If there is one constant in our world its change, and while we all resist new things on some level, over time we may find something new can actually be better. Nowhere is this more prominent than in the world of electronics, where yesterday’s brand new toy can be obsolete by nightfall. The automotive market is driven by change, either by steady improvement or trying to react to the rollercoaster of public taste, the latter of which can about as predictable as the next wind shift.
I have written many words bemoaning the absence of the car-based wagon in this country, all while cursing the existence of the malignant virus called the SUV. While I’m still not happy with that state of affairs, my constant reading and watching of the market shows a compromise forming. Part of my argument was the car-based wagon being more capable of sporty driving fun than the high center of gravity SUV. For the most part this is still true, but the fast-evolving creature in the middle is the Crossover.
First, let’s be clear on terminology. SUVs began as truck-based body-on-frame vehicles, and as such were heavy and tall with the aero qualities of a brick. These vehicles won out over wagons for generous space and greater towing capacity, and neither ever had sporting intentions.
Our friends across the pond proved wagons were not fake-wood-sided land barges, as Mercedes, BMW, and Audi all produced “estate cars” based on their best performance sedans. They still can’t match the truck towing capacity, but they did show a wagon can haul the goods and haul butt at the same time. Granted, the sport versions of these wagons come with an equally muscular price tag. Many sedans in this country have since followed the performance standards set by the German automakers, but the wagon died here long before those improvements took hold of mainstream cars.
Crossovers were born from the efforts to meet increasing fuel economy standards and a more affordable SUV. These vehicles share their platforms with cars rather than trucks so they use the lighter unibody construction. While many still don’t offer large towing capacity, market research revealed most customers didn’t need that feature but still wanted the taller seating position and increased cargo room.
Subaru was probably the first to blur the line with the Outback. Virtually every Subaru is all-wheel-drive so the bones for an adventurous vehicle was already there, and raising the roofline and ride height was a simple matter. Subaru has long enjoyed a loyal customer base, but the Outback allowed them to nibble at the heels of the SUV market, luring customers in with better fuel mileage and more car-like manners for their do-it-all Swiss Army Knife on wheels.
Many say the Toyota RAV-4 is the first crossover to go on sale in the USA, followed closely by Subaru’s taller Forester, the Honda CR-V, and finally the Ford Escape as the first domestic model offered in 2001.
Today, almost every automaker that sells in the U.S. has at least one crossover in their line up, and sales figures for 2015 show the trend beginning to eclipse the family sedan. Foreign automakers got into the business of SUVs and crossovers purely for the American market, and as that market has grown the high end companies are in on the game as well. But when it comes to sporting manners, once again it was the Germans that led the charge. The BMW X5 was one of the first, and as time progressed Porsche joined the fray along with Mercedes.
Just as with the sport-minded estate cars, these crossovers represent the top level of performance and handling that come at a premium price, but just like the performance sedans, the technology is slowly filtering down.
Most crossovers have a shorter wheelbase and overall length than a comparable wagon, and offer at least as much, sometimes more cargo room, both of which contribute to better curvy road manners. Ford offers a sport version of their successful Edge crossover, and more companies will surely follow in their tire tracks.
Mazda has been loyal to fun-to-drive roots in keeping with their “zoom-zoom” motto, and the CX-5 crossover that replaced the Ford Escape clone known as the Tribute, shows just how dedicated they are to their customer base. The CX-5 is lightweight, nimble, and equipped with the 2.5 Skyactiv engine becomes a pure hoot to drive. Mazda also made sure to bring this quick but economical gem to market at a price point that makes a sedan shopper think twice…let alone a wagon.
The Mazda CX-5 represents the tip of an iceberg that I’m personally glad to see arrive. Until recently, these utility vehicles served their purpose but left the fun factor at the door step. Vehicles like the MINI Countryman also showed it was possible to make such a vehicle and not have it be insufferably mundane, but MINI still carries a slightly steeper price tag.
More vehicles like the Mazda are a welcome addition to the marketplace, especially if the nameplate attached says “sport” but is more than a set of wheels, a chrome exhaust tip, and a roof spoiler. I look forward to the day I can look at a sport wagon from overseas and think that it’s nice, but I’m really not missing the option because I’m spoiled for choice with fun options in my own backyard.
There are times when humble pie doesn’t taste so bad. Maybe I’ll even have fries with that.
– T. August Green