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What Is A Crossover? Definitive Buying Guide

What Is A Crossover

What is a crossover? Is it a car, an SUV, or perhaps both? We answer this popular question and then some.

If you’ve been looking for a family car, chances are that you have heard of the term crossover and wondered what exactly it is. They look like SUVs but are not SUVs? What gives?

Indeed, crossovers are distinct enough from “SUVs” to be classified as their own vehicle class. This guide provides valuable insights regarding this type of vehicle to help you become a more informed and confident car buyer.

What Is A Crossover?

Also commonly referred to as a crossover SUV, crossover car, or crossover utility vehicle (CUV), a crossover is a type vehicle that has the appearance of a traditional, truck-based SUV but is built on a car’s platform. Think of it as a ‘cross’ between a typical car and an SUV.

More specifically, crossovers are built on a unibody platform, meaning their body and frame are manufactured as a single piece. This platform is relatively lightweight and often shared with a passenger car such as a sedan or hatchback.

Traditional SUVs, in contrast, use a bulkier, more rugged body-on-frame platform. This means the body and frame are manufactured separately and then bolted together later on. 

As you will see later on in this guide, unibody and body-on-frame platforms each have their advantages and disadvantages.

Crossovers are also distinguished from other types of cars such as sedans by their two-box design. Like hatchbacks, wagons, minivans, and traditional SUVs, there is a separate compartment for the engine followed by a second, much larger one shared by the interior and cargo area. 

Accessed by a liftgate, the cargo area is not enclosed like the trunk of a sedan but rather opened to the interior, allowing larger sizes and quantities of items to be stored. This open design can leave your valuables exposed to the outside, however.

A high ground clearance and all-wheel drive are other common characteristics of crossovers, though many models are designed without either. They make traversing over bad roads easier.

The SUV-Crossover Confusion

Despite the difference between crossover and SUVs, “SUV” is often used as a catch-all term for both types of vehicles. That’s to say many car buyers refer to car-based, unibody utility vehicles as SUVs even though they are technically crossovers.

Take for example the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Ford Explorer, VW Tiguan, and Jeep Grand Cherokee — how often do you hear their respective manufacturers or everyday people call them SUVs?

Despite their appearance and the marketing spin, these five models and many others on the market all use a car-based unibody architecture.

On the other hand, calling a body-on-frame SUV such as the Chevrolet Tahoe, Ford Expedition, and Jeep Wrangler a crossover would be inappropriate since they are SUVs in the truest and most technical sense.

What is a crossover? Even though they are mechanically different from body-on-frame SUVs, crossovers are often referred to as SUVs in the marketplace. 

Pros And Cons Of Crossover Cars

Crossovers all the rage these days. In many parts of the world, including the United States, Canada, and Europe, they have displaced the sedan as the most popular class of vehicle for the masses.

Manufacturers have honed the practicality and capabilities of these machines over the past few decades to give drivers and passengers more of what they want in a vehicle: space, versatility, safety, and driving confidence.

If you’re thinking about upgrading from a sedan, hatchback, or even minivan to a crossover, this section weighs the advantages and disadvantages of owning one to help you make an informed decision.

Crossover Car Advantages

Crossover cars have many things going for them, hence why they are the vehicles of choice for the vast majority of car buyers. There are many benefits to owning one.

