Not too long ago, after minivans had grown out of cars and SUVs emerged from pickup trucks, a new vehicle type was born: the crossover. It shared the best traits of its parents, the smooth handling and better fuel economy of cars with the tall ride height and more versatile interior space of trucks.
Now the crossover segment dwarfs every other segment.
Virtually nonexistent 20 years ago, crossover utility vehicles comprise 27 percent of the U.S. auto market through June, according to The Wall Street Journal. Midsize cars rank a distant second at 19 percent; pickups garner 15 percent. But how do crossovers compare to the cars on which they’re based and the truck-based SUVs they replaced? Better yet, what sparked them?
“A need — people liked the idea of an SUV in terms of size, cargo capacity and flexibility,” said Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst at Edmunds.com. “Crossovers had the handling of a car and lower weight for fuel economy, lower center of gravity for handling, and were easy to get into. Women especially have gravitated to crossovers because they have a nice ride height. They are a good compromise and why they’ve really taken off.”
How it’s built
“Think of architecture as the underpinnings — chassis and powertrain — as the templates, with the top hats — SUV, wagon or sedan bodies — riding on top,” said Jim Nichols, spokesman for Volvo Car USA.
There are different types of architecture or “platforms.” Pickup trucks and full-sized SUVs have bodies riding on separate steel frames, also known as body-on-frame construction. Cars are engineered as “unibody,” with their frames integrated to the body, making them lighter and more fuel-efficient. Crossovers combine the space of an SUV with unibody architecture.
Sharing platforms used to be easy. Remove the bed of a compact pickup like the Chevy S-10, graft on a wagon body, and voila, the garage-sized Blazer of the ‘80s. Ford followed the same formula with the Ranger and Explorer. Until the late ‘90s, almost all utility vehicles rode on full frames, bouncing and guzzling fuel like the trucks they were.
But Jeep dispensed with the full frame in engineering the unibody 1984 Cherokee/Wagoneer. It proved SUVs could have the attributes of a car and the capability of a truck. Today, we call them crossovers.
How they compare
Crossovers share much with their sedan and wagon siblings, but differences marginally affect performance and passengers. They are heavier because of their bigger bodies and all-wheel-drive systems. They’re also taller for the ride height and interior space owners love, but suffer diminished fuel economy. A higher center of gravity causes shakier handling. Overall, compromises are minimal.
Let’s compare the Volvo XC60 crossover and S60 sedan. Wheelbase length and track width are essentially the same, as is the 240 horsepower four-cylinder engine. The XC60 posts 31 mpg highway while the S60 achieves 37 mpg. That’s partly because the XC60 weighs 4,041 pounds while the S60 weighs 3,433 pounds. A crossover’s advantage appears in three additional inches of rear legroom and in cargo space, where the XC60 boasts 67.4 cubic feet compared with the S60’s 12 cubic feet.
The Jeep Cherokee and Chrysler 200, which share Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ “compact wide” architecture, pose another comparison. Both come standard with 184 horsepower four-cylinder engines, but the 200 sedan achieves 23/36 mpg city/highway while the front-drive Cherokee delivers 22/31 mpg. The Cherokee is 7 inches taller than the 200 and weighs about 300 pounds more. Add four-wheel-drive and off-road components to Cherokee and the gap widens.
Crossovers offer comparable performance to sedans, but there are disadvantages.
“Crossovers are not true trucks,” Caldwell said. “They are not the best car to really take off road and are not the best for towing. They are for somebody going for size, not capability. Compared to the cars on which they’re based, performance should be similar, but crossovers are heavier and bigger in size and stature that will affect fuel economy.”
How they help automakers
Crossovers benefit automakers, too. By basing SUVs on car architecture, as Nissan did with the Pathfinder, they can eliminate truck-based models and gain economies of scale.
“From a company standpoint, the advantage of shared architecture is that we can reuse design and components across a larger volume of vehicles,” said Joe Grace, FCA’s director of advanced vehicle development. “We can build multiple configurations in one assembly plant. Eventually, this rolls to the customer as it gives us the opportunity to bring more vehicles to market and maintain cost.”
FCA engineers vehicles as diverse as the Dodge Dart, Chrysler 200, and Jeep Cherokee with shared platforms. The Ford Focus, Ford Escape, Ford C-Max, and Lincoln MKC crossover also share platforms — as do the Chevy Sonic, Chevy Trax, and Buick Encore. Gaining economies of scale is critical when developing platforms that cost billions of dollars. It’s especially important for smaller automakers to optimize resources.
“We will have two basic architectures — SPA for large/midsize and CMA for compact vehicles,” Volvo’s Nichols said. “It allows us to start from the ground up with electrification in mind and provides flexibility in designs. As the marketplace changes, we can quickly respond with different vehicle types.”
How crossovers influence cars
Just as cars influenced crossovers with unibody architecture, crossovers are now influencing cars.
“Automakers have explored every type,” Caldwell said. “But you see more crossover attributes going back to cars — going back in the other direction.”
Mercedes-Benz and BMW seem enamored with “crossover coupes” that sport faster rear rooflines. Models like the Volvo S60 Cross Country and Subaru Crosstrek are high-riding passenger cars with all-wheel drive. Volkswagen’s Beetle Dune looks ready for trails. Crossovers even serve to advance cars.
“We can get features on sedans we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Grace said. “An example is all-wheel drive on the Chrysler 200 that was made possible by the Cherokee sharing its architecture.”
As vehicles electrify, it becomes more critical to spread development and component costs over a large variety of vehicles while speeding technology to market.
“We made a commitment that each new platform we introduce will have a plug-in variant.” Nichols said. The Volvo XC90 plug-in hybrid delivers 400 horsepower and 53/54 mpg city/highway.
Crossovers thrive because they marry car and truck. Essentially tall station wagons with passenger car handling and efficiency, crossovers offer the comfort and utility that once boosted SUVs, but with a softer ride. Sharing architecture makes better crossovers possible — now and in the future.