It's a car! No, it's a truck!

Crossovers move into a fast lane

Originally published: Jan. 14, 2002

At the North American International Auto Show last week, the stories off the floor threatened to overshadow those under the spotlights. The freshly tallied, near-record U.S. sales of 2001 had been more about incentives than product. And the pending announcement of Ford Motor Co.'s massive cutbacks hung ominously over three days of media previews. Yet hardware did manage to shine. There was Robert Lutz, General Motors' newly hired product king, looking at home in a curvaceous Pontiac roadster. Beyond that, as if by design, automaker after automaker unveiled the latest takes on the evolving fusion of car and truck.

DETROIT -- Automakers have knocked another chunk out of that fast-eroding wall between cars and trucks.

With the unveiling of three concepts at the North American International Auto Show here last week -- the Chrysler Pacifica, Mercedes-Benz Vision GST and Volkswagen Magellan -- the industry has created the latest fusion of car and truck features. Each blends all-wheel drive, six-passenger seating and the appearance of a sleek, luxurious station wagon. Yet the wagon label doesn't seem to fit.

"We're seeing the movement from cars and from trucks into a center that we call crossovers," said Jack Collins, vice president of product planning of Nissan North America Inc., as he scouted the competition on the Detroit floor. "It's happening extraordinarily quickly."

Added VW Group chairman-designate Bernd Pischetsrieder as he introduced the Magellan: "These crossovers are the next big trend for the United States."

Wanted: The next big thing

Trevor Creed, the Chrysler group's senior vice president of design, said, "We wanted to come up with the next big thing for our Chrysler buyers, a vehicle that did not conform to the traditional proportions of a car, sport-utility or minivan, yet featured their best attributes." The Pacifica fits that description, he said.

In addition to all-wheel drive, each of these crossover concepts features a powerful engine and extensive versatility. What's more, because each is about the height of a sedan, each promises decent if not exceptional ride and handling, something most sport-utilities based on truck platforms can't deliver.

And although the seats cannot be removed, the seat backs can be lowered, giving each some of the cargo-carrying versatility of a minivan.

Chrysler hopes customers will see the Pacifica as distinctive as the PT Cruiser and buy accordingly. That may be wishful thinking. Indeed, to the casual consumers' eye, the Pacifica and its ilk won't seem much different than other debuts on the Detroit floor.

Volvo unveiled its first sport-utility, the XC90, built off a car platform. Sales begin in the fall. Infiniti unveiled its FX45, a five-passenger, high-performance, awd wagon that goes on sale next year. The Saab 9-3X hints strongly at the shape of variation on its next 9-3 line due this fall. It's a sporty, all-wheel-drive three-door hatchback designed for occasional off-road travel.

And, on the more experimental front, Acura billed its RD-X concept as a sport-utility that drives like a sport coupe.

"This kind of vehicle gives you a little bit of (all) worlds," said Jeff Schuster, director of product analysis at J.D. Power and Associates in Troy, Mich. "Maybe they compromise a little bit on utility, and maybe they compromise a little bit on ride, handling and sportiness. But it is still enough to meet those needs in one vehicle."

"We're likely to see further blurring and further variations and certainly more intense competition in these vehicle types," Schuster said. "We're really only at the beginning of this."

Hard to count

By J.D. Power's count, there was one crossover on the market six years ago. That was the Toyota RAV4, which was developed from the Toyota Corolla platform. Last year, there were 18 crossovers. By 2006, J.D. Power sees 46 on the U.S. market. On the production side, CSM Worldwide Inc., a forecasting company in Northville, Mich., counts 10 crossovers built in the North American market last year, with the number growing to 28 in 2006.

Such counts will be subject to debate among those who categorize vehicles for a living. Automotive News likely will tag the Pacifica a sport wagon, a branch of the sport-utility world. After seeing the Pacifica, J.D. Power may classify that vehicle as a car, Schuster said.

To the customer, the labels won't matter.

Chrysler is talking about annual sales volume in the 130,000-unit range for the Pacifica after it goes on sale next year. Many others will settle for the 30,000 to 40,000 unit range.

Said Schuster: "The key obviously here is utilizing a platform that has several vehicles on it. You certainly couldn't make a profit on a vehicle of that volume without spreading the cost.''

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