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.
"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:
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
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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,"
MSRP: $29,900 to $33,300.
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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
MSRP: $21,400 to $28,000.
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.
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.
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.
Click image for larger view
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