Flint: Detroit Show’s Crossover to Crossovers

January 21, 2008
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There are the cars of fantasy--such as the $100,000 Corvette ZR1, which I call “The Devil in the Blue Dress,” and the Lexus LF-A Roadster concept. They are real if you’re a millionaire, and will be out soon, but will always be fantasies to most of us.

There are the cars of hope—all sorts of concepts with hybrid engines, small cars such as Ford’s Verve concept, and green diesels. Most of these dreams will never be built, and even the diesels shown by BMW and Mercedes aren’t actually here yet. But that Verve will go into production in a couple years, and some German diesel models, which are said to meet our tough emission standards, are to be on sale later in the year.

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But the most important cars to bow at this year’s Detroit auto show--which we covered last week and which is now open to the wide-eyed public--are the crossovers, the sport-utility vehicles built on car platforms rather than truck frames.

Every carmaker seemed to have a new one that will be on our streets soon. It was an amazing show of unanimity by the manufacturers. They figure that this is what the people want and they have them in all sizes and shapes. To heck with all those greenies who denounce them. And to heck with the traditional SUV -- of which only one new one made its debut, the Kia Borrego, nice enough to look at but hopelessly late in the running, now that the traditional SUV is all but dead.

Toyota showed the Venza, which will be built this year as a 2009 in its Kentucky plant, a crossover off the Camry platform and–-count on it—a success. Honda showed its new Pilot. BMW has the X6, a crossover in the shape of a four-door fastback sedan, riding high with its all-wheel drive, coming this year. The X6 is strange, because no one would take this off-road and it’s car shaped, not SUV-shaped.

Mercedes has its GLK, not exactly small but small for a Mercedes SUV, coming from Germany this year.

General Motors has the Pontiac Vibe crossover due in a few weeks, plus the Saturn Vue just put on sale late last year, and another crossover, which I didn’t see, to be called Traverse, I believe, replacing the TrailBlazer, and coming late this fall.

Ford showed its Flex coming this spring, and even showed a concept of its crossover Explorer replacement, which still is two years away. Chrysler showed its new Dodge Journey. And there were more new crossovers from almost everybody.

This is where the market is. Last year, which was a down year, there were nearly 2.8 million crossover sales, almost a 20-percent increase over 2006, more crossover sales than pickups.

Why are they so popular?

This is a continuation of the SUV trend, but a shift from the heavier truck-frame type vehicles. This is a natural shift which probably would be taking place even without the dramatic price increases in gasoline. The crossovers, which look like SUVs but usually sleeker, have a smoother ride, better fuel economy and come in smaller versions, too. The sales champ is the Honda CR-V which racked up an amazing 219,000 sales last year.

Why are they so popular?

Because Americans are in a particularly practical mood. These crossovers are--in their way—station wagons, but we mustn’t call them that. Station wagons, like the minivans, have gotten a bad reputation as family vehicles.

These crossover wagons are family vehicles, too. Do you lever see racing stripes on a crossover? They are generally roomy, with raised seating, are easier to enter and exit from than lower cars, and easy to pack with room in the rear to dump stuff. They come with all-wheel drive, if you want it, and we can pretend they can go off-road.

They aren’t fantasy vehicles, just solid practical vehicles, and that’s where the country is right now. The designs, which used to be boxy, are getting more curves.

This market still is not politically correct. The crossovers, even the small models such as the Honda CR-V, don’t get the fuel economy of a small car or a hybrid. But they are what Americans are buying. Some are trying to merge them into the green market—the Saturn Vue will come in a hybrid version—but we don’t know yet if Americans will pay extra for just a couple miles’ improvement in miles per gallon.

It’s possible that some future generation will revolt against the crossovers, just as today’s generations turned against the station wagons. Maybe we will go for longer, lower, wider again. Maybe we will be willing to pay for exotic engines, hybrid or hydrogen or more expensive clean diesel models.

But today the Detroit show is the evidence that we want practical vehicles and right now that means crossovers, crossovers and more crossovers.--Jerry Flint

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