I get it. Labels exist for a reason, especially when you’re trying to market something. You need terms for your products, terms for your customers, terms for your brand and your sales space. If I’m going to buy a car, I should have an idea of what type of car I want. But in spite of all that, I cannot think of a more egregious symbol of pointless collective inertia than our adherence to the term “crossover.”
Despite stubborn adherence to the belief, what happened here is far more than a mere fad. Minivans were a fad; they didn’t redefine four-wheeled transportation. The notion of blending a car and SUV was so successful that it completely warped the automotive market. If you’re still waiting for crossovers to merely become uncool and fade away, I admire your commitment to your own delusion. Love them or hate them, they’re not going anywhere.
But why do we still call them “crossovers”? You must admit that it’s kind of strange that a huge share of the market belongs to cars that are essentially defined by what they’re not, rather than what they are. Sure, we sneer and say they’re “just” station wagons or hatchbacks with a little more ground clearance, or even minivans without sliding doors. None of these is universally accurate, not by a long shot.
Just call them cars.
Imagine it’s 20 years from now and you’re trying to define a crossover for a small child who has never seen a sedan. Do you describe an elephant as a wooly mammoth without fur? We’re reached the point where crossovers have essentially become the default; to not treat them that way is merely a stubborn allegiance to a dead (and itself transient) notion of what a car actually is. It’s no longer a question of size or utility; the class has transcended both. So why not just drop the term from our vocabulary entirely?
Think about it. If you showed the industrialists who first put an engine between four wheels a picture of a Mazda Miata and CX-5, the latter would be more recognizable to them than the former. The earliest cars were tall, upright things. They had to be. They came along before engineers had even reached a consensus on what materials should be used to pave our roads, let alone finished doing it. We didn’t have the U.S. Highway System until the mid-1920s, and interstates didn’t come along until the Cold War. The original interstate plan wasn’t even completed until 1992.
Cars got lower and longer as roads got straighter and smoother. It was privilege, in a sense, that brought us the low-slung automobile, and it’s privilege that sent us in the other direction again, as large SUVs became symbols of conspicuous consumption. That’s not a value judgment, mind you, but merely an observation, and not an original one; wealth and trend-setting have gone hand-in-hand for as long as both have existed.
And in a way, the rise of bigger cars has been self-perpetuating. Even those who don’t seek them as a status symbol are influenced by their existence, as concerns like safety and on-road visibility nudge the otherwise vehicularly agnostic buyer toward bigger cars. The opening of some less-developed markets has made the timing fortuitous as well, as the tastes of shoppers in wealthier economies happen to align with the needs of countries without advanced road infrastructure.
In the immediate aftermath of the term “crossover” being coined, it was often used as a term of derision, as we saw this week, when many on social media dismissed the new Ford Maverick as “just a crossover.” It came with the stigma of generalized utility, synonymous with attempting two missions and being only mediocre at either of them. That taint came with the term, mind you, not the concept. Look no further than the XJ Jeep Cherokee for an example of what is essentially a crossover that escaped scorn only by dent of arriving well ahead of the label and its associated sentiment.
The reality is that crossovers are actually pretty darned good at being cars. Much as many of us are loathe to admit it, they’re practical, like the hatchbacks and wagons we worship. Quibbling over what typically amounts to no more than maybe an inch or two of ground clearance is just a silly gatekeeping maneuver. Yeah, modern cars are taller and heavier than the sedans you worshipped, and those are inherent compromises — just like sport sedans and hot hatchbacks were when compared to “real” sporting cars. You scoff, but it’s true.