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Crossover vehicles go mainstream: What they are, why they're popular and why you need to be ready for them

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Crossover vehicles go mainstream: What they are, why they're popular and why you need to be ready for them

Not quite SUVs, not quite cars, and not quite minivans -- crossover vehicles occupy a niche that's all their own.

They range from small models like the Honda Element to larger vehicles like the Ford Escape and Nissan Murano and more luxurious offerings like the Cadillac SRX and Lexus RX330.

While individual models vary in size, style and performance, crossover vehicles -- as a segment of the market -- are here to stay. If you haven't seen these vehicles at your dealership yet, you will soon.

A different breed

Crossover vehicles have emerged as a viable part of the automotive market. More than 1.9 million of them were sold domestically in 2004 alone, according to Wards Automotive.

But the definition of what constitutes a crossover vehicle remains somewhat hazy, says John Pecoraro, manager of product marketing for Cooper Tire & Rubber Co.

Automakers' descriptions of the vehicles and their capabilities certainly vary.

DaimlerChrysler says its Chrysler Pacifica -- which it classifies as a "sports tourer" -- is "an amalgamation" of minivan, car and SUV.

BMW calls its BMW X5 a "sports activity vehicle."

Toyota Motor Corp. boasts that its Highlander "lets you have it all. On the outside, you'll find all the refinements and comfort you'd expect in a premium sedan with the added style and function of an SUV." (Toyota does not use the term "crossover vehicle," says Mark Amstock, national truck and SUV marketing manager. "We simply define them as car-based or van-based.")

Meanwhile, Toyota's Lexus division touts the "enhanced performance, ride and convenience" of its Lexus RX "luxury utility vehicle."

There's no shortage of hype surrounding crossover vehicles. But what attracts customers to them?

For starters, crossover vehicles are more passenger car-like than traditional SUVs, according to Robert Parker, car marketing manager for Ford. "I can't think of one that isn't based on a car platform." (The Ford Freestyle, which was introduced in early 2004, is based on a station wagon platform, he says.)

Crossover vehicles "drive more like a car" than SUVs. Being smaller, they offer "ease of parking and they are easier to get into because they're close to the ground."

Crossovers also offer better fuel economy than SUVs -- "up in the mid-20s per gallon. Traditional SUVs are lower than that."

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Ford is targeting Generation X and Generation Y consumers -- plus "people entering the family life stage" -- with the Freestyle. However, Parker says the vehicle "appeals to a wide array of people."

The primary selling point is flexibility, he explains. "You can cart seven people around or you can drive yourself to work."

Crossover vehicles draw buyers who are dissatisfied or bored with more established vehicles, says Susan Thomson, senior manager, Chrysler Family Vehicles, DaimlerChrysler.

"When we introduced the Pacifica (in June 2003), we figured there are 2.7 million people who move from vehicle segment to vehicle segment each year.

"The crossover segment is pulling from three major areas: SUVs, large cars and minivans. Mid-size SUVs don't always have the space that crossover vehicles do. Large cars don't have as much room for utility and not as much passenger room, plus all-wheel-drive and towing capacity."

And many families "are outgrowing minivans and want to get into something that's more stylish."

What about tires?

Tire manufacturers are approaching the crossover segment in different ways.

Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. introduced its crossover tire line, the Fortera, in fall 2001. The first tire in the line -- which also targets traditional SUVs -- was the Fortera HL (Highway Luxury).

"In our product line-up, the Fortera represented the first time we talked about a tire designed for crossover vehicles," says Todd Herschberger, marketing manager, Goodyear brand light truck and SUV tires. When it was launched, Goodyear officials claimed that the tire combined the "best features" of its Wrangler, Eagle and Integrity lines.

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Goodyear rolled out the Fortera featuring SilentArmor Technology in January.

When crossover vehicles started to gain popularity, Michelin North America Inc. (MNA) addressed the segment with high-end touring tires like the Michelin Energy MXV4 Plus, says David Van Emburg, director of product marketing, Michelin Americas Small Tires.

"There needs to be enough volume in the marketplace to justify new dimensions as well as new tires. So when crossovers initially came to market, we extended traditional lines to meet the need."

But crossovers have evolved, according to Van Emburg. MNA has responded by introducing a new tire line, Latitude. The first product in the line, the Latitude Tour HP, will fit both crossovers and traditional SUVs.

The all-season tire will come with H, V and W speed ratings and will be available for both the original equipment and replacement markets. It will focus on traction, ride comfort and noise reduction -- all qualities that he says are important to crossover vehicle owners.

Bridgestone Firestone North American Tire LLC (BFNT) has more than 130 OE fitments in the crossover segment, reports Mike Martini, president, consumer OE, BFNT.

"Each of the OEMs goes to market with slightly different concepts and traits and we are designing specific tires for each application."

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For example, crossovers that are meant to be driven robustly or even taken off-road may require "big, luggy tires," whereas other crossovers "are almost throwbacks to the old station wagons; they won't have big, knobby tires on them.

"We continue to design constructions and compounds with modified tread patterns to meet the diverse levels of performance that this segment demands," says Martini.

