The auto industry's recent struggle keeps making headlines, but it isn't exactly news anymore -- sales have slumped, factories have shut down, and entire brands have been killed off. There is a bright spot, though, and as a result, many families are happily cruising in style. The crossover segment has enjoyed staggering growth, with a sales increase that's by far the highest in the industry, and automakers are still muddling the category with new contributions. Today, there are upwards of 70 crossovers sold in the United States.
The term "crossover" came into the lexicon less than a decade ago, when car buyers didn't really know what they were -- but they bought them anyway. What was once something of a catch-all category (tall wagons and sedans, rounded minivans, and compact SUVs) is now becoming more clearly defined despite a growing breadth of options. "Crossover" is now used almost interchangeably with "compact SUV," but some new entries are pushing those boundaries.
When SUVs became the go-to family vehicle, a somewhat rugged ride was accepted as part of the experience. But over time, comfort fell back into favor, and now crossovers are appreciated for their improved ride and handling characteristics. Generally, crossover passengers ride in more comfort than an SUV would provide. Because they're based on car platforms, not trucks (like traditional SUVs), they tend to be more stable and easier to drive. They can maneuver through smaller spaces, stop more quickly, and are easier to park. Easy drivability and a cushy ride tell only part of the story, though. Keep reading to find out why many new car shoppers think crossovers offer the best possible package.
Crossovers initially rose to prominence because they so closely resembled SUVs, but were considerably less expensive. The earliest incarnations of the current crop of crossovers were driven primarily by styling, and some of these vehicles have been around for more than a decade.
Take, for example, the perky little Honda CR-V, which was a top-selling SUV before the term "crossover" was even coined. Honda has kept ahead of the trends and frequently refreshes the lineup's look, so even after all this time, the CR-V still lands in the top 5 of the Edmunds.com consumer survey. Subaru and Toyota also led the pack by designing approachable, comfortable car-like vehicles with aesthetic cues inspired by larger, heavier-duty competitors. The Toyota RAV-4 and Highlander are other examples of long-running compact SUVs that helped define the segment by offering sport utility features without the full size baggage.
Crossovers are so heavily marketed based on style that many car shoppers mentally separate crossovers from SUVs based on aesthetics rather than technical benchmarks. Because of the way crossovers are perceived, there are generally two ways to lure a potential buyer: sell the features as either an upgrade from a sedan or wagon, or as a socially acceptable move downscale from a full-size or luxury SUV. In either case, the segment's styling cues are an asset.
Some automakers are using the crossover market to experiment. The 2011 Mini Countryman is an example of the segment's changing dynamic. Larger than a regular Mini Cooper, but considerably smaller than some of its crossover competitors, the Countryman packs a lot of style into a tight package. It boasts characteristic Mini cheekiness, but a bit more rugged than usual, and features Mini's first all-wheel-drive option. Yet the Mini Cooper Countryman captures the driving experience of the sporty Mini Cooper. Another anomaly is the Suzuki SX-4, which is among the smallest cars in the class, and is easily mistaken for a compact hatchback even though it's loaded with sport utility features and attitude.
As long as automakers keep older models fresh and make newer models more exciting, crossover sales are expected to stay strong. But there's more to a car than its exterior. Keep reading to find out what lies inside a crossover.
Crossovers provide many of the perks of full-size SUVs, with fewer compromises. True, many cannot haul a boat or a trailer, and rugged off-road-capable looks are simply a styling trait. But when gas prices began to climb, a lot of people appeared to realize they didn't exactly need such features. However, many were reluctant to downgrade from comfy interiors, more accessible seating and cargo areas, readily available all-wheel-drive, and lofty views from the cabin…so crossovers slotted neatly into that middle ground. In addition to providing car-like comfort with some SUV functionality, the unibody frame also enables manufacturers to design cabins with more interior space. Though they're smaller outside, crossovers' interiors are capable of hauling more passengers and cargo than their truck-frame-based counterparts.
Giving up some features also makes a lighter vehicle, and a lighter design contributes to better fuel economy than minivans and full-size SUVs. And since crossover competition is so fierce, automakers are working to earn bragging points wherever possible. Fuel economy is improving across the segment, but still isn't much to boast about…at least, compared to smaller family sedans. To the owners of traditional SUVs, though, lower gas costs bring some relief.
And while some crossovers' fuel economy ratings are mediocre, others are truly an achievement. The base model Toyota RAV-4, a four-cylinder engine with front-wheel-drive, achieves EPA ratings of 22 mpg in the city and 28 mpg highway. Opting for the four-wheel-drive system sacrifices just 1 mpg.
The Toyota Highlander Hybrid's drivetrain mates a gasoline-powered V6 with an electric engine, which is pretty standard procedure for hybrids. The Highlander Hybrid stands out, though, because the combined output of the two motors is 280 horsepower that achieves a combined (city and highway) EPA rating of 28 miles per gallon (11.9 kilometers per liter). This power and efficiency comes at a cost, though. The Highlander Hybrid's base price is nearly twice that of entry-level crossovers. Other manufacturers are throwing hybrid engine options into the mix, though.
