CROSSOVERS ARE MYSTIFYING. Maybe the noun means nothing to you. In that case, salute, as the Italians say, for you have managed to avoid the stultifying marketspeak of the international car industry while still caring about vehicles fast and neat. (You’re reading this magazine/website, so that last bit is presumption. Unless you stumbled here by accident, in which case, Hi, you look smart and handsome! are cheap!)
The word has many definitions. Years ago, the industry assigned it to the castrato region between low-slung automobile and trucklike SUV. Machines that “cross over,” half truck and half not. Picture a pickup minus the scruffy charm and focused practicality. Imagine a car but taller and less efficient. Finally, go watch The Island of Dr. Moreau, the 1996 film where Marlon Brando lives on an island and performs genetic experiments in flowy clothes while doing his Large Marlon Brando shtick. (Less On the Waterfront, more Apocalypse Now in a caftan.) Note how he uses science to create disturbing new life, like hyena-pigs and a six-foot man-goat hybrid who serves as local priest.
You now know everything you need to know about crossovers. Also a little about the goat-priest, who was kind of metal and the best thing about the film and probably huge giggles at a party. This is a space for learning.
Crossovers are generally not giggles. There are exceptions, of course—your Porsche Macans, your Mazda CX-5s. Plus oddities like the BMW X6 M, a machine that pairs sea-cow looks with fun like a bucket of puppies. The combo seems unlikely, but then, that’s most crossovers. They’re generally big and fat but light on towing ability and cargo room. Common traits include the aerodynamic drag of a high school and fuel mileage blown out of the water by most compact wagons. The only inarguable benefit is a high seating position, standard in the species. It lets you see over traffic, so long as traffic isn’t full of other crossovers.
Which it is, of late. People buy these thundermothers, and they buy them in spades. More when gas is cheap. Last year, for the first time, SUVs and crossovers accounted for more than one in three cars sold globally. A decade ago, the world consumed just under a third of that.
Consider how the mass-market SUV rose to power, in the Eighties and Nineties. Many early sport-utilities seemed impractical, but in retrospect, they were kings of purpose— rugged separate frames and the ability to tow or carry gobs of stuff. More than a few could clamber around off-road like a diet Land Rover. The vibe was so appealing that countless SUVs were bought illogically, for normal commutes, not rugged work. So carmakers chased the market, because that is how business works. The trucklike thing evolved into a blobby carlike thing, roomier and softer and rarely un-blah: okay at some jobs, great at none, boggling if you love simplest-answer engineering.
Spend enough time trying to parse human habit, you assemble strange protests. Last month, on a work trip to California, I borrowed a Lincoln Navigator test truck. SUV, body-on-frame, based on the Ford Expedition, which is based on the F-150 pickup. I drove from San Francisco to Laguna Seca. Then I slept in the Lincoln for two nights during a race weekend, in a campground overlooking the track. Sleeping bag and pillow, rear seats folded down, Monterey hills. All to make a point to no one in particular. Ha, I thought, dousing the lights–witness the function of the old school! Hoho, I said, stretching out in all that space! At one point, I hauled five friends on an errand, and not one complained about legroom! We could have towed around an entire city! Great success, Smith opinions are unassailable!
Then the 120 miles back to San Francisco. The Navigator snarfed fuel like a refinery fire. It was at least 200 percent too large to be easily street-parked in the city. The suspension was soft enough to be comfy over nasty pavement, but the trade-off was nausea-wave body motions on freeway heaves and on-ramps. A nice package, but only within a certain use case. Because it was a truck. Old-school, focusable largely in one direction, too compromised for most people.
Problems like this make me think. Sometimes too much. And so seat time sent me down a rabbit hole, sitting in traffic, pondering fixes while squinting into the distance. What, I asked myself, if you smeared the genes? Compromised some bits to improve others? A footprint more efficient, no more separate frame! An epiphany, lost in my own thoughts: a car less trucky, a truck more car! Sales would skyrocket. Function and form. You’d probably get the diehard nerds complaining, but really, they have weird taste to begin with, and they probably don’t even buy new cars, just fun old sport sedans and race cars, and then I realized what I was saying and my face fell and Lord I’m an idiot never try to apply logic to the world you’ll just end up beating your head against the wall like a gump.
It’s possible your narrator is merely grumpy, because no one is genetically engineering cars for his needs. Maybe I should take the job. Sensible projects only. Say, a 2000-pound Lotus that seats a family of five. A 200-mph Jaguar E-type that meets modern crash standards. Maybe perpetrate this science on a remote island, away from prying eyes, because others might find such work unsettling. Call myself a doctor, because genius deserves a title, and oh hell that’s the Brando movie shut up Sam automotive engineers are not idiots never listen to a journalist on anything.
Except the goat-priest. No conoest. That guy was rad.