Things are starting to get tense at the offices of Truck Trend. It all started when we sat down to hash out the winners of each category of this year's Best in Class awards. If you take a look at the story, which starts on page 48 of the May/June issue, you'll note that after the first few pages of trucks and full-size SUVs, there are a couple of large charts that cover midsize SUVs and all-wheel-drive crossovers. For this year's story, we had to do some shuffling. We realized, for example, that in last year's Best in Class story, even though the Honda CR-V was in the compact SUV category, the Element (based on a shorter version of the same platform) was in the all-wheel-drive crossover chart. Yet in some ways, the Element is arguably better equipped for outdoor adventure and carrying muddy gear. In addition, there were other vehicles, such as the Chevrolet Equinox, that we once categorized as midsize SUVs. However, the Equinox's new, more carlike platform means it makes more sense to put it and its GMC Terrain sibling in the all-wheel-drive crossover chart.
We are constantly trying to figure out where to draw the line, and when it came time to decide what goes into which category, this time around, there were some raised voices and tempers flared. (Some here even suggested we stop including crossovers altogether.) It made us think about the SUV market as a whole, and the argument came down to this: How should we define an SUV as opposed to a crossover?
It would be easy to say that a vehicle must have body-on-frame construction to qualify as an SUV. That would eliminate all the car-based unibody vehicles from the list. Simple, right? Not really. One of the things a real sport/utility should be able to do is go off-road--and not just on those dirt roads in a campground, either. Consider Land Rover's LR4. It is one of the best off-roaders on the market, yet it's a unibody. Do we call it a crossover? I don't think so. In many ways, the unibody Grand Cherokee causes us the same headache. It's also an excellent off-roader, but has been touted since its introduction as having more luxury than the other SUVs on the market, which is said to get even more luxurious for 2011 without losing its capability on the trail. And think about this: The Ford Explorer is going to be on a unibody platform starting in 2011. Do we stop referring to the Explorer, the poster child of the sport/utility vehicle, as an SUV?
The next feature that appeals to sport/utility buyers is the ability to carry a lot of people and/or gear. Look at something like the Chevrolet Traverse: It can hold nearly 120 cubic feet of cargo, which is almost as good as the cargo volume of the Suburban, and it can tow over 5000 pounds. Yet it sure as heck isn't a traditional SUV.
We weren't that surprised to see the all-wheel-drive crossover chart in Best in Class grow, while the midsize SUV and full-size SUV charts shrink. As this issue of Truck Trend goes to press, General Motors is getting ready to phase out Hummer, so we lose the H2, H3, and H3T. (We keep hoping a last-minute deal with another buyer will save Hummer, just as Spyker saved Saab, but it isn't looking good right now.) As you can see in the interview with the program manager for the Nissan Patrol (in Max Payload), the Nissan Armada might not be around much longer. Then there's the Kia Borrego, a highly underrated body-on-frame sport/utility vehicle, and it's taking model-year 2010 off, presumably due to poor sales. So we're losing some of the genuine off-roaders as the demand for fuel-efficient crossovers grows. But it isn't all doom and gloom. There are fewer SUVs, but in some ways, the options are getting even better. Those companies that are sticking with the full-size sport/utilities have had to overcome some fairly serious obstacles to make sure these models stay competitive without losing capability. And one of the best solutions ends up being the diesel engine. Excellent towing capability, better-than-hybrid fuel economy, and with the latest advances, low emissions. So, thanks to the push for better fuel economy and greener vehicles, we end up getting the type of engine we wanted all along in SUVs--and diesels are even better now than when they were sold in past SUVs.
We know that many of the people who read Truck Trend don't care one bit about crossovers. However, it's becoming more and more difficult to draw a line in the sand with a standard definition. But whether it's arguing over what should go where in the Best in Class charts, or deciding which vehicles should be considered SUVs for Sport/Utility of the Year, we continue to struggle with this as the market shifts toward car-based models. What we can say, though, is that we will continue to focus on vehicles that stick to the basic philosophy of the traditional SUV--cargo-carrying capacity, off-road capability, towing ability--even if they aren't 100 percent traditional.