Look! Driving down the road. Is it a car? Is it a truck? No, it's a ...
We don't even know what to call these new carlike trucks and trucklike cars, whether we call them crossovers or sport wagons or try to plug these hard-to-describe vehicles into traditional nomenclature, no matter. More will reach showrooms in earnest during the next year or so.
Already, it could be argued, these crossovers have been infiltrating the market. By some definitions, sport-utilities based on car platforms, including the Lexus RX 300, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, already qualify as crossovers, as do sport-utility-like cars such as the Subaru and Volvo station wagons.
But even more are on the way after the first of the year.
DaimlerChrysler heads the parade with its Chrysler PT Cruiser. This vehicle has the irreverent retro look of a 1930s delivery wagon. It provides the utility of a modern minivan but is classified as a truck. Also, a vehicle that takes design elements from the Chrysler Citadel concept car on this year's auto show circuit is on the way, possibly with a Dodge equivalent called the Sequoia.
Ford Motor Co. will participate in the crossover segment with the Ford Escape, a sport wagon with the car nimbleness that likely will have a Mazda derivative and possibly a Lincoln.
General Motors joins the fray with a host of car-based sport-utility crossovers - the Buick Rendezvous, Pontiac Aztek, Cadillac Catera-based LAV and a Saturn sport-utility.
The imports will have their own variations on the theme. The 2000 BMW X5 'sports-activity vehicle' qualifies as it combines BMW automobile performance with features of a sport-utility.
It is, and it isn't
Not only do we not know what to call them, but we don't know how to categorize them. Take, for instance, the extreme example of the Chrysler PT Cruiser.
Chris Cedergren, owner of Nextrend, an automotive research firm in Thousand Oaks, Calif., generally doesn't use the term 'crossover.' He defines the so-called crossover vehicles as 'sport-utility vehicle concepts that ride on a car platform.' However, he, like DaimlerChrysler Chairman Robert Eaton, considers the Chrysler PT Cruiser clearly a crossover.
'If you had to categorize the PT Cruiser, it is a new kind of small minivan. But it isn't,' said Eaton in an interview this summer. 'Somebody will put it in the minivan category, but you won't be able to convince anyone driving it that it is one.'
Sure enough, J.D. Power and Associates, the Agoura Hills, Calif., market research company, plans to count it among minivans.
George Peterson, president of AutoPacific Inc. in Tustin, Calif., meantime, calls it a car categorized as a truck purely for federal fuel economy considerations. (See story on Page 12i.)
Who's counting what
If no one knows what to call them or how to categorize them, certainly no one is clear about how to count how many there will be. Estimates for how big the so-called crossover market will be vary wildly depending on who is counting what. For now, if one includes only the RAV4, CR-V and RX 300, that market accounted for 189,053 sales in the first nine months of this year, up from 152,526 for the same period in 1998.
'We think that market could go as high as a million to 1.5 million a year over the next 10 years,' said Cedergren, noting that is in the range of today's minivan market.
He predicts the new segment will draw buyers of conventional truck-based sport-utilities as well as owners of traditional cars. 'The comfort they provide will be the selling point,' Cedergren said. 'People like the image of a sport-utility vehicle and its capability, but they want a more comfortable riding package and a more nimble vehicle.'
Bob Schnorbus, director of macroeconomic analysis at J.D. Power and Associates, predicts the crossover market will run between 300,000 and 500,000 units annually.
If no one knows what to call them, how to categorize them and how to count them, no one can guess who will win the crossover race or what the winning formula is. To cover their bets, Detroit's automakers have multipronged strategies to find the combination that will appeal to the larger niches.
'There's going to be almost an infinite number of segments there,' Eaton said. 'We are going in three or four directions ourselves, and they are all quite different directions. They are all from the car side to the utility side - pickup trucks, sport-utility vehicles and minivans - but fall somewhere in between.'
Even looking at his company's portfolio of upcoming crossovers, GM President Rick Wagoner said he isn't sure which ones will be home runs, hits or strikeouts. 'Some of these I look at and say, `Wow, this is just what I want because of my needs.' The clinics on others say a lot of people will buy them, but they do not fit my personal tastes.'
Like Eaton, Wagoner, who also was interviewed this summer, predicts the crossover market will be multifaceted, with minivan-car crossovers and car-sport-utility or pickup crossovers.
'The race is on to figure out where the subniches are and who can execute them best,' he said. 'I imagine there will be some products that will be big hits, and some will be pretty miserable failures. I probably won't do well to predict which is which. Hopefully, we don't have too many failures.'
The winning formula, Cedergren predicted, is the just-right balance of carlike performance and sport-utility look in the right size.
'Our research clearly shows the whole SUV movement is image-driven,' he said. 'There is a fundamental change in the marketplace that has the new generation of buyers looking at vehicles more as fashion.'
Cedergren picked the Lexus RX 300 as an all-star and the BMW X5 as a home run. 'GM might have some opportunity for the large hybrids, especially since Ford is focusing on the lower end and is reluctant to do bigger hybrids for fear of encroaching on its more conventional truck-based sport-utilities,' he said.
Peterson, for his part, said that despite the sales success of the RX 300, Lexus has gone too soft and too carlike with the vehicle. He predicted the Ford Escape will be a bigger winner and said Ford, in total, will do best in crossovers.
'Ford understands that market well,' Peterson said. 'The Escape looks like a very good vehicle. They didn't try to do something weird or strange. They are really going after the sweet spot in the middle of the market.'
In time, the industry, as it always does, will come up with names and categories for these crossovers, and the winners will become obvious.
Michelle Krebs is a free-lance writer in West Bloomfield, Mich.