A crossover SUV combines the best features of SUVs (sport utility vehicles) with the highlights of minivans and sedans for a truly family-friendly vehicle. The crossover appeals to families with its car-like handling, roomy interior and excellent visibility. While traditional SUVs began as little more than filled-out trucks, the crossover is built on a car platform and appeals to a wide array of buyers, a key reason they've become the top-selling class of vehicle in the U.S.
What Makes a Crossover a Crossover?
Crossovers have a distinct appearance and certain technical details that set them apart. They typically sit high -- like an SUV -- and feature four doors and a rear hatch. The extra ground clearance might be accompanied by four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, though many crossovers come standard with two-wheel-drive. Crossovers feature more comfortable car-like rides than SUVs, which have stiffer rides similar to a truck. Crossovers are generally lighter than SUVs and more fuel efficient. The crossover is all about combining the best features of cars with the best features of SUVs.
Crossovers vs. Traditional SUVs
The traditional SUV is usually based on a truck chassis while crossovers are built on car chassis. This means that crossovers have a unibody construction where the frame and body are one piece. SUVs usually use the body on frame design, which means that the body and frame are built separately and then put together later in the construction process.
There are some exceptions to this general classification. For example, Ford Explorers and Jeep Grand Cherokees are generally considered SUVs but they have unibody designs. This is why 'Crossover SUV' was the initial term used in marketing today's crossover. The idea was that the crossover crossed the utility of an SUV with the practicality of a car. However, there are still plenty of traditional body-on-frame SUVs in the market, including the Chevy Tahoe, Ford Expedition and Mercedes G-Class.
What About Off-Road?
The entire SUV concept originated with off-road enthusiasts. The original SUVs had leaf-spring suspensions on both ends and solid axles that were capable off-road. This same design was easier for hard-core off-road fans to lift the body over the frame to add larger wheels and tires for even more ground clearance.
However, this off-road prowess did not exactly translate to an enjoyable on-road drive, especially when compared to a car. The heavier vehicles were also less fuel efficient. As SUVs became more popular with families and people who remained on-road, some of the off-road capability had to be compromised to deliver a more efficient vehicle. Some crossover SUVs still have some off-road capability, but they're largely designed to deal with on-road obstacles.
By Popular Demand
The first SUVs to garner increased consumer interest were the Ford Explorer, Jeep Cherokee and the Chevy Blazer. Not far behind were the Japanese automakers like Toyota, Nissan and Mitsubishi who converted their existing pickups into SUVs by essentially enclosing the bed of the truck. Most of these SUVs did not have full-time 4WD systems and they still rode like trucks.
Nevertheless, drivers bought them in huge numbers. Drivers wanted SUVs that could haul not only the whole family, but also boats and trailers. This gave rise to a wide variety of SUVs in increasingly larger size.
Eventually, the poor fuel economy and harsh on-road manners of these truck-based SUVs began to catch up with them. Automakers -- particularly Toyota and Jeep -- began tinkering with unibody SUVs that were lighter and more car-like than their SUV predecessors.
Once it became clear that drivers wanted the SUV versatility and style along with car comfort and fuel efficiency, nearly every automaker in the industry jumped in to provide an answer.
Japan and Europe especially had an edge in creating crossover models since many of their automakers did not have full-size trucks to draw off of. Instead, they began adding SUV-style exteriors to car-like chassis.
An early and popular example of this is Toyota's RAV4, which it introduced in 1997. It was built on a car chassis, unlike its truck-based 4Runner SUV. Eventually, Toyota took it a step further with the Toyota Highlander, which replaced the Camry wagon and offered more room than the RAV4. Honda did something similar with its CR-V, built on a Civic chassis and eventually introduced the larger Pilot and Acura MDX, which is built a chassis shared with the Honda Odyssey minivan.
The Modern Crossover
The modern crossover departs from a traditional SUV in several areas. They generally have front-wheel-drive and optional all-wheel-drive that is usually engaged automatically. They ride more comfortably than trucks and body-on-frame SUVs, with precise steering and easy handling. The crossover's styling can vary; some models are designed to look more rugged like their SUV counterparts while others have a softer, car-like look to them.
One of the biggest concerns with traditional SUVs that transferred over to crossovers was the rollover potential. The high center of gravity that gave it better ground clearance also made it more susceptible to rolling over. Furthermore, safety experts had concerns that lighter SUVs were even more likely to roll than heavy ones. Eventually, carmakers solved some of these issues with the widespread adoption (and eventual mandate) of electronic stability control in the late 1990s. This crucial safety feature has helped crossovers surge in popularity since it eased a primary safety concern consumers may have with these higher vehicles.
Crossovers promise the best of both worlds: they borrow from SUVs the high visibility and seating position, excellent cargo space and improved ground clearance. From cars they borrow better handling and ride quality as well as great fuel economy.
Thus, crossovers have met an American need for a rugged, all-weather, family vehicle that could do double-duty between trips to the office and grocery stores with space, towing capability and fuel-efficiency.