The case against crossovers
Everyone loves to hate pickup trucks as a symbol of excessive consumption. But when I look around the driveways or parking lots of mountain towns, I see just the opposite problem: Drivers are buying the image of capability, rather than the real thing. People pay too much for too few cars and cause too much damage to the environment in the process. I’m talking, of course, about the mid-range car model: the crossover.
Crossovers dominate the American car market, accounting for 45% of total consumer car sales. Pickup trucks? Only 19 percent. Real SUV? 10 percent.
This is a relatively new trend. In 2013, sedans accounted for 48 percent of sales.
This might be a good time to define what the crossover is. They’re just regular cars, with slightly longer suspension and more upright seats. They usually feature hatchback or wagon rear ends. Naturally, most offer the option of all-wheel drive.
It is tempting to assign some functional merit to this loose formula. The efficiency and low purchase price of an economy car combined with the elevated view of a truck? Interior space rivaling that of a minivan? Off-road traction and winter weather? Permission to climb obstacles? Sign me up for monthly payments!
In fact, there’s something even more frustrating that explains the popularity of crossovers: regulatory loopholes.
It is narrated like this. Back in the 1960s, regulators created an exception for “off-road vehicles” that exempted them from most safety and emissions legislation. The thinking was that farmers, loggers and the like didn’t need vehicles laden with emissions and safety equipment, since they were mostly using their trucks and SUVs in the countryside, away from the smog and roadblocks of the big city.
Those regulations created a formula for defining an “off-road vehicle.” To meet this description, a vehicle needs either four-wheel drive (AWD had not yet been invented and is acceptable in this formula) or a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of at least 6,000 pounds. In addition, it needs at least four additional features out of five. These include an approach angle of at least 28 degrees, a breakover angle of 14 degrees, and a departure angle of 20 degrees; Plus 7.8 inches of total ground clearance or 7.1 inches of axle clearance.
When the government began regulating things like crash safety and corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, “off-road vehicles” remained either exempt or subject to less stringent rules.
While the issue of safety has largely taken off due to consumer demand in the 2000s — basing the strength of a rolltop on the weight of the vehicle has turned out to be a good idea — “off-road vehicles” are still calculated differently when it comes to It is according to CAFE standards.
CAFE standards have been a political football in recent years, but currently stand at 181 grams of CO2 per mile for passenger vehicles, and 261 grams for light trucks. The definition of “off-road vehicle” relegates most crossovers to that last category, which are allowed to pollute 36 percent more. It is more expensive to manufacture more efficient, cleaner vehicles than less efficient, dirtier vehicles. Making more “off-road vehicles” than passenger cars can save automakers a lot of money. Enough that there are millions of dollars left over after they create a marketing vehicle designed to convince consumers that they want something that can be loosely defined as an “off-road vehicle” rather than a regular car.
For this reason, you or someone in your family may be driving an “off-road vehicle,” without actually driving an off-road vehicle. Combined, all those features that allow crossovers to emit more carbon actually make them much worse vehicles than the old alternative. Let’s take a look at some of the marketing claims about these, and compare them to the facts.
Claim: This helps on rough roads!
the truth: While some clearance along the vehicle’s center line is necessary, only a small fraction of the numbers allow the vehicle to clear large obstacles. If you go back to the regulatory description for “off-road vehicle,” you can see that the ground clearance of a vehicle with a live axle (as used in most actual 4×4 vehicles) is less than a vehicle with a fully independent suspension. This is why crossover makers put so much emphasis on citing ground clearance numbers.
the problem: Increasing the height of a vehicle’s center of gravity also increases the forces that cause it to lean during cornering. This spoils road handling characteristics, and the additional aerodynamic drag created by height also reduces fuel economy and performance.
Claim: It provides traction!
the truth: In the absence of other technologies, AWD directs power to the wheel with minimal traction. Automakers use various clutches and electronic gadgets to try to counter this, but still no all-wheel-drive system can match the traction provided by a true all-wheel-drive system, which links the speeds of the front and rear axles together.
the problem: All-wheel drive (AWD) adds traction and mechanical complexity. This reduces fuel economy and reduces reliability. Most drivers also confuse the supposed traction provided by AWD with the actual traction provided by proper tires, and put themselves and other road users at risk as a result.
Claim: Crossovers offer large cargo spaces and seats that fold flat!
the truth: The same applies to hatchbacks, wagons and minibuses.
the problem: You pay more to drive a less capable car.
Claim: Have a commanding view through traffic!
the truth: Have you seen how long modern trucks are?
the problem: This provides the appearance of additional security without the presence of additional security. Physics remains physics — larger vehicles will transfer more energy to smaller vehicles when the two collide — and crossovers’ energy-absorbing bodies remain lower than those of large pickups and SUVs.
Claim: Our special overland edition, the gee-wiz, XXRR-S, the National Forest-badged crossover, is the real deal! And Z mode makes it even better, although we can’t tell you how it works!
the truth: No crossover comes close to the cornering, traction or articulation to match the ability of even the simplest all-wheel drive vehicle.
the problem: Telling people that their vehicle can go off-road without providing them with important off-road safety features like rated recovery points, puncture-resistant tires, a true winch, and more, is putting their lives at risk.
Quite long for good road manners, but not long enough for off-roading. Crossovers have traction systems that don’t do much except cause problems. Almost exactly the same interior space as better handling, regular cars, vans and minivans that are more efficient, but no safer than those of regular cars. Exactly the same off-road and winter capability as any economy car. Crossovers do nothing better, and most things worse, compared to sedans, wagons, hatchbacks, and minivans. All you can tell them is that they burn more fuel and cause more pollution.
Add to all of this the fact that crossovers typically cost thousands of dollars more than comparable cars, and you can see why anyone anywhere would buy a crossover. Not only does it provide automakers with a strong financial incentive to continue polluting, but it also makes them spend more. More of their hard-earned money to buy a worse car. This costs you money in your monthly payment and at the pump, while putting you in a car that is less fun to drive and less practical.
What about electric vehicles? While cradle-to-grave carbon emissions are half that of an electric car, compared to an equivalent petrol car, producing and operating them still comes at a significant environmental cost. And making a larger, less efficient electric car is more polluting than making a smaller, more efficient car. Compromising a car’s function until it conforms to a certain questionable direction is still a bad decision, regardless of the power source.