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Why do car companies want to sell you a crossover?

Ford

Last month I drove a 2016 Lincoln MKX around Detroit — and I liked it. I was surprised for two reasons: a) Lincoln has made a new vehicle feel like serious luxury; and b) it's a crossover, the most ambiguous segment of cars on the planet.

Yet for all its ambiguity, we are told the Crossover Utility Vehicle (CUV) is the way of the road at virtually every major auto show. Detroit's NAIAS, which opens to the public this weekend, is no different. The long list of crossover debuts include the Volkswagen Tiguan GTE Active Concept, GMC Acadia, Buick Envision, and Audi's h-tron quattro.

A search of any car shopping site drums up over 100 models that fall in the "crossover" category — best described as the trucklets found in virtually every suburban driveway that fall somewhere between "SUV" and "minivan" — but the biggest differentiator is whether there's a third row of seating. I've sat through two-dozen marketing presentations in the past decade about the long-term growth in this segment, which is no joke: naysayers have had to keep quiet while the sales pour in and automakers' profits climb. In the US, according to The Atlantic, three times as many crossovers are sold as SUVs and minivans combined.

How do you make a crossover utility vehicle sound sexy? In its essence, it's an uninspired blah of a silhouette, even at its most aerodynamic, sculpted extreme — short in the front, big in the back. It does not take a skilled hand to draw the shape of two oblong lima beans. But for the auto industry, it's the shape that dominates our era. Many buyers see it as a perfect compromise from the bloated SUV.

It does not take a skilled hand to draw the shape of two oblong lima beans

Technically, a crossover is based on a unibody car platform. Meanwhile, a true SUV is body-on-frame, a build common since the 1930s in which a separate body is mounted onto a rigid frame. But this a very loose definition, and some crossovers skew toward the stretched proportions of an SUV while others are more car-like. It's the ambiguity that makes this segment interesting. If you want to sell a car as a SUV or a SUV as a car, just call it a crossover.

Before the term became an indelible part of our automotive vocabulary, the concept of "crossing over" first emerged and gained popularity in the '90s. While American manufacturers cashed in on the considerable profits of gas-guzzling Hummers, Durangos, and Navigators, smaller vehicles like the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, and Subaru Forester made headway. What manufacturers (and buyers) soon discovered was that while these crossovers took three steps back in the the evolution of automotive design, they benefitted from car-like performance and do-all utility. To this day, the CR-V and RAV4 jockey for the most sales in this segment.

In fairness, the biggest detractors of CUVs tend to be those who write about them, who will always choose the station wagon that sits closer to the earth and makes you feel like you're at one with the Autobahn, or the sports car with the wonderful exhaust note. But one of the responsibilities of an auto journalist is to put aside the fantasy of the impractical car every once in a while and think about the consumer. My time in the MKX reinforced that point. One day during my Detroit adventure, it sleeted, iced, and snowed; the all-wheel-drive MKX was an ideal ride. The handling was responsive and I felt cocooned away from the treacherous conditions, thanks in no small part to a heated steering wheel. Meanwhile, I watched a rear-wheel-drive Mustang slip and slide in front of me.

honda cr-v
The Honda CR-V.

And for all their awkwardness, crossovers have still permeated popular culture: it's perfectly chic to roll up to the valet in the Porsche Macan behind a Ferrari 458. Heck, there's a drop-top crossover now. Even true SUVs are now taking cues from the CUV segment: the ultra-luxe, ultra-spacious Bentley Bentayga, based on Audi's Q7 platform, only has four seats. The popularity of crossovers impacts every buyer from the thrifty Jeep Patriot customer to those shopping for the new Cadillac XT5, which will hit the road this year. As many crossovers as GM already offers, Cadillac is now doubling down on them — the XT5 is the first of four CUVs that the automaker will introduce on a new platform designed to dominate this segment. (The outgoing SRX was already the brand's best seller.)

What's the appeal for buyers? In this class of vehicle, it's what's on the inside that matters. CUVs are the cure for an automotive Napoleon complex: you sit a little bit higher, which might make you feel a bit safer, if only psychologically. If you're a commuter and you live in your car for several hours a day, that little bit of extra legroom and headspace makes all the difference. But unlike the 1990s' super-sized SUV craze that captured the hearts of soccer parents and begat odes to 20-inch rims, CUVs are easy to park and engineered to be reasonably fuel efficient. They're even going electric now, including the wee Kia Soul EV, the Tesla Model X, and the Mitsubishi Outlander Plug-in Hybrid.

Car-like performance and do-all utility

As a Northeast dweller where utility and wintertime sure-footedness are key, I am often asked: Subaru, BMW X3, or Ford Escape? Yes, some of these people are carting around a gang of children, but others are single and more interested in room for a dog, a bike, or their next rideable. It's the vehicle that has no functional limits. In the luxury segment, where shoppers can take their pick of high-end sedans, crossovers keep winning, too. BMW says that 40 percent of its sales in 2016 will be in the crossover category. And 2015's record breaking year for car sales was propelled by upticks in crossovers. In November alone, the sales spiked by over 18 percent, and nearly every automaker reported record crossover sales figures for the year.

And until the next great automotive evolution, only more CUVs are forecast for the immediate future. The competition is taking a smaller approach to "big," because maximizing minimum space, it seems, is the path to maximum profit.