Don’t Hate the Crossover

I recently read an article in a leading car magazine where the author derided performance car makers for joining the crossover (CUV) vehicle craze.  He decried the proliferation of style-free mass-market ‘blobs’, made from common components.  I believe the Porsche Macan was the straw that broke this particular camel’s back.  Being something of a car nerd, part of me wanted to join him in his indignity.  But I quickly thought better of it.   Even a relative outsider like me knows that well-known makers like Porsche and Maserati need higher-volume products to make sure the ink on the balance sheet remains black, and these days it seems the the most high-toned european brands will make anything that they think will sell their logos.  Driving machines and marketing machines roll hand-in-hand even if no one wants to admit it.
Toyota RAV4 — Photo from Toyota Website
In the land of regular drivers (keeping the list price south of $50,000) nearly every manufacturer on the planet has long engaged the CUV buyer.  And drivers have been buying them like nothing else.  Crossovers range in size from the diminutive Honda HRV, to the comparative largess of models like the Chevrolet Traverse.  To me, the smaller end of the spectrum begs to ask why the owner didn’t simply get a hatchback.  By way of example, the BMW X1 seems to be the darling of Silicon Valley.  I saw one on every block the last time I was there.  Small, relatively cheap (for a Beemer), easy to park and easy on gas.  What’s not to like, in the land of the perpetual commuter?
Most of these vehicles are front-wheel drive with transverse-mounted engines.  This is the same FF layout as compact cars, but with taller bodies, suspensions and in most cases taller wheels and tires.  This translates into more upright seating positions, better view of the road, better handling in inclement weather, a better ride on rough roads and more flexibility in the use of interior space than sedans or even the small station wagons which are so popular in Europe.  The manufacturers already had chassis designed for this size/class and only had to adapt the platforms to suit the new market.  It was clearly a win for those engaged in the US market, where small cars seem to struggle.
I was introduced to the segment when we decided to upgrade my wife’s Honda Accord.  We really liked it, and briefly considered a new Accord, but concluded that Michigan winters and the continued deterioration of the road infrastructure probably made a better case for something with more ground clearance and larger wheels and tires.  We had simply seen too many front-wheel drive sedans struggle if the roads weren’t meticulously plowed.  For us, combining the fuel economy of a 4-cylinder engine and the option of all-wheel drive seemed a good compromise between a car and a more truck-like SUV.
We investigated the Mazda CX-3, Ford Escape, Chevy Equinox, Volkswagen Tiguan, Honda CRV, Kia Sportage, Subaru Forester, Jeep Cherokee and Toyota Rav4.  We also looked at the Ford Edge and Chevrolet Traverse, but decided if we were going to get something that big, we’d get a full-blown SUV.  We drove the Subaru, Honda and Toyota and eventually got the Toyota.  The Rav4 had the all the features we wanted and more than adequate performance.  It also met the crucial criteria of being available with a moonroof and very bright red paint.  That last bit was more critical than you might think.  The Toyota also had a nicer interior than the others and my wife preferred the driver’s seat and position to the Subaru, which was the first runner-up.
Mazda CX-3 — Photo from the Mazda Website, CX-3 Gallery
The Rav4 served us well.  It drove with ease through two of the coldest and snowiest winters we’ve seen in our adult lives.  Fuel economy hovered in the mid-20s.  It had ample back-seat room for two adults or two massive Britax car seats for the granddaughters  It was comfortable enough for four-plus hour trips and planted enough to take curvy country roads at meaningful pace.  We did eventually end up trading it in for a 4Runner, anticipating that we’d need something to haul our new camper and carry some extra gear.  I’ve since had the opportunity to drive the GMC Terrain and BMW X3, providing an even larger base of comparison.
If you’re like most drivers and can only have one vehicle, then the plethora of crossovers represent a useful compromise between a sedan and an SUV.  Many offer the comfort of a car, with the utility of an SUV.  If you’re in the market for this sort of vehicle, the Rav4 is definitely worth a look.  And don’t let the haters discourage you.  😉
My favorites in this space, in order of preference, are the Subaru Forester (I have a built-in affection for Subarus), the Rav4 and the Honda CRV, although I would test-drive a CX-3 before I made that decision.  They are all well-appointed and good value for money.  If you have the extra coin, splurge for the X3.  Equipped with the cold-weather package, leather seats and metallic paint it squeaks in under $50,000 list and spoils you while doing it, but the rest of the vehicles mentioned in this article are available with stickers in the mid-$20,000 range.