What is a Crossover Vehicle?

The automotive industry is not shy about using acronyms to describe its products: SUV, MPV, APV, SUT, XUV, SAV-just to name a few. While this makes for great marketing, the confusing terms also make it more difficult for consumers to differentiate between vehicles. Which vehicles will meet their needs and what vehicles are comparable to what?

Sport Utility vehicles continue to be one of the most popular automotive segments. Freeing generations of minivan owners from their dowdy chains in the mid-90s, buying an SUV typically meant a stop at a Jeep, Land Rover or Chevrolet dealer. But great changes have taken place in the last ten to fifteen years, as now most manufacturers-even Porsche-offer at least one SUV.

In the early 1990s there were roughly 20 sport utility vehicles on the market, from the still-popular Toyota Land Cruiser to the unlamented and long-departed Daihatsu Rocky. Today, new SUV models number more than 80 and offer varying levels of 'sport' and/or 'utility'.

In addition, some now come with a new and ambiguous name: Crossover. Exactly what is a crossover vehicle, what did it "cross over" from, and how do you know if you're buying one?

It's important to remember that "crossover" began as a marketing term. It's one of those words that has evolved, eventually gaining mainstream acceptance. In general, a crossover vehicle is of uni-body construction on a car-based platform, with ride, handling and performance characteristics similar to cars. They can appear either wagon- or SUV-like in appearance (though they aren't really meant for off-road use), often have a lower roof line or step-in height compared to a traditional SUV, and in general get better gas mileage compared to most SUVs.

A crossover is a vehicle built on a car platform and combining, in highly variable degrees, features of a traditional sport utility vehicle (SUV) with features from a passenger vehicle, especially those of a station wagon or hatchback.

Using the unibody construction typical of passenger vehicles, the crossover combines SUV design features such as tall interior packaging, high H-point seating, high ground-clearance or all-wheel-drive capability - with design features from an automobile such as a passenger vehicle's platform, independent rear suspension, car-like handling and fuel economy.

A crossover may borrow features from a station wagon or hatchback such as the two-box design of a shared passenger/cargo volume with rear access via a third or fifth door, a liftgate - and flexibility to allow configurations that favor either passenger or cargo volume, e.g., fold-down rear seats. The crossover may include an A, B & C-pillar, as well as a D pillar.

Crossovers are typically designed for only light off-road capability, if any at all

While the term crossover did begin as a marketing term, a 2008 CNNMoney article indicated that "many consumers can not tell the difference between an SUV and a crossover." A January 2008 Wall Street Journal blog article called crossovers "wagons that look like sport utility vehicles but ride like cars."

The market segment spans a wide range of vehicles. In some cases, manufacturers have marketed vehicles as crossovers simply to avoid calling them station wagons. And while some crossover vehicles released in the early 2000s resembled traditional SUVs or wagons, others have prioritized sportiness over utility-such as the Infiniti FX and BMW X6.

This segment has notable historical antecedents that include the AMC Eagle that "pioneered the crossover SUV" and "predated a whole generation of crossover vehicles". This segment came into strong visibility in the U.S. by 2006, when crossover sales "made up more than 50% of the overall SUV market." Sales in the crossover market segment increased in 2007 by 16%. In the U.S., domestic manufacturers were slow to switch from their emphasis on light truck-based SUVs, and foreign automakers developed crossovers targeting the U.S. market, as an alternative to station wagons that are unpopular there. But by the 2010 model year, domestic automakers had quickly caught up. The segment has strong appeal to aging baby boomers.

Whatever the case, Crossover sales are up and the has gained popularity as evidenced in this article in USA Today:

Crossover vehicles pass up SUVs on road to growing sales

DETROIT — For the first time in April, crossover vehicles made up more than 50% of the overall SUV market, showing that buyers are willing to forgo the ability to drive off-road to enjoy a more comfortable ride and, often, better fuel economy.

Power Information Network says crossovers accounted for 53% of SUV sales in April, a 3-percentage-point jump from March.

Crossovers offer SUV-like convenience and a carlike ride. They are built on a car chassis, while traditional SUVs are built on a truck platform.

April was "really a milestone for the crossover market," says Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis at PIN. "The crossover market has reached huge visibility. Crossovers didn't even exist in any volume a few years ago."

George Pipas, manager of sales analysis for Ford Motor, says the company predicted consumers would shift out of traditional SUVs eventually. "We just didn't know it would happen so quickly."

Crossovers, sometimes referred to as CUVs, are growing in popularity at least in part because there are simply more of them on the market today. The segment didn't exist until 1996. Now nearly every automaker has at least one in its lineup.

General Motors says it will double the number of crossovers it offers in four years to 14.

Jeep, which has built its reputation on SUVs that can tackle the worst of off-road conditions, is coming out with Patriot, a road-only SUV.

Automakers ranging from luxury brands BMW and Mercedes-Benz to thrifty South Koreans Hyundai and Kia either have crossovers on the market or will soon.

Chris Benko, an analyst at PricewaterhousCoopers Automotive Institute, said in a recent research note that he expects automakers will build about 2.5 million crossovers next year out of an annual production schedule averaging about 17 million.

But automakers risk flooding the market, he said. Recent introductions at auto shows "suggest consumers may become 'paralyzed with choice' in a sea of non-distinct CUV product."

Jim Hall, an analyst at AutoPacific, says the popularity of crossovers doesn't mean the death of traditional SUVs.

"What you have here is the ongoing evolution of SUVs," he says, noting that many consumers can't tell the difference between an SUV and a crossover. "These are seen as an alternative to SUVs that they don't have to make a lot of compromises for."

Gas prices may be factoring in to consumer decisions. In April, Toyota RAV4 outsold Ford Explorer, the top-selling SUV, for the first time. A two-wheel-drive six-cylinder RAV, built on a car platform, gets on average 25 miles to the gallon, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. A similar Ford Explorer gets 17 mpg.

"Crossovers tend to be midsize or smaller and more fuel-efficient," Libby says.

But Hall doesn't think gas prices are the deciding factor for crossover buyers yet. Instead, they are buying because they can get an SUV that fits their needs, he says.