NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
What do you call a vehicle that looks like a truck and is designed to go off-road but has a roof that goes all the way to the rear gate with a seating arrangement like a station wagon? Well, at some point we decided to call those sport/utility vehicles. Now comes the auto industry's next "what do we call it?" challenge.
Ready? What do you call a vehicle that looks kind of like an SUV but is lower to the ground and doesn't even pretend to be a real rock climber. Some might even say that it's nothing but a funny-shaped station wagon.
"Funny-shaped station wagon" isn't going to sell a lot of cars, so that name won't stick. "Segment buster"? "Sports tourer"? "Sport/utility wagon"?
Whatever you call them, these new vehicles all are trying to separate themselves from the polarizing image of the SUV, which car buyers either love or hate. SUVs are fun, spacious and tough off-road to those who love them. They're irresponsible, gas-guzzling road hogs to those who hate them.
Driving a fine line
For people who like SUVs but think they drive too much like trucks, certain crossovers drive like cars but still have the truckish look of a sport/utility. On the other side of the marketing divide, many people who buy wagons, like the Volvo Cross Country, want SUV-type features like all-wheel drive without the negative image that big SUVs have in some quarters. And young buyers of new vehicles like the Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix want a cheaper alternative than an SUV -- and something that looks nothing at all like the minivans and sport/utilities their parents drive.
These crossovers aren't the first attempt to recycle and combine automotive DNA to produce a new machine. Chrysler's PT Cruiser, introduced in 2000, features a retro 1930s look and as much cargo room as a small SUV, but it's based on a small-car platform.
Chevrolet's popular Avalanche combines SUV seating with a full pickup bed. But as previously fast-growing sales of mid-size SUVs flatten out (down to just over 8 percent market share in the early months this year from 10 percent in early 2001), car companies feel a new urgency to come up with crossover candidates that will excite consumers.
There have been even earlier ventures into this new, unnamed territory. Although Subaru bills it as a "true sport/utility vehicle," the low-down Forester probably fits somewhere in here. And, long before the SUV craze, there was that odd 1980s bird, the AMC Eagle.
PONTIAC VIBE This vehicle crosses over on a small -- and the companies hope young -- scale. Growing out of past small-car joint ventures, Pontiac's parent, General Motors, cooperated with Toyota in designing this hatchback/wagon aimed at young buyers. It's based on the mechanical platform of the Toyota Corolla.
Outside, each company did its own design -- with the Vibe looking more rugged and, to my eyes, more stylish. Inside, many of the design touches are similar. Admiring glances and questions about the Vibe from twenty-somethings made it seem like Pontiac is striking the right note (or maybe the young car fanciers just recognized the Vibe from the ads on "Survivor").
I test-drove a black Vibe GT, with the four-cylinder, 1.8-liter, 180-horsepower engine and six-speed manual shifter. Winding the GT through the six gears was fun with plenty of zip, and the sport-tuned suspension handled curves and corners with ease. I didn't drive the standard Vibe with 130 horsepower, but some other reviewers have found it sluggish.
Inside, a gray metallic console for radio and temperature controls contrasting against a matte black dash gives a stylish look. Rear seats fold flat to present a hard-plastic surface like a truck bed. The front passenger seat folds flat, too, in case you want to ditch your friend and carry a longer surfboard.
The base-model Vibe lists for $16,900, including destination charge, the GT version $19,900 before options. The all-wheel-drive version, which comes only with the smaller engine, lists for $20,100.
TOYOTA MATRIX The Toyota Matrix, with the same engine choices as its mechanical twin, the Pontiac Vibe, starts the base model at a lower $15,155 but with fewer standard features than the Vibe. Its XRS performance version lists for $19,815 before options but at that price comes with automatic transmission, a useful choice that the Vibe does not offer.
VOLVO V70 XC (CROSS COUNTRY) The words "Volvo" and "aggressive" don't often share the same sentence. But XC wagon, with its front end shielded in black rubber, can only be describe as a very aggressive looking machine.
All-wheel drive and higher ground clearance will work well for those who want to take their Volvo off-road for camping or skiing. And there will be plenty of room for the gear; with the rear seats folded the XC's 71.4 cubic feet of cargo space is about the same as a Jeep Grand Cherokee. The XC features the same wonderfully comfortable seats and full array of safety gear as all Volvo wagons. List price with destination charge is $37,125. That is pricey, but compare it to competitor Audi Allroad Quattro, which lists for $40,545.
BUICK RENDEZVOUS The Rendezvous, first-to-market among big crossovers with three rows of seats, is doing just what General Motors hoped it would. With about 20 percent of all Buick sales in the first quarter this year, Rendezvous is offsetting those flagging sales of Buick sedans to aging buyers.
With an SUV-like name and appearance, the Rendezvous is a mechanical cousin of GM minivans. Crisp steering and smooth car-like ride definitely give the Rendezvous crossover credibility. A two-wheel drive Rendezvous is listed at $26,000 with destination charge. With all-wheel drive, the Rendezvous lists at $28,535
NISSAN MURANO Nissan, which scored a critical and sales success with its redesigned Altima last year, will bring out the Murano this fall based on the Altima's mechanical platform. That will include the brawny 240-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 that powers the Altima. The Murano will list in the $30,000 price range. Nissan's calling it an "urban SUV" and says it's designed more for owners who would want its all-wheel-drive for bad weather but would not go off-road that often.
CHRYSLER PACIFICA Chrysler has opted for term "sports tourer" for its big crossover with three rows of seats available. This must be more fun than usual when you get to name not just the vehicle but, the whole segment. Originally shown as an auto show concept vehicle, the Pacifica will go on sale next spring as a 2004 model. Built in the same plant as DaimlerChrysler minivans, the Pacifica will get the powerful 3.5-liter V6 engine from the Chrysler 300M sedan. Prices are expected to start around $30,000.
CADILLAC SRX Cadillac wants to call its entry a "luxury crossover vehicle." The SRX, which grew out of the 2001 Vizon concept car, also bears some resemblance to the hard-edged look of this year's new CTS sedan. GM plans to bring out the SRX in the first half of 2003. Cadillac hasn't discussed specific pricing but appears likely to position it in the mid-$30,000 to $40,000 range.
FORD CROSSTRAINER Ford looked to athletic shoes to name its competitor to the Buick Rendezvous. Due to go on sale in 2004, the CrossTrainer will also handle up to seven passengers with three rows of seats. It will also come with an all-wheel drive option. Ford hasn't discussed price yet, but the Crosstrainer will probably come in at less than $30,000.