Imagine this: you are in a nice big car, cruising down the highway, looking over the pesky sedans you keep passing by. You feel like the king or queen of the road because you are riding a tank! But hang on a second. Are you picturing yourself in an SUV or a crossover? Can you even tell the difference?

The truth is that not all bigger cars are created equal. There are the mentioned SUVs and crossovers, but also 4x4s or off-roaders. You can even hear about all-wheel drives. It is easy to get lost in this terminology.

Today we are going to look at one of the vehicle types above – the crossover. We will see if it is truly different, or if it is all just a marketing trick. We will look into its history and also consider some of the staple models in the crossover niche. But first…

Why are there so many SUV terms?

If you do not know yet, SUV means “sport utility vehicle”. No, you are not alone in thinking that this essentially tells you nothing. Actually, there is no universal definition that will tell you what an SUV is. Is it primarily designed for off-road? Is this what makes it a “sport utility” auto? Maybe.

In the beginning, SUVs were indeed all about off-roading. This is where 4x4s get into the picture. To put it shortly this is your modern rough terrain vehicle. It is not efficient on the road, does not have a lot of speed, and can be quite heavy. But it eats through mountains and hills like it is nobody’s business. You can also see it mentioned as a 4-wheeler, 4-wheel drive, or just an off-roader.

Then comes the AWD, or “all-wheel drive”. While the 4×4 is technically an AWD, modern use is a bit more problematic. The only thing that you need to know is that AWD is generally found on vehicles designed with only minor off-road capabilities. In other words – your regular SUV or crossover. As a rule of thumb, a vehicle marketed as a 4-wheeler does generally better on rough terrain and is built a bit sturdier. But that is not always the case.

To answer the initial question – there are so many SUV terms because marketing teams want you to buy their products. This is a part of how the “crossover” term was born. Although there is a bit more substance here. Let’s see!

What is a crossover?

SUVs have a special place in the hearts of Americans. We love big vehicles. Give me a nice pickup and I will drool all over it, even if I have no practical use for such a beast. The same applies to a proper sport utility vehicle.

However, people have grown more practical. They have started to see that maybe (just maybe) they do not need off-road capabilities. Sure, the SUV is big and it can take your 3 children in, but so can a minivan. Plus, it is so much harder to park, especially if you live in a big city. The price is steeper too.

Naturally, car manufacturers saw where things are going. People want an impressive vehicle, but they also want it to be a bit more compact. Plus it would be great if its mileage is better. Oh, and you know, the handling can stand an upgrade as well. Maybe I do not want to drive a truck, after all, I just want to look the part.

There you have the crossover – a lighter, more efficient and more compact SUV. Does it make sense to you now? Good, that makes two of us. Because even car manufacturers do not get it. That is why we see them marketing the same vehicle as both an SUV and crossover, depending on where it is sold. But for all intents and purposes, my definition will suffice.

The first crossover

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We may have a bit of a problem determining which crossover came first. That is understandable though, given the terminology confusion from a second ago. Still, I made it my goal to figure out who started this crossover craze.

My research has led me to a single culprit – Toyota RAV4 in 1994. This company has a great history of SUVs. I have mentioned that in my article about Japanese classic cars. Throughout the years Toyota has offered quite a few robust vehicles with superb off-road capabilities. The only issue was these vehicles were not exactly European-friendly.

Unlike Americans, people in Europe enjoy more compact cars. Japanese are like that as well. And since Toyota likes to cater to these markets, they embarked on a mission to create… well, something. Because while RAV4 was technically the first crossover, it was not marketed as such in the beginning.

The RAV4 name stands for “Recreational Active Vehicle with 4-wheel drive”. Flies off your tongue, right? Yet the crossover term was nowhere to be found in 1996 when RAV4 launched in the States. Actually, the term history in regards to the automotive niche is pretty vague. No one knows how it came to be, but by the end of the 2000’s it had already been adopted.

Still, with or without a specific word, this automobile concept was extremely successful. Soon after the RAV4 a lot of other companies followed suit. They released their own versions to have a piece of the sweet emerging niche. Want to know which of those made the cut?

The most iconic crossovers

The early compact SUV market was largely dominated by Japanese manufacturers. That was because they were already prepared to build bulkier vehicles on a smaller platform. An excellent example is the Subaru Forester of 1997, which was built on the Impreza platform.

While Subaru has had some issues to deal with throughout the years, the Forester has never been one of those. It has always performed and sold well. People have deemed it a reliable vehicle, which can handle itself even on rough terrain. Considering its sports car’s platform, that is quite the feat indeed.

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The next Japanese manufacturer to jump on the bandwagon was Honda. Just like Subaru, it also launched its first crossover in 1997 with the CR-V. It gained quite a reputation for itself and many even saw it as a fairly good family car. Because of its success, Honda launched the HR-V two years later. It competed with the short-base RAV4 and gave rise to the subcompact crossover – an even smaller SUV-like vehicle.

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As far as American crossovers go, the first one has to be Ford Escape. It was launched in 2001 though and by that time Japanese competition was going strong. Funny enough, even the Escape was built on a Japanese platform – namely the Mazda GF one.

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Of course, we cannot go one without mentioning Jeep. The Cherokee XJ is considered by many to be the first mainstream SUV or even a crossover. However, Jeep is not exactly known for embracing the crossover term. They prefer “compact SUV”, which is how they have been marketing the Cherokee ever since.

Do you love the crossover?

I honestly like this auto type. That is because I can freely admit that off-roading is not a priority for me. If I ever get in a situation when I would need the capability, I have probably done something very wrong. And we cannot all base our decisions along very unlikely circumstances, right?

Considering how many options you have, it is no wonder that Americans are embracing crossovers. You have bulkier solutions or more compact ones. Even “subcompact” for those of us who are city dwellers. So what do you think, is the crossover a cool piece of engineering, or should we just stick to SUVs?


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