EVs Are Ending The Crossover Scam/Curse
My recent experience with the Volkswagen ID.4, along with the vehicle surviving a 1,000-mile off-road race in Mexico, got me to thinking. The history of crossover vehicles shows that they were kind of a scam, but when a manufacturer does an EV crossover right, it makes the vehicles a legitimate SUV again.
The Origins Of Crossovers
In history, the roots of an idea aren’t always super clear. Sure, there are times when a vehicle manufacturer does something new and everyone else follows (Tesla is well on its way to that), but other times, it’s unclear. Crossovers are in that latter category. I used to believe that the crossover category started with 4-wheel-drive cars like the AMC Eagle of the 1970s and 80s, and to some extent that’s true. I’ve seen others point out that the Jeep Cherokee was of unibody construction instead of body-on-frame, and that could make it the first crossover, and again, that’s a valid point.
The big problem with calling a Jeep Cherokee or AMC Eagle the predecessor to crossovers is that they are very mechanically different from something you’d see today, like a Chevy Equinox or Toyota Highlander. The Jeep and Eagle both had longitudinal engines, meaning the back of the engine where the crank puts power out faced the rear of the vehicle. To get power for front wheels, a transfer case was used, and then there was a differential in the front and rear to change the angle of power and put it out to the wheels.
The crossovers, on the other hand, have their engines put in sideways in the front, and power goes to the front wheels. If all-wheel-drive is needed, it’s an afterthought. Here’s a quick video explaining the differences:
As you can see, there are advantages and disadvantages to both layouts, but over time the transverse front-drive layout generally won out for most vehicle categories on cost and efficiency alone, even if the driving feel suffered as a result. Only cars where the driving feel is a big consideration or where great durability was needed (trucks) did rear-drive persist to present-day for ICE cars.
By the late 1990s, everything but trucks, SUVs, and sports cars were transverse. Even large vehicles like minivans had been mostly front-drive for a decade by then, and things had normalized around that. Car buyers aren’t strictly rational, though, and efficiency can only carry a vehicle so far. Minivans became the boring and even emasculating option, and their sales peaked in 2000.
It became so embarrassing to drive a minivan that Mitsubishi even put out a commercial that capitalized on this (I’d embed the video, but it’s really choppy and low-resolution). It shows men exercising in a gym, when an announcement comes out over the gym’s audio system. “There’s a tan minivan in the parking lot with the lights on,” the gym’s employee says. Everyone looks around to see who walks out the door, and nobody does. The employee again announces that the minivan’s owner needs to go turn the headlights off, and finally we see who the embarrassed man is. Mitsubishi then suggests that people buy a Mitsubishi Montero, a rear-drive body-on-frame SUV with plenty of room for the family, but without losing one’s manhood.
The thing is, a minivan did basically everything most SUV buyers of the era wanted. They weren’t towing big trailers, driving off-road, or doing anything else a minivan couldn’t do. People knew this, and they even jokingly started calling SUVs “suburban utility vehicles,” because they weren’t used for anything sporty out in the wilderness. It was really the minivan’s styling and overly practical image that was destroying the segment, and not its underpinnings.
Add to this situation that the automobile is a very price-sensitive low-margin industry, and it doesn’t take long to see why crossover SUVs really started taking off around the turn of the millennium. People wanted a minivan that wasn’t a minivan, and automakers were happy to build that. That’s when crossover sales really started taking off, and they haven’t stopped since.
They’re Really Still Minivans, Though
There’s the old saying: “If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and swims like a duck, it’s probably a duck.”
Sure, crossovers are dressed up like an SUV, and they lack one of the key features (sliding doors), but in every other way, they’re a minivan. They’re front-drive with a transverse engine, or have some limited power to the rear-wheels added on as an afterthought to the transverse setup. They’re of unibody construction. They don’t tend to have much ground clearance, and when they do, it isn’t by much. They’re usually not very capable off-road, and they’re very, very difficult to upgrade for tough trails. They’re optimized for interior space, cargo space, and seating in most cases.
There’s really no meaningful difference between a crossover and a minivan except for cosmetics. Sadly, most of the public doesn’t know that. People regularly call their crossovers an SUV, or even refer to their minivan with a beard as a “truck.” Hard-core car people know it’s not an SUV or a truck, but the average buyer probably doesn’t even know which wheels are driven.
In other words, they’re a scam, and people fell for them hook, line, and sinker.
Electric Crossovers Break The Curse
I’ve driven three electric crossovers: the Model X, the Model Y, and the Volkswagen ID.4. A big thing I noticed with each of them is that they don’t feel cheap or flaky like a crossover. They’re planted like a car, have some clearance, but also feel better when powering through a turn because the weight goes onto the rear wheels, and they’re driven. In the case of the ID.4, it felt a lot like a Chevy SUV I used to own, probably because it’s rear-drive.
The mechanical underpinnings of an EV crossover are very, very different from what you’d see in a gas crossover. Instead of holding a bunch of unbalanced weight up high over the front wheels, the bulk of the weight sits down low, below the floorboard. The weight is more balanced, so there’s no longer any kind of traction benefit to running a front-drive layout. The smarter manufacturers put the drive unit in the rear or on both axles, and prioritize power to the rear during a launch to ensure the wheels with the most traction get the power.
More important, they’re far less fragile than an ICE crossover’s front-drive setup. With far few moving parts, that’s a given, but Volkswagen recently proved that its drivetrain can survive even the punishing abuse of a 1,000-mile desert race in Baja California. VW didn’t take any trophies home, but dozens of specially prepared ICE vehicles fell apart under the stress while VW’s “crossover” crossed the finish line.
The Tesla Model X doesn’t have off-road chops, but it has a 5,000-pound tow rating, plenty of power to the rear wheels, and a much more solid feel than the average gas crossover. To attempt to put it in the same category as a Chevy Traverse is obscene. The difference in capability, handling, and feel is so night-and-day different. It’s a real SUV, and not a crossover.
When you consider that the vehicles’ battery pack and “skateboard” architecture create a more rigid frame-like portion underneath, it’s hard to even call them a unibody, either. Mechanically, they’ve really got more in common with a body-on-frame SUV than they do with the crossovers, and they’ll depart even further from crossover territory as Tesla embraces structural batteries.
Bottom line: electric SUVs (when built on a dedicated platform) are real SUVs, and it’s refreshing to see. I just hope the manufacturers don’t find ways to cheap out on us and fool the average buyer again.
Images courtesy VW