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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

(continued from page 1)

When it comes to crossovers, creativity is the key. "You can...create any segment any way you want," suggests Jim Hall, chief prognosticator with the automotive consultancy AutoPacific Inc.

Porsche, for example, blended sports car with sport-ute and came up with the Cayenne, whose top model boasts 520 horsepower. And crossovers aren't limited to car/truck combinations. There are so-called truck/trucks, like Ford's recently redesigned Explorer SportTrac. It mates the front half of an Explorer sport-ute with the shortened bed of a Ranger pickup. Chevy's SSR, nicknamed the "Corvette truck," is a retro-looking pickup with the Vette's V-8 and an unusual retractable hardtop. The crossover concept is clearly contagious. Designers and engineers are even breaking down barriers between traditional passenger car segments. Many reviewers rated Mercedes' CLS, a so-called four-door coupe, the most beautiful car of 2005. Aston Martin's Rapide concept explores similar ground, and could make production before the end of 2007.

As fast as SUV sales boiled up during the '80s and '90s, they are no match for this emerging segment. American motorists snapped up about 2.25 million crossovers last year, making this the fastest-growing product niche in U.S. automotive history. By comparison, sales of conventional sport-utility vehicles had been declining, even before last summer's oil shock. After reaching a record 2.98 million units in 2000, SUV sales dipped to 2.45 million in 2005. The crisscrossing trends are expected to continue. "Crossovers will cross over conventional sport-utility vehicles in 2006," forecasts Ford's Pipas, the U.S. sales analysis manager. While crossover volumes will easily approach 3 million by decade's end, sales of conventional SUVs could plunge below 2 million.

Detroit's Big Three got off to a slow start in the CUV segment, but the domestic makers are aiming to catch up with a vengeance. The Buick Enclave is one of at least 14 CUVs that GM intends to build before the decade ends. Chrysler's wagon-like Pacifica dawdled at first, but is steadily gaining ground. New for the '07 model year is the Dodge Caliber, a sharp-edged design that's half wagon, half ute and decidedly more interesting than the stodgy Neon sedan it is intended to replace.

Even DaimlerChrysler's Jeep division is getting into the act. Until now, every Jeep has had to be "Rubicon ready," a reference to what is generally considered the country's most challenging off-road course. You may have noticed those little "Trail-Rated" badges on such current products as the Grand Cherokee, Wrangler and Liberty. The Compass, expected to reach showrooms this year, will be Jeep's first soft-roader. It's a risky move that could set brand loyalists huffing. But DaimlerChrysler, like Ford and GM, has no choice. The market is shifting, and SUV profits are shrinking even faster than sales.

The product push is paying off, however. While Honda remains the CUV market leader, with sales of nearly 400,000 last year, GM is gaining ground with models like the Saturn Vue and Chevrolet Equinox. Ford took third in the segment, unexpectedly nudging past Toyota, while Chrysler rounded out the Top 5.

When the Mercedes-Benz M-Class lineup made its debut nearly a decade ago, it redefined the concept of luxury. The 1998 model had the heated leather seats, big navigation screen and high-end sound system one would have expected in an E- or S-Class sedan, but the high-riding SUV emphasized truck-like, off-road performance, trading off some of the comfort you'd normally expect of a Mercedes sedan. The new ML500 has undergone the automotive equivalent of an extreme makeover. The 2006 model has evolved into a monocoque crossover that's decidedly more sleek and stylish. Sure, owners lose a little off-roadability, but the new model is markedly more comfortable and easier to handle on the road.

The reborn M-Class joins a fast-growing lineup of Mercedes crossovers, including the new R-Class, the B-Class (not currently sold in the United States) and the soon-to-be-redesigned GL. The original version, formally known as the Gelöndewagen, was the Teutonic equivalent of the Hummer: big, bad and bulky. But as with the M-Class, the new eight-seater will evolve into a crossover.

Other conventional sport-utes could follow, though as GM's Lutz was quick to emphasize, "There's always going to be a market for the SUV." One reason is that crossovers tend to sacrifice towing capacity, a big plus for sport-utility vehicles.

CUVs are also cannibalizing other segments of the market. "They're pulling people out of cars," much like the sport-ute did during the '80s and '90s, stressed analyst Hall. So how fast the crossover market continues to grow will depend on a variety of factors. Perhaps the most important is the creativity of industry designers and engineers. U.S. buyers are no longer willing to accept one-size-fits-all automobiles. They want products that reflect their individual tastes and needs, and the fragmented crossover market is well suited to serve up what buyers want. CUV sales could gain even more momentum if global oil prices continue rising. "They're our hedge," says GM chief executive officer Rick Wagoner.

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