Are Crossovers the Answer to SUVs?



Automakers have been touting crossover vehicles as the answer to thirstier truck-based SUVs. However, in the tough-sales month of June crossovers still saw sales fall, just not as badly as SUVs. Ford’s Edge, which has seen very strong sales since it debuted last year, dropped nearly 20% in year-to-year sales in June. That’s not as bad as the Explorer’s 52% plunge, but if that’s the alternative to the Explorer, there clearly aren’t enough people moving from the Explorer to the Edge — where the combined fuel gain is just 3 mpg, from 16 mpg in a V-6 Explorer to 19 mpg in the V-6 Edge — to make up the difference. Ford’s new three-row Flex crossover is just reaching dealerships, so it’s too early to tell how it will do. The Flex is bigger than the Edge, has the same engine and gets slightly better mileage.

GM’s trio of three-row crossovers have yet to set the sales world on fire. Besides the Buick Enclave, which has sold strongly since its debut, the GMC Acadia, which gets a respectable 16/24 mpg city/highway, saw sales fall by 2,900 units in June, which is a 40% drop compared to last year. The Saturn Outlook has been the poorest performer of the three, so it had less distance to fall; its 2,200 fewer units sold was a 58% decline. GM may have had trouble getting units to dealers due to a May strike at the plant that builds the crossovers, but according to Automotive News there was a 43-day supply of the Acadia and a 78-day supply for the Outlook in June. Meaning there were plenty available. GM will release its fourth version of the same vehicle, the Chevy Traverse, this fall due to dealer requests prior to the gas spike. We wonder if dealers still want these crossovers.

Nissan’s new Murano, an updated version of one of the first and most successful car-based crossovers, is off to a poor start. The new Murano got positive reviews and remarks from the entire staff, but even the new model is down 24.3% in sales compared to last year, when the old design was on sale.

Toyota’s popular Highlander crossover saw a 30% drop in sales despite a relatively new design. Some of the drop, though, was due to lack of availability of the hybrid version. Surprisingly, Toyota’s new Sequoia truck-based SUV, which gets 14/19 mpg with a big 5.7-liter V-8 engine, saw sales jump 40% in June, with healthy incentives. 

There are a few bright spots for crossovers. Dodge’s new Journey, which is one of the most affordable three-row crossovers on the market, sold more than 5,000 units, outpacing the Murano and any of the GM models. It was one of only a few gains for Chrysler this month.

The other family vehicle of choice, the minivan, didn’t fare much better. Models from Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and Nissan saw significant sales drops in June. Only the Kia Sedona, Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Caravan saw increases.   

While a 25% decline is certainly better than a 50% decline, automakers can no longer make the claim that slightly more efficient crossovers are what people are clamoring for. In this economy, buyers are shifting to smaller cars with markedly better fuel economy, giving up the size and utility of crossovers, SUVs and minivans.

Besides the Highlander, there are no hybrid crossovers or minivans on the market. Perhaps families are just biding their time until the economy as a whole improves before buying a new vehicle of any type. Lots of people may be lining up to buy economy cars, but there aren’t many single folks considering family vehicles. That makes these crossovers somewhat of a niche vehicle — even if it’s a large niche — still waiting for the automaker hype to meet reality.

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Former managing editor David Thomas has a thing for wagons and owns a 2010 Subaru Outback and a 2005 Volkswagen Passat wagon. Email David Thomas

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