What Exactly Is a Crossover?

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Crossovers are all the rage these days, but what exactly is a crossover, and can one also be a car or SUV?

In the automotive world, no definition is sacred. Automakers design four-door hatchbacks and call them sedans and four door sedans they market as coupes. The categories we use to group vehicles are equally gray. The EPA considers the Honda Civic Hatchback a Large car. The EPA then calls the longer, wider and taller Toyota Avalon a Midsize car. Don’t call a Mustang a muscle car, it’s a pony car, but its rival, the Dodge Charger, is a muscle car and not a pony car. You get the picture. So where do crossovers fit into all this madness?

 – Shopping for a Crossover, SUV, Convertible, or one vehicle that is all of the above? Start your search at BestRide.

What we now know as crossovers started way back in the 1970s. AMC had the great idea to offer a car with wagon body style and a lifted suspension with on-demand four-wheel drive. Originally, folks were calling things like the AMC Eagle “Multip-Purpose-Vehicles”, or MPVs. Mazda even had a U.S.-model named MPV. It wasn’t a crossover, but a small minivan.  Initially, it was body-on-frame SUVs being morphing, or “crossing over” into more practical, fun to drive, and fuel efficient unit body vehicles. The early “modern” crossovers were vehicles like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. They were shaped like what we all knew as a sport utility vehicle (SUV),  but were built like cars are built (unit-body), were smaller and lighter than SUVs, and they were not intended to be workhorses that towed huge boats or went off-road in the sense that a farmer or hunter might take a pickup truck off-road. However, with AWD these “cute-‘utes” could drive on any road in any weather.

– Why Compact Crossovers Are the Opposite of “Compact.”

The all-new Ford Expedition, with expected best-in-class towing, features available Blind Spot Information System with trailer tow that monitors a driver’s blind spots, adjusting the monitored areas based on the length of a camper, boat or trailer.

Then things got confusing. Ford’s most popular non-truck was the Explorer SUV for a long time. It was relatively compact, built on a frame like a Ford Ranger pickup was, and it was an SUV in every sense of the term. Then Ford redesigned the Explorer, made it bigger and then made it the way cars are made, without a frame and with a unit body construction. It also became immensely better to drive. However, it still retained most of its capabilities and its engines are still the ones Ford puts in trucks. Is the current 3-row, 4WD tow monster Explorer a crossover? Yes. Is it also an SUV? Of course.

Then there are the wagons. The Subaru Outback was always a car-based vehicle. It started out as a Legacy wagon with a slight lift and some body cladding. Those minor changes made people nuts for the thing and Subaru was reborn in America. So, is the Outback a crossover? Well, if the Honda CR-V is a crossover, and we all agree it was one of the first, then the Outback must also be. They share almost every specification and fill the exact same role for buyers. Why would a long hood disqualify the Outback as a crossover?

One extreme example of an SUV going over to the crossover territory is the Land Rover Discovery. The Disco, as fans call it, was a rough and ready steel-frame beast that could ford rivers, pull trailers like a truck, belch diesel smoke, and do anything any tough SUV ever could. And then Land Rover redesigned it using more aluminum, no true frame, a comfortable car-like ride, and kept all the off-road ability. Is it still an SUV? Absolutely. Is it also a crossover? Yes?

The term is now being used in new ways as well because the word “crossover” sells vehicles. Chevy and Kia are both advertising the Bolt and Niro green cars as crossovers. Yet, they have not crossed any lines. Neither is available with any AWD system and neither is a car any sane person would take off-road. These are cars you would think hard about driving onto a wet field to park at an Octoberfest for fear of being stuck in three inches of mud. Neither has any towing capability and when you stand in front of them they are small cars. Yet, in photos, shot upward with vertically-challenged humans nearby or inside, they look the part of a crossover, sort of.

Can a crossover be a convertible? Of course. Nissan went first, cutting the top off of its Murano.

Range Rover went next with the Evoque Convertible. Hey, two-doors, so it is also a coupe!

We like consensus at BestRide so we conducted an internal poll among our fellow autowriters. We could find no agreement whatsoever among this group of seasoned journalists as to what is, and what is not a crossover. Failing at consensus, we asked some of our fellow writers for definitions.

Of all the definitions we were offered, we liked our own Nicole Wakelin’s best. Nicole offers up: “A crossover is in the eye of the beholder and the marketing department. Higher ground clearance and a cargo area with rear seats that fold down are the norms, but anything else is up for debate. “

John Goreham

John Goreham