  1. Seating, interior space: Thanks to their taller and boxier bodies, crossovers usually offer more room for passengers than sedans and hatchbacks. Many large models even offer a third row of seating and can accommodate seven or eight passengers, making them great family-haulers.
  2. Cargo space: The boxy shape and extended roof of crossovers and open nature of their cargo area allow for large quantities and sizes of items to be hauled, especially when the rear seats are folded. A well-packaged crossover can have double the cargo capacity of a comparably sized sedan.
  3. Visibility, accessibility: Drivers sit higher in a crossover than they do in a sedan or other passenger vehicles and, therefore, benefit from increased visibility. And because of the raised ride height, less bending is required when getting in or out of the cabin.
  4. Drivability: Being that they are built on a car’s platform, crossovers tend to offer a smoother, more comfortable ride and better handling than traditional, body-on-frame SUVs. They are easier to maneuver and park.
  5. Capabilities: The large size and mass of crossovers make them more capable of hauling and towing heavier loads than sedans and other passenger cars. Many models are also offered with all-wheel-drive, which together with their high ground clearance, makes them better suited to handle bad roads.
  6. Fuel efficiency: Crossovers are usually smaller and lighter than traditional SUVs and often have smaller engines, factors that make them more fuel-efficient in both city and highway driving.
  7. Safety: The bigger and heavier a vehicle, the better it fares in a collision. Not only are crossovers larger and heavier than sedans and most other types of cars, but their high ride height also contributes to their superior safety credentials.
  8. Affordability: Since they are based on a car platform, which is more economical than truck platforms, crossovers are often more affordable and attainable than traditional SUVs. They are also less expensive to repair, maintain, and insure.

Bottom Line

Crossovers are a great option for anyone looking for the extra interior and cargo room, high ground clearance, and collision characteristics of an SUV without the poor drivability and fuel efficiency. 

They are a versatile and relatively affordable class of vehicles that’s well suited for both individuals and families alike.

Crossover Car Disadvantages

While crossovers make for great everyday cars, they are not without shortcomings. Most of their disadvantages stem from the larger size and mass when compared to smaller passenger cars.

  • Fuel consumption: Although crossovers are more fuel-efficient than traditional SUVs and other larger types of vehicles such as pickup trucks, their large mass puts them at a disadvantage against sedans and hatchbacks.
  • Drivability: SUVs are bigger, heavier, and more top-heavy than sedans, hatchbacks, and other passengers, factors that can make them more difficult to drive and maneuver in tight spaces such as garages and parking lots.
  • Towing, off-roading: Crossovers are lighter, less sturdy, and generally less powerful than traditional, body-on-frame SUVs, making them less suitable for serious off-roading or towing.
  • Security: Whereas sedans have a closed trunk that’s hard to break into, the open and exposed nature of a crossover’s cargo area makes it easy for onlookers to see your stored valuables, increasing the risk of theft.
  • Safety: While crossovers fare well in collisions against smaller vehicles, their tall bodies and higher ground clearance results in a high center of gravity that makes them more prone to rolling over during high-speed maneuvers.
  • Cost: Not only do crossovers require more fuel to operate than their sedan, hatchback, and even wagon equivalents (e.g. Honda CR-V vs Honda Civic) but they are also generally more expensive. Studies show that they have a 10-12 percent higher average total cost of ownership than sedans.

Bottom Line

Crossovers are more expensive, less fuel-efficient, and less maneuverable than the average sedan and hatchback. Moreover, they don’t have the towing and off-roading chops of traditional SUVs and are, therefore, not suitable for those who off-road or tow heavy items on a regular basis.

Crossover Sizes

Like sedans and other types of vehicles, crossovers come in a variety of sizes. The market is ripe with subcompact, compact, midsize, and full-size models.

Subcompact Crossover

Known as superminis or B-segment crossovers in Europe, subcompact crossovers are the smallest, least spacious, and most affordable crossovers, not to mention the least SUV-like. 

They tend to be based on a subcompact sedan or hatchback platform, and most models are basically small hatchbacks with a taller body, slightly higher ground clearance, and very limited off-road capabilities.


Consider getting a subcompact crossover if you’re on a tight budget and don’t require excessive space.

Examples: Kia Soul, Mazda CX-3, Subaru Crosstrek, Chevrolet Trax, Honda HR-V, Toyota C-HR.

Compact Crossover

Often based on the platforms of compact sedans, compact crossovers are the most popular size class. They offer more refinement, passenger and cargo room, powerful engines, and features than subcompacts while still being budget-friendly and easy-to-drive.

