While hybrid, electric and small cars have been garnering lots of buzz in the auto industry, another segment has been quietly gaining market share: the crossover. • In 2005, crossovers made up about 10 percent of the new vehicle market. Last year they accounted for about 20 percent, according to Edmunds.com. Hybrids and small cars actually lost market share from 2009 to 2010.
At Russell & Smith Mazda, CX-7 and CX-9 crossovers accounted for half of all Mazda sales in December, noted Mark Rehkopf, vice president of Russell & Smith Auto Group.
"The crossover is coming on strong," he said. "It's definitely a case of customers driving the market. This is what they want."
A wide array of crossovers were on display at the recent Houston Auto Show.
A crossover, or CUV, is a vehicle that resembles a truck-based SUV, and in many ways functions like one, but it is built on a car chassis and can offer a smoother ride and better gas mileage.
"There is a disconnect between what new vehicles are coming out, including many small cars, and what consumers are buying, which is crossovers," said Rebecca Lindland, an industry analyst at IHS Global Insight.
Many consumers prefer a crossover over a small car or hybrid, she said, even if they want more fuel economy. They'll sacrifice a few miles per gallon in exchange for more room, she said. "It's why we're seeing hybrids losing ground in the market."
"The crossover combines so many of the elements consumers want: contemporary styling, practical use, plenty of space and improved gas mileage," said Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends at TrueCar.com, a new car pricing site.
The crossover represents a natural evolution, Rehkopf said. "We started with the station wagon, then moved to the minivan. Next came the SUV. Now people want the utility of a SUV with the drivability of a car and more fuel efficiency," he said.
It is unlikely crossovers will continue to gain market share at the same rapid rate, said Jeff Schuster, executive director of forecasting at J.D. Power and Associates. "There is not a lot of new product entry coming in right now," he said.
"We will, however, continue to see each brand diversifying its offerings of crossovers," Schuster said. "The next wave of crossovers will be the smaller luxury premium brands," he noted.
One crossover to watch is the full-size Ford Explorer, Schuster said. Previously an SUV, the Explorer is now built on a Taurus chassis and starts at around $29,000.
While many analysts call the new Explorer a crossover, Ford still considers it to be an SUV because it still does everything an SUV does in terms of its size and driving capability, while getting better gas mileage, said Ford spokesman Rob Beaird.
Among today's top-selling crossovers are the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Ford Escape and Chevrolet Equinox, Schuster said.
The RAV4 and CR-V both start at around $21,700. The Escape starts at about $21,200, and the Equinox starts at around $23,500.
The RAV4, a pioneer among crossovers, went on sale in early 1996, said Gregg Benkendorfer, Toyota's national manager for SUVs and crossovers. He did research on the RAV4's development.
Many of the early RAV4 buyers were former sedan owners who wanted more room, he said.
Toyota developed the RAV4 in an attempt to hold on to its Celica and Corolla buyers who were going through lifestyle changes and wanting a bigger car, he said.
During its first years, Toyota produced about 60,000 RAV4s annually, compared with 185,000 now, he said.