Why Crossovers Conquered the American Highway

The crossover is a mutt that combines elements of cars, SUVs, and minivans. And this new type of vehicle just may become the most popular vehicle in America.
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Something extraordinary is happening in the American automobile market. A new style of vehicle is taking over the supermarket parking lots, rural highways, and city streets. It's part SUV, part car, part minivan: a mutt of a vehicle.

People call them crossovers, and they've grown from an interesting experiment by Toyota, Honda, and Subaru in the mid-1990s into the biggest thing in the car business since the sedan, which most people know simply as "the car."

What does that change look like? Recently, I pulled into a hotel parking lot in Colorado. There were 24 parking spaces—and slotted into each and every one was a crossover. 

I am also now part of a demographic category called young families with kids, and being part of this demo means feeling the cold, clammy hand of the market forcing us towards these vehicles. Moms and dads can flail and fight it, but we might as well acquiesce: They're easy to get kids in/out of, they're great for the carpool, they hold lots of stuff. 

But all this was just a feeling, or an even less coherent feels. So I called up Stephanie Brinley, a senior analyst at IHS Automotive, to put numbers to the rise of the crossover. Was it just my imagination or were they really everywhere now? Nope, they're really everywhere. 

These days, three times as many crossovers are sold as SUVs and minivans combined. Even SUVs in their Clintonian fin-de-siècle glory days cannot touch the growth of the crossover. Just take in these numbers. 

Data: IHS Automotive

Last year, roughly speaking, two crossovers were purchased for every three cars. It's tough to compare apples to apples, but in April, IHS Automotive analyst Tom Libby noted that small crossovers were the single best selling segment of any type of vehicle, including midsize sedans, which are the staple crop of the automotive industry.

"If the trend we have witnessed in the first two months of 2014 continues for the remainder of 2014," Libby wrote, "it would mark the first time in recent memory—if not ever—that a car segment did not lead the industry."

Now halfway through the year, "it seems like that might be case," Libby's colleague Brinley said, though obviously there's still some time left in the year. 

In comparison with the rise of Android, say, or WhatsApp, this change may not look impressive. But this is an industry that measures change in decades, that requires new factories to build different kinds of cars, and that has been selling something that someone born in 1890 could understand. 

In other words, in the car business, the crossover is what monumental, generational change looks like. 

* * *

The 2014 Toyota RAV4 (Toyota)

Crossovers are like SUVs with the rough edges rounded off. The original SUVs like the Ford Explorer were built atop the American car companies' truck platforms—they employed truck construction methods and components. But when Toyota debuted the first crossover, the RAV 4, it was built on a car body.

"A truck frame, you could lift the body off the car and it would still drive. Whereas most crossover utility vehicles are monocoque— single body—if you took the body off, the wheels would fall off," said Michael McHale, Subaru's director of corporate communications. "It affects handling and weight and maneuverability." 

So, crossovers look kind of like a small SUV, but they drive like a regular car.

The boxy edges of the SUV are also literally rounded off in most crossovers, as their designers strain to optimize the aerodynamics of the vehicle. But they can't get too streamlined because, as Brinley put it, "the most efficient space is a box." So, most car companies have converged on the compromise design.

"Frankly, if you lined up a Ford Escape, a Honda CRV, and a Toyota RAV4, and you were looking at them 50 yards away and you were an average customer, I don't think you could tell the difference," Toyota's Gregory Lang told me. "Somebody in the industry could, but the crossovers have collapsed on a certain formula that seems to be very in vogue. Some sleekness but a strong dose of utility... Like a lot of things, there's a sweet spot in the middle."

That's not to say there aren't variations. The Subaru Forester stands out as a traditionally boxy vehicle. But within brands and even within model years, manufacturers seem to be trying to pull the sweet spot one way or the other. For example, the previous generation Escape, a bestselling crossover, was more boxy, but the new edition is sleeker. Jeep's Renegade and Compass crossovers are very boxy, but the year's hottest new crossover, the Jeep Cherokee (not the Grand Cherokee SUV), is rounded and smoother with the classic crossover design. 

Crossovers also represent a fascinating size compromise. Americans still like big cars, but they also like being able to park easily. So, crossovers give the illusion of raw size.

"The size impression is completely due to the vertical. It’s the height of the car," Lang said. "This is one of the things that drives and is going to continue to drive the small crossovers. The cars are very manageable in terms of parking in an urban environment. They have more comfort in terms of seating environment because of the height. Your legs are down, rather than out. They have a good eye point on the road. But they are quite compact, in terms of footprint."

In fact, to hear car people tell it, the rise of the crossover seems downright inevitable. All the best parts of a car plus all the best parts of an SUV! It's the best of all worlds! It's great for families! It's great for single people! It's great for empty nesters! And many families that would have chosen minivans and station wagons are now opting for crossovers. 

In other words: Crossovers are eating the world!  

But if that's true, why did it take so long for the crossover to take over the market? And why did it take so long for automobile manufacturers to start offering them? 

To answer these questions, we're going to have to talk about SUVs.

* * *

The SUV is almost a mistake. As chronicled in books like Keith Bradsher's High and Mighty: The Dangerous Rise of the SUV chart, car makers started producing SUVs like the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ford Explorer because they were classified as light trucks, rather than cars. And that let them create a far more profitable vehicle. "Getting minivans and SUVs certified as light trucks allowed Chrysler and American Motors to crank out huge numbers of them without fear of violating fuel-economy, safety, or pollution rules," Bradsher wrote. And it wasn't just Chrysler and American Motors that benefitted. As SUV sales boomed during the 1990s, Ford and its Explorer SUV cashed in, too. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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