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US `crossover' sales set to top those of SUVs

Sales estimates show that the vehicle du jour in the US combines the looks of an SUV with fuel efficiency and a nimbler frame

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , DETROIT

The 2007 Ford Edge crossover utility vehicle at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, on Jan. 8. The new vehicle of choice is the crossover, a vehicle that generally looks like an SUV, but that is built on the nimble underpinnings of a car instead of the stiffer platform of a pickup truck. Sales of crossovers will pass the 2 million-mark this year and, for the first time, top sales of conventional SUVs, according to estimates by analysts and the auto companies.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

If you had to put one vehicle in a time capsule that describes the 1990s, it would have to be a sport utility vehicle -- the bigger, gutsier and more gas-guzzling the better.

Baby boomers by the millions abandoned sedans and minivans to buy them. Now they are turning away again, to something that has better gas mileage and more comfort, but still gives them the roominess that Americans prize.

The new vehicle of choice is the crossover, a vehicle that generally looks like an SUV but that is built on the nimble underpinnings of a car instead of the stiffer platform of a pickup truck.

Sales of crossovers will pass 2 million this year and, for the first time, will top sales of conventional SUVs, according to estimates by analysts and the auto companies. For comparison, nearly 3 million SUVs were sold in 2002.

In monthly sales reports that carmakers released on Friday, sales of crossovers were up 4.4 percent and sales of SUVs, while still exceeding crossovers, were down 13.3 percent, according to the industry statistics firm Autodata.

Crossovers did not even exist when Ford put its Explorer on sale in 1990 and Jeep rolled out the Grand Cherokee in 1992. They have been available in the US only since 1995, when the Toyota RAV4, a hit in the Japanese market, became the first crossover sold here.

There are now 40 models of crossovers, from all manner of US, Japanese, Korean and European companies, and their sales are climbing as those of SUVs are falling.

"The crossover market is going to get much, much larger," said Jim Lentz, an executive vice president at Toyota Motor.

Detroit companies, initially outgunned by their foreign competition, are grabbing for their share of crossover sales.

General Motors, Ford Motor and DaimlerChrysler, which have more than a dozen new crossovers planned for the rest of the decade, see them as a crucial tool in their efforts to recapture sales that have been lost as SUVs have faded.

Most SUVs and crossovers sell in the US$25,000 to US$30,000 price range.

The rise in the appeal of crossovers has caught many people by surprise because they are not easy to categorize.

Their structure gives them a smoother ride and makes them easier to handle than conventional sport utilities. But most are designed so that drivers sit up high behind the wheel, and many have as much interior space as SUVs. Almost every model, 36 out of 40, is available with all-wheel drive, allowing for better traction in bad weather.

On average, their fuel economy beats that of conventional SUVs, by 18 percent in the city and 9 percent on the highway, an important selling point now that fuel prices have risen to US$3 or more.

Both SUVs and crossovers are considered light trucks under the federal government's rules for fuel efficiency, so the increase in sales of crossovers also helps car makers meet the mileage standard, which is 20.3 miles per gallon for light trucks.

The average fuel economy for all crossovers is 20 miles per gallon in city driving and 24 on the highway, compared with 17 in the city and 22 on the freeway for conventional SUVs, according to an estimate by Edmunds.com, which offers car-buying advice.

"Crossovers are SUVs with all the traits that people like and without the things that people don't like," said Karl Brauer, the editor in chief at Edmunds.

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