"We're looking at building a specific group of tires for crossover vehicles," says Rick Brennan, Kumho Tire U.S.A. Inc. director of brand management. The line will probably be available in mid-2006.

"You need to hit the visual target as well as the performance target." Drivers want low-profile tires with "sophisticated-looking sidewalls. These guys aren't going to buy an all-terrain light truck tire."

Continental brand passenger tires have won OE fitments on a number of crossover vehicles, including the Mercedes M-Class and the Volkswagen Toureg. But these aren't run-of-the-mill passenger tires, says Joe Maher, Continental Tire North America Inc. product planning and brand development. "They're designed for that class of vehicle. You just can't take a standard passenger tire that would fit a Ford Taurus and expect that to fit a crossover because the vehicle dynamics are different.

"Crossovers are larger and heavier than a lot of base passenger vehicles and they have a higher center of gravity."

Pirelli Tire North America Inc. (PTNA) is taking another slant. "We're not putting passenger tires on these vehicles," says PTNA Vice President of Sales and Marketing Riccardo Cichi.

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PTNA's Pirelli Scorpion Zero is OE on the Volvo XC90, while the Pirelli Scorpion STR is OE on the Volvo Cross Country. Both are light truck tires.

Light truck tires are more aggressive and robust, making them better choices for crossover vehicles, which are heavier than standard passenger cars, according to Cichi.

However, the weight of crossover vehicles can be a Catch-22. "You won't get 80,000 miles" out of a set of tires in this application. "Our focus is trying to make these tires last as long as (customers) want."

Vehicle manufacturers set the tone when it comes to tires used on crossover vehicles, says Cooper's Pecoraro. "Some OEMs will put a passenger tire on while some will put a light truck tire on. They have different performance requirements they are looking to meet.

"If you look at OE fitments, speed ratings are starting to creep up. We're seeing many with T-rated tires and quite a few H-rated (tires)."

Cooper doesn't offer a specific crossover tire. "Our future plans won't necessarily include a dedicated crossover tire, but we're adding sizes within existing lines to address the market."

Hankook Tire America Corp. addresses crossover vehicles with its Ventus ST high performance SUV tire. The Ventus ST comes in more than 20 sizes.

Hankook doesn't have plans to market a specifically labeled crossover tire. "The product we have right now is a great application," says Hankook Marketing Director Bill Bainbridge. "I don't know what we could do to make the tire more appealing to that audience."

Tire selection ultimately depends on how the consumer views his or her crossover vehicle, says Goodyear's Herschberger. "Some folks might buy (one) because to them it's a minivan and has that functionality. If they view it as a minivan, they may make their tire choice based on the needs of a minivan owner."

What comes on the vehicle from the factory also is critical. Toyota works with tire manufacturers "to develop a custom compound with specific wear, NVH and performance specifications in mind," says Amstock. "We need the tire to be sticky enough for performance in dry and wet weather, yet hard enough for (maximum) mileage. We keep fuel economy, noise and performance at the top of the list."

The Ford, Chrysler and Toyota officials who spoke with MTD made a point to recommend that crossover vehicle owners replace their OE tires with identical tires to ensure maximum performance.

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Growth potential

The crossover segment is so diverse "that no one tire will meet the needs of the entire segment," says BFNT's Martini. "That's why we make available to the OEMs various patterns and constructions."

However, the niche is still subject to the same trends that affect others, like wheel size. Crossover vehicle rim diameters are steadily getting larger, according to CTNA's Maher. "Seventeen inches is still the standard size right now. But most of the auto manufacturers have options that go as high as 20 inches."

The crossover segment will only grow, according to auto manufacturers. Sales of the Pacifica jumped 67% for the whole year of 2004 versus the last six months of 2003. (The vehicle was introduced in June 2003.) "We track against competitors' vehicles and I also see their volumes going up," says Thomson.

Toyota predicts the crossover segment will grow about 10% a year over the next five years.

Chris Mortenson, owner of Samaritan Tire Co.'s retail outlet in Minnetonka, Minn., expects to see more crossover vehicles as they grow in popularity. He already has replaced individual tires on several crossover vehicles. "We haven't had any coming in yet where all four tires have been worn out. But we're ready for them."

Kristen Watters, owner of Rocky Ford (Colo.) Discount Tire Inc., says crossover vehicles are starting to trickle into her single-store dealership. "We're putting 17- and 18-inch tires on them. We're the only dealer in the area who carries larger diameters."

John Tidwell, sales manager at Melbourne, Fla.-based Gatto's Tire & Auto Service Inc., says techs at the seven-store dealership try to stay as close as they can to auto manufacturers' tire specs when putting new tires on crossover vehicles. "We have customers who make requests based on their particular driving habits. But the tires we replace (OE tires) with always meet or exceed (OEM specs). That's the only way we do it."

Craig Workman, general manager of Big Brand Tire Co., a 13-store dealership based in Camarillo, Calif., doesn't expect crossover vehicle proliferation to abate. "The Pacifica is starting to come in; the same with the Ford Escape and the Mazda Tribute. We're going to see more of them."

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