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What is a Crossover?

By Josh Noel | October 4, 2021

The traditional SUV is usually based on a truck platform, while crossovers are built on car chassis. This means that crossovers have a unibody construction where the frame and body are one piece.

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.

The term CUV (crossover utility vehicle) is sometimes used to refer to these vehicles because it more closely aligns them with the tough reputation of SUVs.

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 ride height 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

Compared to crossovers, 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. These SUVs also traditionally use a rear-wheel-drive setup, with optional four-wheel-drive.

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 Chevrolet Tahoe, Ford Expedition, Jeep Wrangler, Toyota 4Runner, and Mercedes-Benz 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.

Manufacturers have started to add off-road-oriented packages to their crossover offerings.

Subaru's Wilderness Package raises ground clearance, adds unpainted body cladding, and more aggressive tires. Ford's newest compact SUV, the Bronco Sport's Badlands trim, includes similar off-road features and a trail-oriented G.O.A.T. (Goes Over Any Type of Terrain) traction control for the AWD system. Honda is also getting in on the action with TrailSport branded models, starting with the full-size Passport, as well as the Ridgeline pickup truck, but likely coming to the midsize Honda CR-V.

None of these will compete with a Land Rover off-road, but they do indicate buyers want a certain level of capability from their CUVs.

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 of an 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.

Crossover Genesis

Once it became clear that drivers wanted the SUV's 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 station 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 on a chassis shared with the Honda Odyssey minivan.

Toyota also kicked off the luxury crossover segment, with its Lexus division building the RX. Delivering the smooth quiet ride Lexus had become known for, with the higher seating position, and larger interior space, made the RX a hit for Lexus. European automakers soon followed with cars like the Volkswagen Touareg and the BMW X5. Mercedes released the M-Class just before the Lexus RX, but it shared body construction with traditional pickups and slots into the SUV category. The second-generation M-class shifted to unibody, following the trend.

Although the term did not exist at the time, the post-humous award for the first crossover is extended to the AMC Eagle. Sold from 1980 to 1987 the Eagle resembled a lifted station wagon, was built on a unibody chassis, and came with an automatic four-wheel-drive system. The Eagle was also available in a sedan, coupe, hatchback, and even a convertible, but those body styles would not qualify as crossovers.

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.

Walking on to a dealership lot for almost any manufacturer, you will likely find a litany of SUV models and crossovers. Many brands offer very few sedans, wagons, or hatchbacks as consumer trends have shifted heavily towards crossover.

Crossover Categories

Crossovers come in a variety of sizes and price ranges, which we will break down below. Keep in mind crossovers are difficult to clearly classify, and some models slot in between these size categories.

  • Three-row CUVs generally compete with full-size traditional SUVs offering seating for seven to eight passengers, though they technically fall into the midsize category. Pricing for popular full-size offerings starts in the mid to low $30,000 range for base models and goes up from there for models with luxury features. Two of the most popular three-row crossovers on the market today come from Kia and Hyundai. The Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride share a platform and engines and currently sit atop many automotive opinion writer's lists of best three-row crossovers.

  • Midsize crossovers with two rows of seating can offer savings and better fuel economy to buyers looking for a CUV, but not without the need to seat as many people. Two-row, midsize crossovers start well under $30,000. Popular models in this category include the rugged Subaru Outback, Toyota Venza which gets an EPA estimated 40 MPG, and the Ford Edge with its sporty ST trim level.

  • Compact crossovers also offer two rows of seating though slightly less roomy. Compact Crossovers pricing starts in the mid-$20k range. Top-rated options include the Mazda CX-5, which has an interior to compete with luxury makes and emphasizes on-road handling. The previously mentioned Ford Bronco Sport also slots in the compact category, but is the opposite of the CX-5 with off-road capability presented as its main selling point.

  • Sub-compact crossovers offer seating for five, with the backseat and cargo area a little tighter than compact offerings. These take the place of small economy cars in manufacturer lineups, and may be a great option for city dwellers prioritizing parking and maneuverability, but who still want the benefit of a crossover. Pricing can start sub-$20k, as with the well-liked Kia Soul. Mazda's offering in this category, the CX-30, also wins points for its exciting driving dynamics and high level of value.

Safety Features

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.