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The Crossover Craze

As automakers blur the boundaries between cars, trucks and SUVs, only two certainties remain: the rule book has been tossed out and the market loves it
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Kurt Russell, May/June 2006

Hidden in the hills, not far from the crashing surf of California's Malibu coastline, a team of 23 Volkswagen designers, engineers and planners have quietly holed up in a rented vacation house for the last 18 months. The Moonraker Project is Volkswagen's secret weapon, a central part of its effort to get a better feel for the complicated and confusing U.S. car market—and reverse a steady slide in sales.

"I was frightened how arrogant the Germans were when they came here," admits Moonraker's manager, Stefan Liske. But attitudes have changed after a year spent crisscrossing the country and meeting with consumers. Maybe it's the laid-back California lifestyle, perhaps the recognition of how much trouble VW is facing here. Whatever the reason, Moonraker members have been reaching some unexpected conclusions and taking some striking, if calculated risks. Take the concept car the team rolled out at this year's Greater Los Angeles Auto Show.

The GX3 is an unlikely amalgam of go-kart and motorcycle. Wolfgang Bernhard, Volkswagen's global brand boss, hints that the three-wheel two-seater may very well go into limited production in late 2007. But even if it doesn't, it's clear that the German automaker has concluded that the old rules no longer apply in the United States—at least not for a manufacturer hoping to stand out in an increasingly crowded market.

One only had to spend a few hours touring the L.A. convention center, or the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, to get a sense of just how much—and how fast—things are changing, and not just for VW. Roughly 100 new vehicles debuted at the two shows, considered harbingers of trends sweeping through the industry. Plenty of products fell neatly into traditional market segments, such as Toyota's next-generation Camry sedan or the big Chevrolet Suburban SUV, but nearly half the new offerings defied easy categorization. While few went to the radical extremes of Volkswagen's GX3, dozens of concepts and production models, such as the Dodge Caliber, Acura MDX and Mercedes-Benz GL, seemed intent on blurring the traditional boundaries between cars and trucks, sedans and wagons, pickups and SUVs.

Few new products have done more to blur the lines than Honda's new Ridgeline pickup. The Japanese automaker scored an unprecedented coup at January's North American International Auto Show, at which a panel of 49 U.S. and Canadian journalists not only named the new Civic the North American Car of the Year, but, more significantly, declared the Ridgeline their pick as North American Truck of the Year. But while the Ridgeline is definitely a pickup, is it actually a truck? Ever since Henry Ford bolted a bed onto the back of a Model T, the formula for building a pickup has gone essentially unchanged: weld together a ladder-like frame and attach a wheel to each corner; stuff an engine up front; mount a big box in the middle for your passengers; and then bolt on a bed for your cargo. The approach is rugged and totally functional. But Honda took a different approach, and you'll know it the moment you look at this unconventional offering with its exaggerated angles and locomotive-sized grille. Sure, the Ridgeline has a conventional power train, passenger compartment and cargo bed, but they're integrated into an overall package using the same sort of monocoque design you'd find in a passenger car, for instance the carmaker's Civic. In other words, chassis and body are merged into one—rather than the welded-and-bolted assemblage used for traditional trucks, such as the pickup segment's best seller, the Ford F-Series.

Perhaps it's no surprise that Honda took this unusual approach. After all, Honda and its Japanese rival Toyota invented the so-called crossover back in 1985. Honda was first to market in Japan, with its CRV, but Toyota landed first on U.S. shores with the RAV-4. These "cute-utes" looked a lot like conventional sport-utility vehicles. They rode tall, featured the high "command seating" ute owners relish, and boasted go-anywhere all-wheel drive. Under the skin, though, they were car-based, like the Ridgeline, and unlike conventional SUVs.

So while they looked like trucks, they drove more like passenger cars, meaning better on-road manners, improved fuel economy and a reduced risk of rollover. There were some trade-offs, of course. These new machines generally couldn't manage rough off-road trails. They were better suited to gravel and snowdrifts, but few buyers seemed to notice, nor mind. Industry studies reveal that well less than 10 percent of conventional sport-ute owners ever drive down anything rougher than a dirt road. Ironically, both the RAV-4 and CRV were born of desperation. At the time, the Big Three U.S. automakers dominated the highly profitable light-truck market. Honda and Toyota needed entries of their own, yet the sport-ute learning curve was steep. To fill the gap, each maker raided its own passenger car parts bin, cobbling placeholders that would stand in until they could ready their conventional trucks. They might not have bothered. The two cute-utes took the market by storm, and suddenly, with a new generation of crossovers threatening to make conventional trucks obsolete, Detroit was on the defensive.

"The boundaries are disappearing," proclaims David Cole, the former director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. After a cautious start, manufacturers have embraced the crossover concept wholeheartedly. By the end of the year, analysts like George Pipas, of Ford Motor Co., expect to see at least 70 different crossovers on the U.S. market. Ford is betting big on its new Edge, which debuted in Detroit, alongside the new Lincoln MKX (pronounced Mark X). It appears that other versions of the Edge platform are in the works, with some crossover vehicles likely for the product-starved Mercury brand.

Everywhere you turned at the L.A. and Detroit shows, you were apt to run into another example of this emerging market segment. Honda's Acura division scored a smash hit with its first crossover-utility vehicle, or CUV. And the MDX will soon be joined by a downsized version, the RDX. Mazda will enter the fray with its all-new CX-7, while GM's long-troubled Buick brand, desperately hoping to regain some momentum, has rolled out the Enclave. A quick glance suggests that most of these new entries have something specific in common. "The most successful crossovers are the ones that look like conventional SUVs," points out General Motors' car czar, Bob Lutz, adding that "many people don't even know they're buying a CUV."

But as with all rules, there are some successful exceptions. We'd probably not be seeing much of the Subaru brand were it not for the Legacy Outback, essentially a high-riding version of the conventional Legacy wagon. Audi is just rolling its first crossover, the Q7, into dealer showrooms. Like the majority of CUVs, it's a sport-ute on a passenger car platform. But during a Detroit preview, the German maker offered a tease of what may follow. The Roadjet concept is a wedge-shaped crossover/wagon with a sporty temperment. The Roadjet's selectable drive system would make it possible for a driver to choose different settings for steering, suspension and transmission, as well as engine performance.

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