Individuals and small families will find that these vehicles usually offer enough room and performance for their everyday needs.

Example: Volkswagen Tiguan, Honda CR-V, Ford Escape, Toyota RAV4, Hyundai Tucson, Mazda CX-5.

Mid-Size Crossover

Mid-size crossovers offer more rear passenger and cargo room than compact crossovers without getting too big and unwieldy. While most models come with two rows of seating, quite a number are offered with a third row of seats.

Not only are mid-size crossovers a great choice for individuals and small families, but certain models may also be able to accommodate larger families.

Examples: Jeep Grand Cherokee, Ford Edge, Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander.

Full-Size Crossover

These are the largest crossovers. Designed for large families and incredibly spacious, full-size crossovers are offered exclusively with three rows of seating and can accommodate 7-8 passengers and their cargo.

They also tend to have the strongest engine options and best towing capabilities.

Examples: Chevrolet Traverse, Volkswagen Atlas, Kia Telluride, Hyundai Palisade.

What To Look For In A Crossover

By blending the drivability of a car with the utility of an SUV, crossovers make for great everyday vehicles. And there are so many models currently available that all demographics of car buyers are spoiled for choice.

But before you run to your local dealer to buy one, consider the following factors to ensure you end up with the best crossover for your needs.

Size

Crossovers come in a variety of different sizes, ranging from small subcompacts like the MINI Countryman to large family-haulers like the Chevy Traverse. If you have a large family or regularly carry a lot of people and things, consider getting a midsize crossover with a third row of seating or a full-size model. 

You’re going to pay more for this extra practicality, however, since larger crossovers have a higher starting price and require more fuel to run.

Features

Crossovers are often offered with the latest tech, safety, and convenience features, especially high-end models. Consider things such as the number of cupholders, Bluetooth, power and USB ports, and rear-seat entertainment system if you need one for long trips.

Other necessities are a power liftgate to more easily access the cargo area, backup and surround-view cameras to improve visibility, and a large moonroof to make the interior feel airier and bigger.

If you live in an area with bad roads and/or inclement weather, consider getting a model with all-wheel drive.

Easy Loading

Loading a crossover with cargo should be a hassle. Make sure the model you get has fold-flat rear seats and a low cargo opening lip to make getting items in and out easier.

The lower the opening lip, the less lifting you’ll need to do. The flatter the rear seats fold, the more cargo space you have to work with and the less likely items will slide around.

Cargo Cover

Unlike sedans, which have an enclosed and secure trunk for storing valuables, the open design of a crossover’s cargo area can make stored content visible to prying eyes and more prone to being stolen. 

Ideally, your crossover should come with a parcel shelf or roll-up cover for concealing your valuables. If it doesn’t, you’ll need to invest in one.

Need

Do you really need a crossover SUV? If you’re a regular individual or small family, you may find that a sedan, hatchback, or station wagon provides enough passenger and cargo room for your needs. If you have a large family, no other vehicle type is as space-efficient as a minivan.

Also, many key features of crossovers such as a high ride height and all-wheel drive are usually not necessities but rather something that’s nice to have, especially for driving in inclement weather. 

Being as crossover SUVs have a higher cost of ownership than sedans, hatchbacks, and minivans, you’ll be incurring a higher expense without much-added benefit. Sit down and carefully think about your priorities before buying one.

History Of Crossovers

Crossovers have quickly risen to become the most popular vehicle type in much of the developed world, accounting for over 50 percent of new car purchases in many markets around the world. But where did they come from?

There has been a lot of debate about what model was the first crossover. For instance, despite being a two-seat race car, the 1936 Opel Geländesportwagen is sometimes cited as the first crossover, while the 1955 Gaz-M20 is arguably the first mass-produced four-wheel-drive passenger car.

The Russian-made Lada Niva is possibly the first mass-produced unibody off-road vehicle to boast a coil-sprung independent front suspension, a setup still used by nearly all crossovers today.

