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.

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.

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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.

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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.

The regulations—and the lack of innovation in Detroit—made it difficult to come up with fuel-efficient, reasonably priced big cars, but Americans still wanted big vehicles. So, as Chrysler engineer Francois Castaing puts it in Bradsher's book, "We could not sell big cars, so we turned it into a truck."

The SUV wasn’t only a phenomenon because of regulatory loopholes (even if those loopholes were so big you could drive a truck through them). The product matched the times.

In mid-1990s SUV advertisements, SUVs are shown as the ultimate town and country vehicle. The 1995 specimen above shows a family hopping into a car on a San Francisco street and effortlessly cruising into the wilderness. The video is even intercut so that the transitions from rural to urban are seamless, almost like a dream. It was a glorious appeal to urban baby boomers who could dimly recall the flowering fields of their youth.

The SUV was for explorers, people who went off-road, who conquered new territory. It was a great car for the decade of the dot-com bubble. "We were in a fairly optimistic space in the country and this idea that you could take this vehicle and do anything and climb the top of the mountain worked," Brinley said.

And thus, the SUV craze was born. If you were alive and on the highway in the 1990s, it was the most noticeable change on the road. Within about five years in the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, the road was suddenly packed with these huge vehicles. They became a major cultural flashpoint. Some people loved them. Others hated them. And I mean hated.

Novelist Richard Ford argued that SUVs were "for an excessive person who wants to be perceived as only excessively practical," and he went on to decry their gasoline usage (and attendant foreign oil import increases), extreme profitability, ability to inflict damage on others, and noted that his wife thought they seemed "Republican in character."

"Forget the tension between liberals and conservatives, blacks and whites—even men and women," a 1997 New York Times article begins. "A new schism has formed, which has divided suburban residents as surely as the yellow line that splits the road: there are those who drive sport utility vehicles and those who drive passenger cars."

Yes, it was that important. One was an SUV person or one was not.

And the problem for SUV makers became that more and more car buyers were not SUV people. The price of fuel started to rise in the 2000s. The economy was in the tank. We were at war. The optimism of the '90s gave way to pessimism and musky fear. Who would want to bet on gas prices coming down? Or keeping one's job long enough to pay for the SUV and the gas it needed to commute from ever-more distant exurbs to urban centers?

Meanwhile, the fuel-efficiency standards for light trucks, which had been stuck at 20.7 miles per gallon since 1996, finally starting to tick upwards in 2005. The loophole that had made SUVs so interesting to carmakers was slowly closing.

But if SUVs were going out of style, falling in absolute units and in market share, the things that people liked out SUVs did not go away. They settled into the idea that they might not actually go off-roading with their vehicles. They would not climb mountains. But they liked riding high. They liked cargo space.

"At the end of the day, what people really wanted, was something more car like, not a truck with four doors and a cab," Brinley said. "They wanted something more comfortable on the road, but still gave them the flexibility and utility."

And so, the crossover was there to suck up all the people who wanted the good parts of the SUV without the bad.

Michael McHale, Subaru's director of communications, told me that during the Cash for Clunkers program of 2009, Subaru's Forester, which is now classed as a crossover, was the car that the most people traded their clunkers for. "A bunch of people jumped down from SUVs into our cars," McHale said. "At the time we were asked why and when we looked at it, we found that when people drove trucks, they got used to the sense of safety, and they were just not comfortable into a two-wheel-drive vehicle or something with a low ride height." Now, 75 percent of Subaru's sales are crossovers. 

The SUV, then, primed the market for crossovers by training car buyers to look for things—high ride height, all wheel drive—that only crossovers can deliver. At the same time, because crossovers were not explicitly SUVs to the average person, they could also gain buyers who would have otherwise purchased sedans or station wagons. People who would never buy the Subaru Forester SUV (as it was marketed in the 90s) could easily consider the Subaru Forester crossover (as it is marketed now).

Crossovers—almost magically—bridged the cultural gulf that SUVs created.

"It’s a vehicle for everybody," Toyota's Lang said. "We look at the concept of net flow with brands or segments. And the fact is that this segment is stealing from everywhere. There is a lot of net flow from mid-sized SUVs. There is a lot net flow from mid-sized cars, too."

Now every carmaker is trying to get a piece of the action. Brinley said that she counted 25—twenty-five!—crossovers on the market. She expects that the crossover market will mature by the end of this decade, and from then on, "the environment will get more competitive like it is for sedans."

Surely, crossover sales will peak at some point and eventually decline. When people from the future look back at our cultural moment, they will spot that telltale crossover silhouette as surely as we identify the cute little Volkswagen Bug with the 1960s or aggressive muscle cars with the 1970s.

The 1980s had the minivan. The 1990s had the SUV. We have the crossover, and that does say something about the extreme tensions of our time. We've got a black President and the Tea Party taking hold in the old Confederacy. We've got a Latino plurality in California and high-profile anti-immigration protests there, too.

But as sorted and divided as our country is, in a political and cultural environment nearly always described as polarized, there is this little nub of American hope that says: the center will eventually hold. We will find the sweet spot in the middle by mashing ourselves together as we have always done.

Maybe it is strange to find succor in the rise of a segment of the automotive market, but the crossover is the perfect vehicle for the purple state America of our dreams.