A few years ago, Volvo design chief Peter Horbury organized a customer clinic in the United States for the Volvo 480. The vehicle was part sports car and part wagon, and Horbury wanted to measure consumer demand for such crossover vehicles.
The clinic did not go well. One customer said he would buy a sports car and a wagon if that is what he needed. 'It was the ultimate put-down,' Horbury said.
Times have changed. At this year's Detroit auto show, seemingly every exhibit featured a crossover vehicle. Automakers are experimenting with every conceivable combination of sport-utility, minivan, pickup and sedan. And just in case show-goers somehow failed to get it, automakers added the word 'cross' to the vehicle's name. Toyota's Lexus unveiled the Sport Cross, General Motors' GMC introduced the Terracross and Mitsubishi showcased the ASX, or Active Sports Crossover.
The message is that there's no need to buy two or three vehicles, because one can do it all. Crossover vehicles are supposed to feature the performance of a sports car, the practicality of a sport-utility and the luxury of a top-range sedan. European automakers have exploited demand for multipurpose vehicles for five years.
Following the introduction of Renault's brilliant Megane Scenic, Opel followed with the Zafira, Fiat produced the Multipla and Citroen unveiled the Picasso. Until recently, conventional wisdom held that these vehicles could not succeed in the United States. They were too small, too underpowered, too European.
Judging by the first wave of American crossover vehicles, it did indeed seem as if the U.S. market would never share the tastes of European motorists. Ford Motor Co. introduced the Lincoln Blackwood, a luxury sport-utility with a small pickup bed. And Cadillac followed with the Escalade EXT, a copycat sport-utility pickup that debuted in January in Detroit. The EXT features two rows of seats, an open pickup bed and a door, called a midgate, behind the rear seat that opens into the cargo bed to extend capacity.
Other automakers are making sport-utility vehicles more like sedans, with a smoother ride and a carlike interior. That is where Volvo is positioning its Adventure Concept Car. This is based on the conventional all-wheel-drive underpinnings of the V70 Cross Country, but with longer wheel travel to make it more suitable to off-road work. Volvo will launch a sport-utility in autumn 2002, and the ACC is 'a thermometer for assessing the expectations and demands the market has,' said Dieter Laxy, Volvo's chief of marketing. Volvo expects to build 60,000 sport-utilities a year.
But the Adventure Concept had company. Cadillac's concept luxury activity vehicle, the Vizon, claims to slice into the gap between sport-utility and sports performance wagons, similar to Volvo. The all-wheel-drive Vizon fits squarely into the luxury performance wagon segment using the same platform as the Catera and Seville with the 4.2-liter V-8 Northstar engine.
Another GM division, Chevrolet, rolled out the Borrego concept at the Los Angeles Auto Show the first week of January. This combined the road-taming agility of rally cars with the toughness of Chevrolet.
Mechanically speaking, the Pontiac Vibe and the Toyota Matrix are twins. The two cars will be built on the next-generation Corolla platform at New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. in Fremont, California. Both companies position their vehicles as alternatives to the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape. Although they do not look like typical sport wagons, their hatchbacks and flexible interiors are reminiscent of European models.
Cars reveal a trend
In Europe, the Vibe and Matrix would be lost in the crowd. But in the United States - where hatchbacks and wagons once were regarded with horror - the cars could signal a new trend. Still, automakers do not seem completely comfortable reintroducing wagons to the U.S. market. The Lexus Sport Cross is a five-door hatchback already scheduled for Japan and Europe. In the United States, Lexus is being cautious. Despite its resemblance to a wagon, Lexus executives refuse to call it one.
Mitsubishi's ASX is a five-passenger, all-wheel-drive vehicle with sedan styling. It offers a clear indication how its next-generation Shogun Sport will look. Production versions will debut in Japan later this year.
One of the surprises of the Detroit show, the BMW X coupe, turned out to be a crossover. This is a sports car built on the underpinnings of the X5 sports activity vehicle. It features a 3.0-liter, six-cylinder turbo diesel engine that produces 184 horsepower. Its most provocative feature is the asymmetrical rear window that wraps around on the passenger side but has a conventional C pillar on the driver's side. A large clamshell hatch offers access to the rear seat as well as the trunk. This coupe can venture off-road, and it introduces a look that BMW mysteriously describes as flame surfacing.
Will crossovers sell in U.S.?
Although crossovers were abundant at the auto show, not everyone is convinced they will satisfy North American tastes. Jaguar design chief Ian Callum questioned the rationale for the Cadillac Escalade EXT. 'I think if Cadillac owners want a pickup, they will go out and buy a full-sized pickup,' he said. 'That's the big difference between North America and Europe, where I can definitely see more appeal for crossover vehicles. There is less space on the road and less space in the driveway.'
Crossovers are 'more of a compromise than a fashion statement,' Callum said. 'They are easier to style because you do not have the same constraints as a vehicle aimed at a definite segment like a sports car. A Jaguar has to look like it's moving when it's standing still. That may sound a little self-indulgent, but it is a lot more difficult to do.'
But others believe American tastes may be slowly converging with European preferences. Horbury says the crossover vehicle represents a natural evolution, just as the hatchback bridged the practicality gap between sedan and wagon. 'There are a lot of niche gaps between the extremes of a sports car and a sport-utility vehicle.'
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