In the span of 20 years, the crossover has turned from niche to significant market mover, both here and abroad. Simply put, an automaker will struggle to enter a market, or even survive, without some form of high-riding wagon. These days, the automotive landscape is awash with these offerings, varying wildly in size, seating arrangement and even engines. So how did we get here?
Before the crossover
For those well-versed in automotive history, the roots of the sport utility vehicles are planted in the Willys Jeep and the original Land Rover Series 1. When these cars first came out, the term 'SUV' wasn't even coined then. In the 60's and 70's, SUV's were essentially pickups with either a hard shell or a metal roof, much like the original Ford Bronco and the Chevrolet Suburban. The pickup-based formula would be the standard throughout the early years of the SUV but the 80's saw a revolution.
Back to the 80's
By this time, sport utility vehicles were slowly trickling into the mainstream. While the traditional body-on-frame construction was still prevalent, there were some opting to take the unibody route. In 1979, American Motors Corporation unveiled the Eagle and, conceptually, it would set the footprint for the crossover as we know it today.
Much like the modern crossover, the AMC Eagle was based on a standard passenger car, the AMC Concord. The American automaker then raised the ground clearance and put in some off-road mechanicals. It was also marketed as a 'light off-road vehicle” and even came in various body styles, namely in sedan, coupe and 'Kammback' guises.
Meanwhile, in Japan, Honda and Toyota were shelling out car-based four-wheel drives of their own. In the early 80's Honda had the Shuttle 4WD while Toyota had the Sprinter Carib 4WD. Like the AMC Eagle, these two Japanese offerings had a raised ride height and a rudimentary four-wheel drive system. Europe was dabbling in the concept too when Volkswagen, in cooperation with Steyr-Daimler-Puch in Austria, rolled out the limited-run Golf Country.
While it is possible that they didn't see it at the time, AMC, Honda, Toyota and Volkswagen had set the ball rolling for one of the most successful (and profitable) vehicle platforms of all time. The next decade, however, would change the shape of the motoring landscape.
The SUV boom
In the late 80's to the early 90's, nearly every mainstream manufacturer wanted in on the craze. Every American automaker had one while some of the Japanese manufacturers had to make do with rebadged versions of other SUVs. At the same time, Europe's only true player in the SUV market was Land Rover with the Range Rover.
By the mid-90's, the SUV had reached mass market status. The Ford Explorer was challenging the traditional sedan for sales in the US, Europeans where buying them in hordes and so were Asians. The message was clear: The SUV is here to stay.
Crossovers hit the mainstream
In response to this growing trend, Honda, Subaru and Toyota came out with 'mini SUVs' during the middle of the 90's. Toyota was first with the RAV4 in 1994, followed by the Honda CR-V the year after. A few years after the Japanese auto giants released their cars, Subaru joined the act with the Forester in 1997. The three proved to be sales hits in the global market, appealing to those looking for an SUV but don't want the bulk or truck-like dynamics. Perhaps one can say that the CR-V, Forester and RAV4 could be credited for bringing the crossover to an even wider audience.
Eventually, other manufacturers started rolling out their crossovers. At the turn of the millennium, Nissan introduced the X-Trail in its home market. Ford became the first American manufacturer to introduce a crossover with the Escape, along with its twin, the Mazda Tribute. And then, in 2001, Mitsubishi released the Airtrek, which is now better known as the Outlander. The European brands meanwhile had yet to join the market, but that was about to change.
Luxury giants join in
The first luxury crossover to reach the market was the Lexus RX300 in December of 1997. While the Mercedes-Benz M-Class was debuted earlier that year, it wasn't exactly a crossover as it still relied on body-on-frame construction. The real match for the Lexus would arrive in September of 1999 with the BMW X5, Europe's first true crossover. Needless to say, the trio have been racking up sales for their brands since then.
In response to the Lexus RX300, Acura also made a crossover in the form of the MDX. Meanwhile, Volvo, a long-time station wagon manufacturer, entered the luxury crossover segment in 2003 with their XC90, a car that would significantly boost their sales. At the time, Audi only had the A6 Allroad Quattro to go against the BMW, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo. The German automaker rectified that in 2005 with the Q7.
But perhaps the most shocking of all was Porsche. When the Cayenne came out it 2002, to say that it angered the purists was an understatement. Unfazed by the die-hard fans of the brand, the Cayenne would later become Porsche's best-selling model during the decade. Now, luxury car makers have not only continued to build on the successes of their first crossovers, but have expanded their respective ranges. Simply put, if you want more sales, build a crossover. Even Rolls-Royce and Bentley have joined the market.
A crossover for all sizes
Even if the origins of the crossover started with C-segment based cars, the need to build even bigger models became more pressing. Toyota was the first to enter the mainstream, mid-sized crossover market in 2001 with the Highlander. Honda then followed suit a year later, with the Pilot. From then on, it was possible for automakers to use any size platform to build a crossover.
Nowadays, there's a crossover in just about every size segment from B-segment, all the way to the large E-segment. If it's raised ride height you want, you can now choose from a very wide variety of models and size classes.
High-performance and crossovers seemed like an oxymoron in the past, but one could say that the Subaru Forester opened the realm of possibilities. Subaru still sticks to that formula, offering rally car pedigree in this otherwise sensible segment. Mitsubishi followed suit with the Airtek Turbo with Nissan responding with the X-Trail GT. Both were powered by highly regarded engines, the 4G63T and the SR20VET respectively. Nissan toyed with the idea again with the limited-run Juke-R and, as the name suggests, gets the drivetrain and engine straight from Godzilla.
Soon, BMW and Mercedes-Benz were rolling out tweaked, V8-powered versions of their crossovers but Porsche further upped the ante with the Turbo Cayennes. At the same time, Volkswagen and Audi made powerful diesels in the form of the Touareg V10 and Q7 V12 TDI. These days just about every European luxury automaker has a crossover that can give some sports cars a scare.
Crossovers have different body styles too. Nowadays, we have pickups based on cars, a trend which started in Australia in the 1930's with the Ute. Chevrolet followed it up with the El Camino while Subaru made smaller versions of car-based pickups with the Brat. Australia still has the Ute but other automakers are making their own crossover pickups. Subaru revived the concept of the Brat with the Baja in the the early 2000's. Honda then came up with their own crossover pickup in the form of the Ridgeline, which is now in its second generation.
On to the sportier end of the spectrum, the two-door AMC Eagle was the first crossover coupe but it would be the BMW X6 that would bring the idea to a wider audience. The sedan body style has also been adapted from crossovers too. Marketed as a 'Sports Utility Sedan', the second, third and fourth-generation Subaru Outback can be had with four doors. The idea continues to this day with the Volvo S60 Cross Country. At the same time, there are now convertible crossovers in the market with the Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet and the Range Rover Evoque Convertible.
No signs of slowing down
Just about every manufacturer offers a crossover these days, from budget brands to ultra-luxury marques. The crossover has returned several companies to profitability and, at the same time, cater to a much wider audience. In 2017 alone, the local market saw the introduction of over ten new or updated crossovers in the country. Needless to say, car buyers around the world can't get enough of them.
In the U.S, sedan sales are down while crossovers are booming. Crossover sales in Europe are also on the rise, occasionally being a threat to hatchback sales. In Asia, many have adapted the crossover as an alternative to the family sedan, to a point that D-segment sedan sales have practically dwindled. We now live in an age where Lamborghini and Aston Martin are rolling out these high-riders. Simply put, the crossover has become a global phenomenon.
It's amazing to think how it all started with a raised station wagon from a defunct automaker.