Suburban growth and the crossover boom: Why CUVs are here to stay

The year is 2015 and the crossover is king. A class defined by its aim to be several things at once is more popular than ever before, in fact it overtook the sedan last year as the most purchased body style in the United States. And with the space of an SUV, the price of a family car, and the fuel economy of a coupe, that should come as no surprise. What more could you want?

As the segment continues to skyrocket and unlikely brands like Aston Martin and Lotus mull over CUV entries, we’d like to take a short look back at what made these automotive half-breeds so desirable in the first place. For clarity, we’re categorizing crossovers as small, SUV-like vehicles built on car platforms, examples of which you can see in the gallery above. For more on the difference between full-fledged SUVs and crossovers, check out our in-depth breakdown here.

A star is born

Though the term “crossover” wasn’t applied to automobiles until about the turn of century — the product of marketing firms and members of the media — vehicles with the same basic layout appeared much earlier. Subaru introduced the four-wheel drive DL station wagon in 1974, which could “climb like a goat, work like a horse, and eat like a bird,” according to the ads. Sound like a crossover to you? Five years later, AMC partnered with Jeep to create the Eagle, a high-riding hodgepodge that laid the groundwork for the CUVs of today.

AMC Eagle
The AMC Eagle was among the first wave of crossovers in the U.S.

As disco came and went and the Berlin wall fell, crossovers began to morph into something closer to what we see on the roads today. One of the best known examples is the Honda CR-V, which debuted in 1997. The CR-V could fit the whole family, offered all-wheel drive, and boasted a generous (for the time) 8.1 inches of ground clearance, yet it was based on a Civic platform and returned up to 23 mpg. Crossovers were officially in, and as they say, the rest is history.

Rockin’ the suburbs

The proliferation of CUVs has been widely influenced by increased suburban growth. Despite what sitcoms and advertisements will tell you, more Americans are leaving the city for quieter, cheaper pastures than entering it, as evidenced by U.S. Census data. In 2014, 529,000 Americans aged 25 to 29 (a crossover’s target audience) moved to the ‘burbs from the city, while 426,000 did the opposite. For younger people, the anti-metropolitan trend was even more pronounced, with 721,000 leaving and 554,000 coming.

Tesla Model X
Tesla Model X

Obviously, movements like these have a direct impact of the types of products and services companies offer. Suburbanites need the room of an SUV to haul their kids and their sports equipment across town, but want good fuel economy while doing it. They need ground clearance and towing for the occasional camping trip, but want something easy to drive and park, all while remaining comfortable and somewhat rousing. CUVs generally meet all these criteria, which is why 36.5 percent of the market was claimed by crossovers last year. Fertility rates are actually (slightly) rising in the U.S. right now, so if you add in the current migration trends, these automotive amalgamations probably aren’t going anywhere.

As with every other vehicle segment though, crossovers will have to evolve to survive. Electric interpretations like the Tesla Model X could push the class in an entirely new direction, and with potential competition coming from Audi and Mercedes-Benz, the next wave of CUVs could very well be battery-powered.

The big picture

Ok, so crossovers aren’t the most exciting cars in the world. Your palms probably don’t get sweaty every time you see a Ford Edge, and the Chevy Trax probably won’t be the star of too many bedroom posters. That being said, these vehicles put a ton of cash into automakers’ wallets, meaning there’s more to spend on eye-popping concepts and tire-shredding sports cars. Do you like the new Porsche Cayman GT4 Club Sport? Direct some gratitude toward the Macan crossover, Porsche’s second best-seller behind the Cayenne SUV. Because without daily drivers like these, there’d be far fewer weekend warriors.

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