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Crossovers hot -- but from where and to what?

The "crossover" vehicle is one of the hottest crazes sweeping the rapidly changing world of automobiles.

But most people don't know what they are or what they're crossing over from or to.

That's because crossovers are hard to pigeonhole. They take the best of both worlds and appeal to a cross-section of buyers who want the benefits of both cars and SUVs.

There's no strict definition of crossover vehicles, say industry experts. Some don't even like to use the term at all.

"We don't call them crossover. We call them car-based SUVs, because that's what they are," says Gabriel Shenhar, senior auto testing engineer for Consumer Reports magazine. "These are vehicles that are usually derived from passenger cars, not trucks."

These vehicles differ from conventional sport utilities in that they have fully independent suspension, giving them better handling and steadiness on the roads. They're perfect for people who don't need to carry heavy cargo or drive over rough terrain, since they're certainly not designed for off-road driving.

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"They're easier to get in and out of, and are more refined because they use passenger car power trains," says Shenhar. They are quieter, lighter and more aerodynamic. They provide a smoother ride and usually get better fuel mileage. They have better brakes than a heavier, truck-based SUV, yet they have the cargo versatility of SUVs.

The result? They are better suited for highways and city streets -- the kind of driving most SUVs are used for.

Safety is another important advantage: They are less prone to rollover because they are lower to the ground.

So which "crossover" vehicles are the best? Which offer the smoothest ride, the most innovative features and the best value for the money? We asked a panel of experts to select the crossover vehicles most likely to strike a chord with both the heartstrings and purse strings of the American car-buying public.

Introducing our panel:

  • Gabriel Shenhar, senior test engineer at Consumer Reports' Auto Test Division. Shenhar not only participates in the testing program, but also oversees the purchasing of the vehicles to be tested -- which is done through dealerships without disclosing that the cars are to be tested by Consumer Reports.
  • Mark Phelan, automotive writer for the Detroit Free Press. Phelan has covered the auto industry around the world for more than 20 years. He was the founding editor of Automotive Business International and has written for Road&Track, the New York Times, Thecarconnection.com, Wards Auto World and Automotive Industries.
  • Steven Cole Smith, automotive editor of the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel. Smith was formerly the editor of Car and Driver, the world's largest automotive publication. He started Car and Driver Television, and for more than 20 years has written on the automotive industry for Car and Driver, AutoWeek, Forbes, the New York Times Syndicate and the Dallas Times Herald.

Lexus RX 330
One of the panel's favorites is the new Lexus RX330, which came out in April and has had a successful launch. It upgrades the previous model, the RX300, which was one of the first crossovers to win the hearts of the driving public when introduced in 1997. "It's really refined, responsive, quiet and luxurious," says Shenhar. "It's improved in almost every way over the RX300. It is roomier, nimbler, and it handles better. It brakes and accelerates well. It's also full of surprise-and-delight features such as the movable console between the two front seats."

Phelan also likes the new Lexus. "It is quiet and stable and has a soft and comfortable ride. It's also good looking and is very well equipped. You can get it with a rear video system which tells you how close objects are when you are backing up." The RX330 can seat five passengers with plenty of space for luggage.

Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: $35,600 to $37,000.



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Honda Pilot
For about $10,000 less, you can pick up the Honda Pilot. This eight-passenger SUV has the same architecture as Honda's successful Odyssey minivan. Power comes from a 3.5-liter, V-6 engine, and all-wheel drive is standard. It is responsive and rides comfortably. It is quiet and smooth in accelerating and it has plenty of cargo room. The Pilot averages 19 miles per gallon, much better than the 15 to 16 from a truck-based SUV. "Honda is known for making vehicles that are very dependable and have great resale value," says Smith.

MSRP: $29,900 to $33,300.



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Toyota Highlander
The Toyota Highlander is quite similar to its richer cousin, the RX330, but not as plush. Think of it as a Lexus RX330 without the fancy body and price tag. "It's very polished, easy to get in and out of, and very quiet," says Shenhar. The Highlander accelerates smoothly and boasts such features as ABS brakes and standard stability control, software that keeps the vehicle on its chosen path and prevents it from going out of control. A new option on the 2004 models is seating for seven people. Available with a powerful V-6 engine, the Highlander also offers the practicality of an SUV with significantly lower fuel costs.

MSRP: $24,500 to $31,900.

Subaru Forester XT
"With the new Forester XT, Subaru improved on a winning formula by adding 45 horsepower with a turbocharger," says Phelan. "While other manufacturers agonize over convincing buyers station wagons can be cool, Subaru cut to the chase and built a cool station wagon." The Forester is one of Shenhar's favorites, too. Even the four-cylinder model, he says, offers excellent value, is pretty agile and doesn't burn a lot of gas. He picks this one over other Subarus, such as the Outback and the Baja, two more crossovers, for its quick acceleration, roominess and its very effective all-wheel drive system.

MSRP: $21,400 to $28,000.

Toyota RAV4
The Toyota RAV4 is another good selection. Says Shenhar, "It feels very sporty when you're driving it because it's so nimble. It responds very nicely if you're on a twisting road." The steering and brakes are good and while the five-seater is less plush and not as quick as the Highlander, it gets about 24 miles per gallon and has plenty of space inside. The rear seats fold down and are removable.

MSRP: $18,800 to $21,300.

Honda CR-V
For those on a tighter budget, the Honda CR-V is a good bet. Priced between $22,000 and $24,000, this small crossover is roomy inside with spacious rear seats. "It has a very responsive engine and transmission," says Shenhar. The CR-V attracts all kinds of buyers, he adds, including single people, families and older empty nesters.

MSRP: $19,400 to $23,000.

Infiniti FX45
One of the more unique and unusual crossovers is the Infiniti FX45. "It looks like a tall, sporty hatchback," says Shenhar. "It has a long nose and is different from the others in the fact that you sit lower. You almost feel like you are not driving an SUV -- like you are driving a tall coupe." Available with a powerful 4.5-liter V-8, the FX45 boasts a roomy interior and advanced styling.

MSRP: $44,900.



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Cadillac SRX
Critics are also singing the praises of the Cadillac SRX, which may be more of a crossover than Cadillac's Escalade, a full-size SUV. "The SRX has got excellent power, very good handling, and quite a sporty feel," says Phelan. "It's also got the biggest sunroof I've seen in my life."

Smith rates the Cadillac SRX as the top crossover vehicle. "It's on par with anything else that's on the market."

MSRP: $38,600 to $49,200.

 

-- Posted: Dec. 9, 2003

2004 Car Guide
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