Built on a unibody passenger car platform with a raised ride height and a fully-automatic four-wheel-drive system, the 1979 AMC Eagle is often regarded as the first purpose-built crossover, though it was the 1984 Jeep Cherokee (XJ) that brought the segment to mainstream attention and introduced the SUV-like proportions people now associate with crossovers.

Today, there is a wide selection of crossovers to choose from, from small subcompacts to full-size family-haulers and the austere to the ultra-luxurious, and there seems to be a new model introduced every year.

It’s not clear who coined the term crossover, but journalists and car manufacturers started coming up with a loose definition for these vehicles as more of them became available in the late 1990s and early 2000s. 

Initially a catch-all category for vehicles such as tall wagons and sedans, compact SUVs, and even some minivans, it has become a more clearly defined designation despite a growing breadth of options.

It was very common for crossovers to be referred to as SUVs, but that’s less so the case now. Automakers have been increasingly using the term crossover to negate the stigma of SUVs being large lumbering gas-guzzlers.

The definition continues to evolve and is, therefore, not set in stone.

What is a crossover? As one of the newest types of vehicles, they have supplanted sedans and hatchbacks in most parts of the developed world as the go-to vehicle for both individuals and families alike, and they are only getting more popular.

Crossover Car FAQS

This section answers four of the most popular questions about crossover cars.

What Is Considered A Crossover Car?

Whereas an SUV is based on a body-on-frame platform like most pickup trucks, a crossover rides on a car’s unibody platform where the body and frame are one single structure. Basically, crossovers are vehicles that drive like a passenger car but have the appearance and much of the utility of a traditional SUV.

Are Crossovers Good Cars?

Yes. Crossover SUVs are good cars, and there are good reasons to buy one.

They are typically more spacious and capable of handling bad roads than sedans, hatchbacks, and other passenger cars and more maneuverable, fuel-efficient, and comfortable than traditional SUVs. 

Crossovers are also affordable, and some models are large and capacious enough to offer seating for 7-8 passengers, making them a great alternative to minivans.

Should I Buy A Crossover Or SUV?

Both crossovers and traditional SUVs are versatile vehicles that offer a similar appearance and similar interior and cargo room. However, crossovers tend to drive and handle more like passenger cars, while SUVs have a rugged construction that’s more in line with a pickup truck.

So whereas crossovers provide a more comfortable ride and better fuel-efficiency and, therefore, are better everyday vehicles, SUVs typically have superior towing and off-roading capabilities. You can get more details in our crossover vs SUV comparison guide.

Large Crossover Vs Minivan – Which Is Better?

The two most efficient types of vehicles for hauling people and cargo are minivans and full-size, three-row crossover. Both can seat 7-8 passengers, have comparable driving characteristics, deliver similar gas mileage, and are available with the same safety and convenience features.

However, minivans typically offer more passenger and cargo room, are more affordable, and have a lower cost of ownership. Large crossovers, on the other hand, have a higher ground clearance that provides better visibility and makes driving in inclement weather on bad roads easier.

Deciding on which one to get will depend on your needs, budget, and lifestyle. Get more details in our SUV vs minivan comparison guide.

Final Thoughts

Crossovers are the most popular vehicle class for good reason. They represent the best of traditional passenger cars and body-on-frame SUVs, offering buyers the comfort, drivability, and fuel-efficiency of the former and the spaciousness and versatility of the latter. 

That’s because these vehicles have the underpinnings of sedans and hatchbacks and the body of an SUV. They have a tall, boxy shape for increased passenger and cargo room and, oftentimes, a high-ground clearance and all-wheel-drive to better manage poor road conditions.

While less affordable, maneuverable, and less fuel-efficient than sedans and hatchbacks, crossovers are more attainable and easier to live with than traditional SUVs. And while not as capable as SUVs in towing and off-roading driving, they offer enough capability for the needs of most people.

What is a crossover? If you’re like most people, it is the only vehicle you will ever need. Just make sure to pick the right size.  

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