on the Toyota Camry, it struck the perfect balance between luxury car and SUV. The RX has been Lexus’ top-seller for 21 years.

As the term “crossover” hadn’t yet been coined, these vehicles were mostly regarded as SUV’s, and some were even marketed as such. Vehicles like the RAV4 were sometimes derisively referred to as “cute ute’s.” It wasn’t until rising gasoline prices and a consumer backlash against SUV’s in the mid-2000’s that automakers began aggressively promoting crossovers as the natural evolution of the SUV.

Common Characteristics

To better identify the characteristics that make a vehicle a crossover, it helps to understand what isn’t a crossover: A conventional SUV that’s built like a pickup truck. These vehicles feature what’s called “body-on-frame” construction. In other words, the body of the vehicle is a separate module that is quite literally bolted to the frame of the vehicle. The frame provides the vehicle with its structure (strength) and also provides the mounting points for the chassis components (suspension, brakes, etc.) and powertrain (engine, transmission, differentials, axles, etc.).

Crossovers, however, don’t have separate frames and bodies. All crossovers feature what’s called “unibody” construction. Building a vehicle in this way combines the body and frame in a single unit. Every unibody (also called a “unit-body” or “monocoque”) has its structural components designed into the body such that the chassis and powertrain components can be mounted directly to it. All modern cars use this type of design because it saves weight compared to the body-on-frame construction used in older cars and traditional trucks and SUVs.

Generally speaking, body-on-frame vehicles can tow and haul more than unibody vehicles. However, as crossovers have matured, their capabilities have grown: The Chevrolet Traverse can tow up to 5,200 pounds.

Some SUVs are designed for serious off-roading. These activities require robust four-wheel-drive systems with specific capabilities such as gear reduction to multiply engine torque and locking differentials to maximize total available traction. Thus hard-core four-wheel-drive systems like those used on the Toyota FJ Cruiser and Jeep Wrangler include two-speed transfer cases and other specialized hardware not found on crossovers.

Crossovers don’t offer these types of four-wheel systems. While not every crossover has all-wheel drive (AWD), a crossover isn’t a crossover unless powering all four wheels is possible. For pricing reasons, the base models of many crossovers are just front-wheel-drive, like the Ford Edge.

All-wheel-drive systems come in a variety of forms, but they are mostly “on demand” systems because they only shift power from the main driving wheels (the front) to the rear when roads are slippery and traction is low. Full-time AWD sends power to all four wheels all the time. A variable torque split between the front and rear wheels further enhances traction, grip and control. Subaru, Audi, Acura and BMW are among the manufacturers who utilize full-time AWD systems with this capability.

Crossover Styling

The new Mini Countryman, Jeep Grand Cherokee, new Ford Explorer, Suzuki SX4, and Acura MDX all feature unibody construction and all-wheel drive. But are they all crossovers?

Ford’s George Pipas recounted a recent experience at a consumer evaluation of the all-new 2011 Ford Explorer. Pipas said, “Consumers make the call on whether something is a crossover or not based on style more than anything. If it looks more truck-like, it’s an SUV. If it looks more carlike, but it’s bigger than a sedan or traditional station wagon, then it’s a crossover.”

Sometimes manufacturers try to stretch the category, as did Suzuki with its SX4. To the casual observer, the SX4 is a sedan (or a hatchback) with all-wheel-drive. It’s not a crossover, despite Suzuki’s marketing.

Clearly, the Jeep and Ford are SUVs, despite their unibody construction, while the Acura and Mini are easily pegged as crossovers, and the Suzuki remains a passenger car. In other words, styling matters more that what’s under the skin.

This leads us to a common misconception about crossovers: That they’re all built from car parts. While it’s true that early crossovers were built on car-based platforms, as the segment has evolved, some crossovers are entirely distinct. The Toyota Highlander was and is still built using many underbody pieces that are shared with the Camry sedan. General Motors’ biggest crossovers, however, are built on their own dedicated platform.

Pros and Cons

Traditional SUVs can carry more payload, tow heavier trailers, and have superior off-road capabilities compared to crossovers. But the trade-off is that crossovers are generally more space efficient, meaning roomier inside but smaller outside. They tend to ride better, handle more confidently, and often offer superior fuel economy. Most of these benefits come from crossovers not needing to meet the extreme performance benchmarks demanded of traditional SUVs.

Crossovers are often lighter than SUVs, which benefits handling and fuel economy. They are usually engineered to ride softer than SUV’s, contributing to a more comfortable ride. Crossovers are usually not as tall as SUV’s — this is because their bodies are not “perched” atop a separate frame. This makes them more “garagable” and more stable at speed, and this lower center of gravity makes a crossover less likely to roll in an accident.

It became clear to many of those who purchased truck-based SUV’s in the first wave of popularity that they didn’t need the truckish capabilities designed into the vehicles they had purchased. Essentially, they over-bought and paid the price in terms of poor ride and fuel economy. This realization helped fuel the rise in crossovers.

Ford’s Pipas notes that traditional SUV’s are becoming a niche market. “While crossovers were niche vehicles in the 1990s and SUV’s were dominant, the market has shifted dramatically in only 15 years. Today, just the opposite is true.”

The Continuum And The Future

With more than 70 crossover nameplates sold in the U.S., there’s something for everybody. Plenty of small crossovers can be purchased for less than $25,000, like the Nissan Rogue, while a luxury crossover like the Cadillac SRX can sell for twice that much. Even smaller crossovers will soon be coming to market, including the 2011 Mini Countryman.

According to Edward Kim, Director of Industry Analysis at AutoPacific Inc., “We’re definitely forecasting more fragmentation as crossovers simply become a larger macro segment with more and more variety within it. In the short- to mid-term, the big areas of activities will be compact crossovers. New vehicles like the Kia Sportage and Nissan Juke will increasingly replace small and mid-size cars. Plus, smaller luxury crossovers such as the Audi Q5, Mercedes-Benz GLK and Cadillac SRX should have the same impact in the luxury segment.”

So the experts are telling us to expect more crossovers. The class gives manufacturers room to create new types of vehicles that don’t otherwise fit in the “sedan” or “truck” mold.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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