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At Witz’ End – What's A Crossover?


 

 

Most remember when cars were cars, and trucks were trucks. Even back when cars, too, rode on full frames, trucks were clearly different. They looked like trucks, drove like trucks, and worked like trucks. Hardly anyone but contractors and cowboys wanted to drive one.

When fuel economy consciousness first whacked this country upside the head in 1973, our government reacted with Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that forced automakers to make cars substantially smaller and lighter. So cars soon evolved into far more refined and efficient people carriers, mostly front-drive and wrapped in unit-body structures, while separate requirements for working trucks wisely allowed them to remain truck capable on rugged frames and rear-drivetrains.

 

But Americans with people and stuff to haul and tow continued needing larger, heavier, more capable vehicles and — with little concern for fuel efficiency due to cheap and plentiful gas — naturally migrated to trucks. And many discovered the superior comfort, utility and image of so-called sport-utility vehicles (SUVs), which were essentially wagon-bodied pickups.

 

 

Crossovers are born

 

Toyota invented the car-based “cute-ute” by lifting the boring body off its Corolla sedan, replacing it with tiny SUV-look body and calling it RAV4. Honda quickly countered with its Civic-based CR-V. Then Toyota essentially defined today’s car-based high-image CUV by grafting a rounded tall-wagon body onto its mid-size Camry platform to create the Lexus RX300. Some questioned whether consumers would accept such a faux SUV when they could choose from a variety of far more rugged and capable real ones for much less money.

 

But, because truck-like capability turned out to be far less important to most than the seductive blend of SUV room and image and car-like character, they did. And soon every major maker was launching car-based, front-wheel-drive (some with available awd) unibody SUVs of all shapes and sizes. The larger ones competed with truck-based SUVs and uncool-image minivans. The smaller ones stole serious sales from conventional cars.

 

 

To distinguish them from actual SUVs, some called these new tall wagons “hybrid” SUVs -- meaning part car, part truck. But that confused them with gas-electric hybrids. Then someone came up with “crossover,” meaning cars cross-dressed as trucks crossing over into truck territory, which has become fairly commonly used.

 

This has created a classification crisis. In which category, “cars” or “trucks,” do crossovers belong in sales and production stats? Where do they fit for federal regulations such as CAFE, for which car and truck standards are still (necessarily) very different? And in which do they compete for “Car of the Year,” Truck of the Year” and even “SUV of the Year” awards?

 

The weekly Automotive News, in tracking, reporting and analyzing U.S.-market sales and production, considers crossovers trucks…with exceptions. For example, it sees the retro-truck Chrysler PT Cruiser and Chevy HHR and the compact Dodge Caliber as cars. Yet it tracks the Jeep Compass and Patriot, mechanically identical to the Caliber, as trucks. AN also groups the small van-like Honda Element with trucks but the similar Scion xB with cars.

 

Our always-enlightened federal government separates cars from trucks by different criteria depending on which law its bureaucrats are writing at the time. Because CAFE law says basically that a (closed) vehicle is a truck if all seats behind the front row can be either folded or removed to provide a flat load floor, PT Cruisers, HHRs and even Dodge Magnum wagons are “trucks,” which greatly helps their makers cope with truck CAFE compliance.

 

 

Cars…or Trucks…of the year?

 

So what about the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards, a pair of prestigious honors bestowed by a diverse jury of 49 experienced automotive journalists (including this one)? For 2007, the NACTOTY committee decided to add a third award for the fast-growing phalanx of crossovers, but most jurors argued against it and eventually prevailed. So the many diverse crossover candidates were tossed in bodily with “trucks.” The voting resulted in Chevy’s Silverado pickup, Ford’s mid-size Edge and Mazda’s small, sporty CX-7 as finalists. The Silverado won…but was that fair to the others?

 

How should NACTOTY classify crossovers? It could continue seeing all of them as “trucks” because they are (kind of) truck-like and truck useful. But they all sit on car-like unibody, front-wheel-drive platforms, and many are more car-like in styling and character. Grafting a tall wagon body on a sedan platform does not automatically make it a “truck.”

 

It could simply decide that “trucks” have frames, and “cars” don’t, which would make all crossovers cars. But sitting on a car-like platform does not automatically make a vehicle a car…witness Jeep’s Grand Cherokee and Commander and Honda’s Ridgeline pickup.

 

Or it could logically subdivide the burgeoning crossover ranks based on attributes and specifications — what they can do and carry. Thus smaller, more car-like crossovers, would compete for awards with each other and conventional cars, as they do in the marketplace. Larger, more capable, more truck-like crossovers would compete with pickups and truck-based SUVs.

 

Since it makes no sense to classify all crossovers as either cars or trucks, this seems to me the right way to go. But based on what criteria? As a recovering engineer, I believe important decisions should be fact- and data-driven, so it makes the best sense to do it based on a key capabilities and specifications: size, weight, towing capability, seating and cargo capacity.

 

 

Truck vs. Car Index

 

What if we could create a meaningful “Truck vs. Car Index” (call it TCI) to rate those key specs on a 1-10 scale (and maybe double-weight the latter two as the most important differentiators) so that the theoretical TCI of the truckiest “truck” would be 100? Then what if we charted TCIs for every crossover on the market and sorted them highest to lowest?

 

We did, and (not surprisingly) the biggest, most capable crossovers — Saturn Outlook, GMC Acadia, Audi Q7, Mercedes-Benz G-Class — came out on top in the range of 83 to 89 TCI. The smallest and least truck-capable — Dodge Caliber, Jeep Compass, PT Cruiser, HHR, Pontiac Vibe, Toyota Matrix — clustered at the bottom in the 59-61 range. And a natural gap between 72 and 74 TCI could logically be established as the line between crossover “trucks” and “cars.”

 

Then we charted the dozen all-new or substantially changed 2008 crossovers identified so far as potential NACTOTY candidates. Above that line were Buick Enclave, Mazda CX-9, (the new, bigger) Toyota Highlander, Hyundai Veracruz , Ford Taurus X and Subaru Tribeca. Below it were Kia Rondo, Saturn Vue, Ford Escape, Mercury Mariner, Jeep Patriot and Scion xB.

 

As I see it, the NACTOTY jury could classify these new-age car/trucks like the federal government does, or like Automotive News or like someone else…but no method I’ve seen makes perfect sense. Or it could decide to create the dreaded third category, “North American Crossover of the Year.” Or it could:

 

·         Categorize them all as “cars” to compete against sedans, coupes, sports cars, convertibles, and (yes) the few remaining wagons

·         Toss them in with “trucks” to compete with pickups and truck-based SUVs

·         Divide them subjectively by styling and market mission

·         Divide them by specs — size, weight, capacities, and capabilities — that matter to buyers and that naturally differentiate trucks from cars in terms of what they can do.

 

Not my decision, but I would lead the way in a better direction and go with the latter.

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