Crossovers… Media – Industry Forcing a Definition
- December 23, 2005
- Posted by George Peterson
- Comments Off on Crossovers… Media – Industry Forcing a Definition
We at VehicleVoice (http://www.vehiclevoice.com) and the VehicleVoice Blog-o-Rama (http:/.vehiclevoice.com) often feel that we are fighting an uphill battle concerning the use of the word “Crossovers”. This is a term that has come to mean SUVs based on car platforms and mechanicals. That’s fine. However, it is industry jargon that has not been adopted by the public. The media, picking up on industry jargon is forcing the term where no-one needs it.
An SUV is an SUV or Its NOT
Based on our research, it’s simple. American vehicle buyers have categorized vehicles into several basic categories: cars and trucks further subdivided into luxury cars, mid-size cars, economy/compact cars, sports/sporty cars, pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and vans/minivans.
The SUV category seems to be giving folks the most trouble. To a typical vehicle-buyer, an SUV is an SUV is an SUV. There are big ones and small ones, but an SUV is an SUV. Muddying the playing field, however, is the notion of a “crossover”. A Traditional SUV in this more complicated world is a truck-based SUV like Ford Explorer or Toyota Sequoia. A crossover SUV is an SUV based on a car platform, a “unit-body” platform. But people often forget that the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Jeep Liberty, Mitsubishi Montero are all based on unit-body platforms but are not car-based. Does this make them a crossover? NO!
Chevrolet Trailblazer… a “real” Truck-Based SUV
Post-Modern SUV… Soft Roader… NOT Crossover
So, it’s pretty muddy. What crossovers need to be are at-a-glance SUVs. The basics of the SUV equation are well known so deviating is a risk. An SUV must have a basic two box bodystyle, relatively tall glass for good visibility, a relatively upright windshield that provides a stiff A-Pillar allowing easy ingress/egress, and a command seating position. At the same time interior roominess and the ability to carry cargo is very important. From our perspective, this most American of vehicle types is very easy to understand but easy for a foreign car company to get wrong.
Pontiac Torrent… Car-Based Post-Modern (Crossover) SUV
Let’s read on about how USA Today recently reacted to the issue of “crossovers”…
Crossovers blend comfortable ride, gas savings
By Jayne O’Donnell and James R. Healey, USA TODAY, December 8, 2005
After 10 years in a rough-riding, truck-based SUV, Nancy Watanabe decided she’d had enough. This week, she’s replacing her Toyota 4Runner with a Lexus RX 330, a car-based SUV.
“I wanted something that was lower and drove more like a car,” says the Manhattan Beach, Calif., resident and expectant mother.
Watanabe typifies SUV buyers’ explosive shift toward car-based SUVs, known as crossovers, which could permanently overtake truck-based SUVs on the sales charts as soon as next year.
“It’s the next evolution of the sport-utility phenomenon,” says Paul Ballew, General Motors’ executive director of global market and industry analysis.
Crossovers Provide Better Ride, Handling, Fuel Economy
Crossover SUVs use adaptations of car or minivan underpinnings. That makes them inherently smoother-riding, better-handling, quieter and more fuel-efficient than their traditional, truck-based counterparts.
Those use the same girderlike ladder frames you’d find on cargo-toting pickups — good for towing and hauling but hard to completely tame for routine use by soccer dads and job-commuting moms.
Crossovers maintain the high seating position, handy cargo space and, usually, four-wheel-drive features that attract people to SUVs, making them seem like win-win propositions to many buyers.
“That combination has been a huge part of their appeal,” says Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis for the Power Information Network.
People who tow trailers or drive off-road and need the robustness and extra ground clearance of truck-style SUVs eventually will have to look harder to find them, because fewer will be produced.
As an extreme example, Ford Explorer, though still the best-selling SUV, had 11,792 sales last month, down 51.8% from a year ago, and a significant drop from its peak monthly sales of 51,021 in August 2002.
