How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Crossover

Eleven-hundred miles in the 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe.

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Zach Bowman

Every generation has its automotive plague of locusts, the models that pack grocery store parking lots and clog our nation’s freeways. For my grandfather, it was the station wagon. For my dad, it was the minivan. I’ve been saddled with something worse: the crossover. It’s a machine that’s neither decent to drive nor impressively functional. A multitool in the sporkiest sense of the word. They are contrary to everything I hold dear about automobiles. Anonymous. Disposable. Cynical. But last weekend, I learned, if not to love one, at least to appreciate it.

My wife’s grandfather passed away. It’s hard to put the man into words, to describe how his determination and love paved a road to success for his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Like most of us, he defined the epochs of his life by the work he did: on the farm during the depression. At the plant during the war. On the railroad, after. But really, his life's work was his family, raising two boys who, in turn, built families of their own.

Beth and I hadn’t been married a year when we got into a proper fight over one of those things that seem so significant at the time. She took a long breath, looked me square in the eye, and said, “You have no idea how to be married, do you?”

The truth was, I didn’t. Both of my parents treated marriages like pairs of pants. They had a closet full of them that no longer fit. And when I looked around at most of my friends, their parents were much the same, our families all spiderwebs of steps and halfs. All of this was alien to Beth. Her parents met in college, got married, had three kids, and did the daily work necessary to stay wedded. They knew how because their own parents had enjoyed long, intact marriages of their own, laying out a roadmap for their children to follow.

Her grandfather’s lessons shone through in Beth, and were part of what drew me to her when we were kids. He adored national parks. Loaded up his Oldsmobile, packed the trunk with jerry cans, hitched a pop-up camper to the bumper and pointed the car at Alaska’s Dalton Highway back when the place was wild and fuel was sparse. He adored long drives and open places. His heart held America’s lonesome breadth sacred. And so did the girl that would become my wife.

He lived a long life, and spent the last few years of it near his youngest son in the mountains of Virginia. By another mercy, his passing was neither a surprise nor painful. Few of us are so lucky. He was to be buried four hours east, beside his wife, in Portsmouth, VA, over the Fourth-of-July weekend.

That’s better than eight hours from where we live in East Tennessee. The thought of packing us into a car, including our four-year-old daughter, and slugging it out with the worst of Virginia’s holiday drivers for more than 16 hours, sounded like the kind of punishment that should be reserved for people who chew with their mouth open. But such are the wages of adulthood. To make matters worse, our family BMW E46 Touring decided that now was the time for a new driveshaft, vibrating with varying levels of violence on acceleration. Maybe it would make it. More likely, it would disintegrate somewhere on the side of I-81, the thermometer parked at 95 and me contemplating the Commonwealth’s views on arson.

The alternative seemed just as bleak: a 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe on loan from the local press fleet. I live in the automotive industry’s back waters, and that means I don’t have much say on what shows up at my door each week. Maybe it will be a BMW M5. More likely, it will be some flavor of anonymous crossover. None of them drive particularly well, which is why you haven’t heard much about them here. And, at first glance, the Santa Fe was no different.

There’s a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, frantically shuffling its 235 horsepower to all four wheels via an often-befuddled eight-speed automatic. There are curiosities like an all-wheel-drive lock button and hill-descent control, as if anyone in their right mind would point the car at something other than glossy pavement. There’s a Novocaine throttle and, uh, brakes? I guess? That this exists in the same universe as Miatas and Corvettes and CTS-V Wagons is a spectacular conundrum. In that company, it is as interesting as a used paper towel.

But the cargo area is massive, and the rear bench can accommodate the space-time puzzle that is a child’s seat without putting toddler shoes within firing distance of your spine. Its driveshaft was also conspicuously intact, so I packed the thing and pointed it north.

The reality is, we didn’t need a high-horsepower wagon or a low-slung, fun-to-drive convertible for this trip. We needed one less variable. One less thing to occupy space in our minds as we navigated a heavy, stressful weekend. Park it wherever. Load it with whatever. Don’t think about it. Let it run out its 400-mile range and focus yourself elsewhere. And, for the first time in my life, I understood why people flock to cars like the Santa Fe. They ask so little of you in a time when daily life asks so much.

It’s been a tough few weeks. A stretch of time punctuated by a series of losses, some still confounding and raw. But standing there at the memorial, surrounded by the people whose lives have grown rich from the love of one man, who have taught me how to be a husband, it felt like we’d finally hit still water. At least for now. This Hyundai brought us there and back. It was there for us when we needed it, and occasionally, that’s enough.

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