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By now, you’ve probably heard the term, “crossover.” You might even think you have a pretty good idea what a crossover is. Generally, a crossover is considered to be an SUV built like a car. George Pipas, Ford’s chief sales analyst, says that Ford defines a crossover as “a light truck built on a car platform (except for minivans)”. A “platform” is the under-body or structure upon which a vehicle is built. Most people neither know nor care anything about the platform of their vehicle. What does it mean to be a “car platform” vs. a “truck platform”? Generally, it means a unibody vs. a body-on-frame design. Wikipedia defines a unibody as a, “construction technique for automobiles in which the body is integrated into a single unit with the chassis rather than having a separate body-on-frame.” A Body-on-Frame mounts, “…a separate body to a rigid frame.” So crossovers are unibody and SUVs are body-on-frame, right? Not so fast. There are exceptions. The Jeep Grand Cherokee would never be considered a crossover, but it is, and always has been, built on a unibody platform. The Mercedes-Benz M-Class, perhaps the original luxury crossover, was originally a body-on-frame design (it’s now a unibody).

Why have crossovers suddenly become so popular? Well, certainly gas prices have been a big part, especially in the last 6 months, as fuel prices have skyrocketed. Crossovers tend to achieve better fuel economy that their SUV brothers because they are lighter so need smaller engines. SUVs get poor fuel economy, but crossovers get better. True, but they are playing the perception game. The OEMs are like a heard of buffalo scrambling to avoid the use of the term SUV – they all want to call their products crossovers instead – to give their products the image of a fuel-efficient product when it isn’t. The Ford Escape used to have a slogan that said, “100% SUV” because it really isn’t a traditional SUV, but wanted to be thought of as one. Now, it’s just the opposite. George Pipas told me that the Escape is a crossover.

The trend started several years ago, though, so there has to be more to it than fuel economy. SUVs became popular starting in the early 1980s, but really took off in the early 1990s with the popularity of the Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee. Baby boomers are credited with driving SUV sales, much as they have with many other products. So are baby boomers now to “blame” for SUV sales falling? It’s a reasonable assumption, as one of the main advantages of a crossover is that it’s easier to get in and out vs. an SUV. We’ve all read ad nauseam about the “graying of America” as baby boomers get older. They are simply finding that they can’t get in and out of their giant SUVs any longer.

The other reason for the switch to crossovers is handling. A crossover, because of its unibody design, handles more like a car, because it is, well, a car. The whole Ford Explorer – Firestone debacle of 2000 increased awareness that SUVs are not cars, and cannot be driven like one. They are taller and heavier with a higher center of gravity (CG). What this means is that they have to be driven slower around corners and that, in extreme conditions, are more likely to roll over. Crossovers, on the other hand, are lower than SUVs, so have less chance to roll over (or fetch).

So for all these reasons, crossovers are a different kind of vehicle than an SUV, right? Maybe, but we here at The Slandy Report disagree. Most crossovers, to us, are the natural progression of the SUV segment. They can do just about anything an SUV can do (obvious exceptions are heavy towing and serious off-roading), but they do it better for most people because of the points made above (fuel economy, handling and ingress/egress). Just because a “crossover” is built differently doesn’t make it a different kind of vehicle. Case in point: when cars began to use unibody designs instead of frames, or when they began to use front-wheel drive, they weren’t deemed to be a new kind of vehicle. They were just different cars.

The same is true for some other ”crossovers”, which we believe are just the new way of designing station wagons. The Ford Taurus X (nee Freestyle), Chrysler Pacifica and the new Ford Flex and Dodge Journey are just new-fangled station wagons. I don’t think I need to prove this – just look at them. They don’t look like your grandfather’s station wagon, but neither does a 2009 F-150 look like your grandfather’s F-100. The automakers are just afraid of the term station wagon. When Ford was launching the Freestyle a few years ago and I suggested to the Freestyle marketing manager that it was a station wagon, she quickly corrected me.

So are the automakers going to see the light and deep-six the name crossover? Don’t bet on it. They have come across a new type of vehicle (even if it isn’t), and they are going to milk it as long as they can. My only hope is to shine the light on this, so you know what you’re getting. I remain your faithful servant.

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