Crossover Blahs

It’s a shame that crossovers are so much alike because they don’t have to be, but it’s their shape that make it so.

It’s defined by the nature of the crossover. Or rather, the reason people buy them, which is the space they have on the inside relative to their footprint, outside, and relative to a car of the same overall footprint.

A mid-sized crossover, for instance, will have about three times the cargo-carrying capacity as a mid-sized sedan. And to put a finer point on it, a compact-sized crossover will usually have at least twice as much cargo-carrying capacity as a mid-sized sedan and more cargo-carrying capacity than even a full-size sedan.

This makes them much more practical as family cars than cars, and without being minivans, which are even more practical but have a look all their own.

Most crossovers are made to look like SUVs–hence the overlap term, crossover SUV–even though they’re almost always based on cars. But they ride higher off the ground like an SUV and usually have or offer an all-wheel-drive system, which gives them some of the poor-weather and off-road capabilities of an SUV but with better space-efficiency on the inside and (usually) somewhat better gas mileage. This is because most crossovers have smaller engines than most SUVs and usually weigh less, being less heavy-duty than a typical SUV, which is usually based on a truck-type layout and often directly related to a truck.

But they do look a lot alike and that makes it hard to get excited over this one vs. that one. It makes it hard to tell this one from that one.

That may be the nature of the beast. But it doesn’t mean there couldn’t be reasons to get excited over this one vs. that one because there used to be some remarkable differences–they just weren’t easy to see.

For example, many crossovers used to be available with a manual transmission, sometimes, even with a V6 engine. Toyota used to offer that combination with the RAV4, which made that model (so equipped) one of the greatest sleeper performance cars available, when it was available. Now both have been taken off the table. The current RAV4 comes only with a four-cylinder engine paired only with an automatic transmission.

It is now one of the most likely to put you to sleep crossovers on the market.

Even if it’s just a manual transmission paired only with a four-cylinder engine. The result is a vehicle that gives you something more to do than tap a touchscreen and try to stay awake. Subaru is one of the last manufacturers that still offers a manual-equipped crossover, the 2022 Crosstrek. Interestingly, the Crosstrek is one of the most popular crossovers in its class, a class in which none of its rivals offers a manual.

Most Crosstreks are equipped with an automatic transmission. But it’s not inconceivable that the possibility of being able to do more than tap and swipe and try to keep from falling asleep has made the Crosstrek more appealing psychologically, even if most people end up not shifting for themselves. Kind of like the way the presence of a Corvette in a Chevy showroom helps spur sales of Chevys that aren’t Corvettes.

How about a diesel engine?

Once-upon-a-not-so-long-time-ago, there were several crossovers that offered them, including the VW Tiguan and Touareg. The former offered mileage on par with a small economy car in a far more useful crossover package while the latter offered titanic torque and Clydesdale-like towing capacity, close to 8,000 lbs., which is about 3,000 lbs. more than most gas-engined crossovers can handle.

Imagine a diesel-manual crossover…

Isn’t it nice to imagine such possibilities?

It’s a shame all that is possible is the consolidated-homogenized four-cylinder gas engine paired only with an automatic transmission. Some manufacturers try to infuse some verve by upping the power output of these four-cylinder engines–usually, by turbocharging them. Some more verve could be infused by making the presence of the turbo more noticeable as by not muffling it. Other than the increased power, it is very difficult to tell there’s a turbocharged engine in there somewhere.

Of course, not everyone wants to hear the whistle and the pop of a wastegate would probably alarm most people.

But manuals and diesels have mainstream virtues. The manual lowers the price of the car, because a manual costs less to build than a modern electronically-controlled automatic transmission. It is also more likely to last longer, being a simple piece of mechanical equipment. And it gives the driver more control over the car as well as makes the car more fun to drive.

Especially if it hasn’t got much engine.

You’ll get better gas mileage, too. Don’t believe what they tell you about how “efficient” automatics are. They test well–that’s all.

Diesels are capable of hybrid-electric fuel economy without the hybrid-electric drivetrain without the cost of the hybrid-electric drivetrain, which cost largely effaces the hybrid-electric’s fuel savings.

So why can’t you find a diesel-engined crossover anymore (the last one was the Chevy Equinox) and why is it almost impossible to find a manual transmission in a crossover?

It’s not because diesels are “dirty” or because automatics are more efficient. It’s because diesels aren’t quite zero emissions (at least, that’s the excuse proffered) and manuals don’t test as well.

The car companies must comply with near-zero “emissions” regs, even if it would be better for the “environment” if more people drove 50 MPG diesel-powered vehicles than 35 MPG gas-engined ones. And it helps them comply with the latest gas mileage requirements to program an automatic to achieve higher numbers on the test that is used to rate a vehicle’s gas mileage even if it doesn’t actually deliver that mileage in real-world driving.

Even if a properly driven manual delivers better mileage in real-world driving.

In other words, it’s a game, and we’re the losers, every time.

Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books, reviewing cars, and blogging about cars+ for his website

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Not an NMA Member yet?

Join today and get these great benefits!

Leave a Comment

One Response to “Crossover Blahs”

  1. David Holzman says:

    The styling problem is probably more general than “crossovers look alike”. The teens was the worst decade ever for automotive style, and cars in general–not just crossovers–looked more alike during that decade.

    The latest Car and Driver (April) shows some cars that actually look good–the Lucid Air, the Hyundai Elantra (well not bad anyway), and the Kia EV6. The Air might even be able to pass as a crossover.

    Of course, crossovers are really station wagons, and I advocate resisting the automotive marketing, and calling them what they really are.

    And thanks Eric Peters, for some very valid complaints.