What looks like a rugged body-on-frame SUV or a tall wagon on the outside but rides like a comfortable sedan from the inside? Hundreds of thousands of crossover buyers find out each month, purchasing brand-new crossovers (a blend between SUVs and a more traditional car) in a segment that’s increasingly popular. Indeed, according The Wall Street Journal’s Market Data Center, sales of crossovers were up 8.9 percent through the first five months of this year. To put things into perspective, sales of traditional cars fell 7.4 percent during that same time frame.
Now, it’s true that style does have a lot to do with crossovers’ success. The cynical take here is that crossovers are simply watered-down SUVs, designed for people whose only rock-crawling experiences are likely to come on gravel driveways. However, anyone who’s checked out the latest entries will tell you that’s a take that sells crossovers short. They actually provide some core benefits that should be taken into account during the shopping process.
Crossovers Serve Up More Cabin Space Than Cars
A key reason crossovers are successful is that these vehicles usually offer more space for both people and cargo than cars. There’s just typically more available room in a crossover’s rear cargo hold than in a standard trunk, and even hatchbacks don’t usually offer as much cargo space. Consider one of the most versatile choices in the subcompact crossover category: the 2016 Honda HR-V.
It’s based on the same underpinnings as the surprisingly spacious Honda Fit hatchback, but the HR-V has up to 24.3 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats and 58.8 cubic feet with the second row folded.
In comparison, the Fit offers 16.6 cubic feet behind the back seat and a maximum of 52.7 cubic feet with the second row lowered. That’s still better than the trunk in a typical subcompact sedan, which has about 15 cubic feet of space.
Many customers may also prefer to move up to the compact crossover segment, for another notable jump in cabin space as compared with compact cars. That’s why five compact crossovers were among the industry’s 20 best-sellers in April. And while the 2016 Subaru Forester wasn’t one of them, it’s enjoying record levels of demand in its own right, thanks in part to the highest overall cargo capacity in the segment. The Forester also has particularly strong marks for both front and rear headroom and legroom.
It’s also worth pointing out that two compact crossovers have a clear-cut advantage in terms of maximum occupancy. The Nissan Rogue and Mitsubishi Outlander can supply three rows of seating. The norm in the segment is two.
Of course, a compact crossover may not supply enough seating, which is where midsize crossovers come in. The popular Chevrolet Traverse is one example of a three-row midsize crossover. Originally envisioned as a replacement for Chevy’s minivan family, the Traverse has major size advantages over other three-row entries in all cargo measures, highlighted by a maximum capacity of 116.3 cubic feet. Only one other rival, the Honda Pilot, gets close, with a maximum of just under 84 cubic feet.
Cargo space is one thing, but fuel economy matters, too, and the Traverse is a thirsty choice, with an EPA rating of 15/22 mpg city/highway when equipped with front-wheel drive. That’s a fair way off the best performers, as you’ll see in the next section.
Crossover Are More Fuel-Efficient Than Traditional SUVS
How much of an outlier is the Traverse? Even the rear-wheel-drive Dodge Durango does noticeably better, at 19/27 mpg city/highway, and the most fuel-efficient midsize three-row crossover, the redesigned Mazda CX-9, is listed at 22/28 mpg city/highway with front-wheel drive. Nor does that fuel economy come at the expense of performance: The CX-9’s standard turbocharged 2.5-liter engine puts out 227 horsepower and the most standard torque in the segment: 310 pound-feet. Also, owners who allow the CX-9 to drink premium fuel will get a boost in output to 250 horsepower.
The fuel economy of vehicles like the CX-9 shows the appeal of crossovers. If a consumer can get more passenger and cargo space without paying much of a penalty at the pump or in terms of performance, why wouldn’t he or she go for it?
Of course, smaller crossovers have higher fuel economy ratings, and there are two that will push the efficiency envelope with hybrid models. The subcompact Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid returns EPA ratings of 30/34 mpg city/highway with all-wheel drive. There is a trade-off in terms of passenger and cargo space when purchasing a smaller crossover, but it may be worth it in terms of savings at the gas pump. The same is true with the compact Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, yet in that case, owners still benefit from one of the largest cargo capacities in the segment, the quickest 0-to-60 mph time of any RAV4 model and EPA numbers better than those of the smaller Subaru. The RAV4 Hybrid gets an EPA-estimated 34/31 mpg city/highway.
Because the hybrid RAV4 and Crosstrek also have additional costs versus their non-hybrid models, and because some owners would rather rely on traditional powertrains, automakers also offer fairly robust EPA ratings from non-hybrid small crossovers. You can count on combined EPA ratings of at least 30 mpg from subcompact crossovers like the Honda HR-V, Nissan Juke and Mazda CX-3, for example, and that’s with automatic transmissions. Then, among the compacts, the Honda CR-V and Nissan Rogue are good for at least 28 mpg combined when equipped with front-wheel drive.
Crossovers Deliver Top Safety Ratings and Technologies
A final advantage of crossovers that comes directly from the vehicles’ car-based roots has to do with occupant protection. The few body-on-frame SUVs left on the market may have well-earned reputations for toughness, but none of them has been recognized as a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Yet crossovers tend to receive the same high-tech driver assistance aids (and the same engineering input) as cars. As a result, a number of crossovers in all segments have earned the full IIHS Top Safety Pick+ certification, which requires high grades in both crashworthiness tests and in evaluations for front crash prevention.
The 2016 Fiat 500X and Subaru Crosstrek stand out with top IIHS ratings in the subcompact segment, though the latter choice has an extra edge, since it’s backed by Subaru’s sophisticated EyeSight system. With that system, the Crosstrek combined the highest possible crash-test grades with the highest possible rating for collision prevention. Speaking of which, Subaru’s setup relies on dual cameras mounted unobtrusively at the top of the front windshield, and it provides adaptive cruise control, an automatic pre-collision braking system and lane departure warning. These features complement a standard rearview camera and available features such as blind spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert and lane change assistance.
Two of the big three-row crossovers also have captured Top Safety Pick+ ratings – the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander – but the widest selection of top-rated entries is in the compact category. It’s where customers will find the Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-5, Mitsubishi Outlander, Subaru Forester, Subaru Outback and Toyota RAV4, all of which earn the IIHS’ highest honor.