GM recently announced that it will double, to 14 models, the number of crossovers it offers in the next four years. Meanwhile, GM is about to launch redesigns of its full-size, truck-based SUVs, starting with the 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe early next year. (Story: Popularity of crossovers leaves SUVs in the dust)
Sensing a few years ago that the shift to gentrified crossovers would soon explode, Mercedes-Benz decided to spend “hundreds of millions of dollars” redesigning its ML-model SUV to change the 2006 model that’s on sale now from the traditional body-on-frame construction of its predecessor to a unibody crossover SUV, and to retool the Alabama factory that builds the ML, says Ron Mueller, product manager for the ’06 ML. He’s now involved in launching the Mercedes-Benz R-Class crossover, new to the automaker’s lineup.
“We developed a whole new chassis for the (ML). It was a substantial investment,” he says. “We could have saved ourselves a lot of money staying with the body-on-frame and just putting new sheet metal on top, but customers wanted more handling and comfort and on-road ability.”
Mueller says that studies showed “fewer than 2% of people in SUVs priced more than $40,000 ever go off-road,” and that designing SUVs for demanding off-road duty created “a lot of dissatisfaction” among mainstream owners who wanted smoother-riding vehicles that were more agile on pavement and used less fuel.
The trend is so strong that Mercedes decided not to offer U.S. buyers an off-road package that’s available on the ML in Europe.
There’s enough variety among car-based crossover SUVs to slice them into their own subcategories. Ford Motor splits crossovers into these three groups and sees room in the market for more “leading-edge” models.
Leading edge models
Hyundai Santa Fe
Suzuki Grand Vitara
Chrysler PT Cruiser
Volvo XC 70
The good news for Detroit automakers — GM (GM), Ford (F) and DaimlerChrysler’s (DCX) Chrysler Group — is that they already are big players in the crossover market, with 40% of sales. Ford’s Escape small SUV is the best-selling crossover. GM’s seven crossovers are the most any company offers.
“The conventional wisdom is that the foreign manufacturers own this segment, and the domestics are out in left field playing Wiffle ball or something,” notes George Pipas, sales analyst at Ford, which will add two crossovers next year as 2007 models, Ford Edge and Lincoln Aviator.
The bad news for Detroit is that there are so many different crossovers already — 41 by Pipas’ count — that chances are slim for huge sales by any one of them. The way to make money in the car business is to have a home run vehicle that sells hundreds of thousands a year.
“Even a hot crossover is pretty low volume,” says GM spokesman Tom Wilkinson. “The definition of a successful crossover may continue to be a vehicle that sells about 100,000 per year.”
Crossover-style vehicles have been sold, on and off, for decades. But they weren’t a high-volume success and weren’t considered a separate category until Toyota introduced the RAV4 in the USA in January 1996. The vehicle had a body that resembled an SUV atop a modified Corolla sedan chassis. Toyota already was selling truck-based SUVs (Land Cruiser and 4Runner), so it was gambling on the format. “They were innovative,” Libby says. “They took a risk.”
When other foreign-brand automakers decided that they needed SUVs, they copied Toyota’s lead on crossovers, because BMW, Honda, Volvo and others had no body-on-frame truck models in their lineups to use as SUV platforms.
Ernest Bastien, vice president of Toyota’s vehicle operations group in the USA, says Toyota paid close attention to the increasing popularity of SUVs, and noted that owners of truck-based SUVs — including its own — complained about high ownership costs and lack of comfort. Toyota also noted that few owners drove their SUVs off the pavement.
Still, plenty of people need robust, traditional SUVs for work, towing, hauling and challenging off-roading. And some people simply prefer trucks.
After test-driving crossovers that included the Acura MDX and Volvo XC 90 in 2003, Monica Levine, a Baltimore writer and mother of two, bought a truck-based Toyota Sequoia.
“I wanted to be able to take eight adults and pounds and pounds of mulch, which I couldn’t have done in a car-based SUV,” she says. “I wanted all the capabilities of a mom-mobile without feeling like I was driving one.”
Besides, she notes, “It’s fun to drive a truck.”