NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - In the old days, there were two kinds of people: SUV lovers and those who hated them.
Then came crossovers, vehicles that were aimed at people who liked the SUV's practical aspects but recoiled from its cowboy-fantasy pretensions.
With each passing year, however, the lines have grown fuzzier. Today, manufacturers are making SUVs that are more like cars, and adding sport-utility features to vehicles that are clearly wagons, even sedans.
To make things more confusing, auto analysts, carmakers, and ordinary consumers all have completely different definitions of what makes a crossover.
Take the Jeep Liberty, for example. Its high stance and "Trail Rated" badge would seem to mark it clearly as an SUV. But, in the same way that an ordinary zoo-goer would call a hyena a dog while a biologist would not, auto industry analysts at CSM Worldwide say the Liberty is not an SUV in spite of its "Trail Rated" badge.
Deep down, the Liberty has the engineering of a car, said CSM's Joe Barker. Most important, it has a "unibody" rather than a "body on frame" design. That means the vehicle does not have a separate load-bearing frame on which the body rides, as a truck would.
CSM calls the Jeep Grand Cherokee an SUV, however, despite its unibody design. That's because it competes in the market against traditional truck-derived SUVs, said Barker.
Then there are things like the Chrysler Pacifica, and the soon-to-arrive Ford Freestyle, poor fits in any category. They are clearly not designed for off-road driving and don't pretend to be.
What they are designed for is hauling a lot of people or a lot of stuff in conditions where four-wheel drive could be helpful, like a snowy day.
The Freestyle, which Ford calls a "bridge vehicle," looks either like an enlarged station wagon or a squat SUV, depending on your mood. The Pacifica somewhat resembles raised minivan, but with an SUV's elongated hood.
SUV features on ordinary cars
In case these crossovers are still too close to SUVs for your comfort, you can now find SUV-like features on vehicles that are definitely not SUVs.
Doing its best to fill every possible spot on the dial between SUV and car, DaimlerChrysler also offers the Dodge Magnum. It's clearly a station wagon. It offers the windshield-to-back-window roofline that makes SUVs so handy for hauling. (The roof-line does taper toward the back, however, somewhat reducing hauling space compared to most SUVs.)
The Magnum is also available with an all-wheel-drive option like an SUV. But, with the lower ride height of a car, it offers handling that a truck can't match.
The Magnum and its corporate cousin sedan, the Chrysler 300, also have something commonly referred to as "command of road seating," a feature auto marketers say is part of the attraction of SUVs.
"Command of road" refers to the feeling of looking down at the road and the cars around you, or at least not feeling as if you're about to get driven over by other vehicles. Ford also touts this as a major selling point of its new Five Hundred sedan.
Other features are making the jump from SUVs to asphalt-only passenger vehicles, said CSM's Baker. These include luggage racks atop boxier rooflines, center overhead consoles, bigger exterior mirrors, more rugged looking knobs and controls.
"It's really a situation of the 'nichification' of the entire market," said James Bell, director of sales for automotive data company IntelliChoice.
YOUR E-MAIL ALERTS
Follow the news that matters to you. Create your own
alert to be notified on topics you're interested in.
Or, visit Popular Alerts
More flexible manufacturing technology allows carmakers to profitably build and sell small numbers of more different types of vehicles. So carmakers, he said, are "cutting that market to bits to find the perfect machine for every person."
How can consumers decide if a vehicle that is beyond definition is the right one for them? Before, at least, shoppers just had to know if they wanted to look at SUVs or cars.
These days, those considering a new vehicle might want to avoid the trap of just choosing a market segment and looking at competing models. There could be something outside that category that better suits your needs. Writing down specific attributes that you would like to find combined in one machine might be a better approach.
"It's very, very important to take stock of what you really need, what that vehicle should do for you," said Mark McReady, director of pricing strategy for CarsDirect.com.