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Vehicles crossing over

Consumer Reports News: February 12, 2008 10:31 AM

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Last month, Toyota unveiled a new model to add to its lineup, the Venza, at the 2008 Detroit auto show. Toyota describes it as a “crossover sedan,” although “crossover wagon” would probably be more accurate. Toyota hopes the Venza will launch a new segment and claims that it will provide the comfort of a Camry, the functionality of a 4Runner, and the luxury of the Avalon. Wow. That really covers a lot, doesn’t it? Yet I highly doubt the Venza could scale our rock hill with anywhere near the proficiency of a four-wheel-drive 4Runner. Besides, Subaru could arguably claim owning the sedan/crossover segment this decade with the recently retired Outback sedan.

This so-called “new category” got me thinking as to what exactly is a crossover. The original Subaru Outback wagon and Toyota RAV4, for example, sparked this revolution, using car components to create a soft-roader SUV. The Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, and others soon followed, with car-based vehicles with SUV looks dominating the compact and mid-sized SUV segments from 1996 on.

Likewise, when the Pontiac Vibe/Toyota Matrix appeared early in the decade, these twins were termed crossovers, combing a small hatchback package and soft-roader pretense, like the RAV4. Although, with their puny ground clearance (only 5 inches in our last tested model) meant that dirt roads were as far off-road as they went. Today, we’re seeing more crossovers with car-like unibody structures (rather than body-on-frame construction) and increased versatility. This approach has lead to the development of vehicles that tend to be more fuel efficient and ride better than traditional, truck-based SUVs like the Ford Explorer.

The crossover category continues to grow and become broader, now with large vehicles like the Saturn Outlook offering a milder alternative to the Chevrolet Tahoe. Both offer three-row seating, but the new Outlook (and similar Buick Enclave and GMC Acadia ) are easier to drive and get better fuel economy. Americans are known for wanting everything and more in their purchases, and this is reflected in the popularity of crossover vehicles today.

The Venza is splitting hairs to find its place, being a cross between the original Highlander (itself Camry based) and a Camry. Will this truly be a new segment, or just another means to challenge our staff in establishing ratings categories? Marketing messages aside, it will be the car shoppers that define the segments. What will be cross-shopped with the Venza? A Mazda CX-7, Subaru Outback, or Volvo XC70?

Regardless of what you call it, can the automotive buying public really accept another SUV-like vehicle? Probably so. Models like the Venza can be smart alternatives to larger, rougher, less efficient vehicles. Even if you don’t know how to classify it, crossover whatchamacallits may be worth a drive.

If this trend continues, we may be seeing crossovers establish, or re-establish, more categories soon—a crossover pickup anyone? Remember the Chevrolet El Camino? Well, cue the GMC Denali X/T concept from Chicago…

Liza Barth

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