Keep reading to discover other reasons crossovers are worth consideration.
Since the base prices are so competitive across the segment, shoppers have a lot to consider. Nearly every base model starts between $20,000 to 21,000; only a handful are considerably higher. (Bargain shoppers may find that the lowest-priced outliers, such as the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport and Jeep Patriot, are rather scantily clad in regards to features.) So, buyers have a lot of freedom in regards to pick and choose. But there's a reason prices are kept so low.
Crossovers' manufacturing costs are lower than those of SUVs, to begin with, because unibodies are less expensive to manufacture than body-on-frame vehicles. Also, crossovers are rarely unique: drivetrains are usually borrowed from a compact or midsize car in the manufacturer's lineup, with styling elements and interior accoutrements borrowed from the parts bin. Since the early crossovers aimed to catch a gap between segments, rather than create a whole new market, manufacturers kept the buying process simple. They noticed the positive consumer response, and made an effort to keep base prices low while increasing a la carte options. Even now, many crossovers are easier to customize and buy to specification than the bundled "package" features that are common on showroom floors. This careful pricing structure, driven by an intensely competitive market, allows customers to determine a budget, pick from an impressive number of vehicles that fit within the budget, and pay only for the extra features they really want. There might be exceptions to that simplicity, but generally, crossovers make it easier to get the best overall vehicle at the best price.
Of course, few people walk into a dealership with dreams of owning a bare-bones car. Let's look at some of the features that help crossovers lead the pack.
Crossovers have literally grown stronger and more capable as manufacturers seek to recover from declining SUV sales. For example, the Chevy Traverse has a towing capacity of 5,200 pounds (2,359 kilograms), a leader in the class.
AWD is a common option on crossovers because they are designed with this feature in mind; in fact, the capability to power all four wheels is a defining feature of a crossover. However, many crossovers are still front-wheel-drive to maintain an attractive base price.
Crossovers also offer many minivan-like perks, without the dowdy breadbox styling and negative connotations (at least, "soccer mom" loses some of its bite). These popular and family-friendly features include fold-down seats, lots of high-end electronics and tech toys to sate both busy parents and media-savvy kids, and third row seating (which we'll discuss more later). Few of these options are truly innovative, but that doesn't mean they're any less valuable to the crossovers' target market.
And even though most crossovers come in at prices far below the luxury market, many of them offer a touch of class. According to Edmunds.com, upscale features such as high quality cabin materials and fittings (like those found in the VW Tiguan) are a prized quality amongst this set.
And the most compelling reason to buy a crossover? Well, we've already mentioned it. Keep reading to discover exactly why.
As third row seating was adopted in SUVs, the minivan segment has nearly disappeared. Some manufacturers discontinued their minivans entirely, focusing instead on newer models that keep the brand fresh-looking. Because let's face it: brand perspective is everything, and minivans simply look old. And since the main perk of a minivan was lots of comfortable seating that could fold flat to accommodate cargo… well, why keep this antiquated vehicle around if a more efficient, less expensive, and better looking vehicle could replicate the experience?
Let's get one thing straight -- as important as third row seating has become to differentiate vehicles in this class, the feature is not always exactly comfortable. Most third row seats are tight, especially in vehicles that boast roomy second rows, providing adults with a riding experience that could be likened to being crammed in coach on an airplane just behind the slightly roomier exit row. In many cases, the third row is accessible only by flipping or folding down the second row, but some crossovers increase interior flexibility by putting an aisle in the second row. Some manufacturers have gone a bit further, designing sliding second row seats to provide easier access. These designs, popularized by the very minivans that crossovers are killing off, might compromise by sacrificing a second row seat to the aisle's floor space, but for some families, it's well worth the tradeoff. Though it might not be too cumbersome to tuck and buckle a child in the back, the average adult won't be able to manage graceful entrances or exits squeezing between the seat and doorframe.
Despite some inconvenience, though, happy crossover families find this feature indispensable. Some auto industry analysts give third row seating most of the credit for the crossover segment's continued growth. Though crossovers lack the characteristic sliding door, the third row seating alone is enough to convince some families that downsizing from a minivan or traditional SUV is an option, and upgrading from a sedan is well worth it for the extra breathing room.
On the next page, you'll find more information about crossover vehicles.
What are the benefits of driving a crossover vehicle? Learn about 5 surprising benefits of cruising in a crossover at HowStuffWorks.
- 5 Surprising Benefits of Cruising in a Crossover
- 5 All-wheel-drive Crossover Vehicles
- 5 Crossover Vehicles with the Best Fuel Economy
- 5 Vehicles That Were Crossover Before There Were Crossovers
- Why are crossovers good for retirees?
- What are the benefits of crossover vehicle design?
- What's the difference between a crossover and an SUV?
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