Change is hard. Whether you like minivans, compact coupes or full-size, rear-wheel-drive sedans, or even just a humble compact or mid-size with a domestic nameplate on it, it’s an unavoidable reality that such products are less popular than ever and crossovers have firmly taken hold.
It seems almost a rite of passage now for enthusiasts to bemoan crossovers. And sure, a conventional wagon version of a passenger car might provide all the versatility without the decreasingly noticeable drop in fuel economy and dynamics. But that doesn’t mean all crossovers are ungainly gas hogs, anathema to enthusiasts. Nor does it mean that some crossovers can’t actually transcend what a humble wagon could offer.
Sometimes the lines are blurred as to what’s a crossover and what’s a SUV. Some define a crossover strictly as a tall vehicle using a passenger car platform while others extend the definition to all vehicles resembling SUVs but featuring unibody construction. To reduce confusion, I’ll be following the second definition. Here are 14 crossovers that have made me less of a crossover skeptic and forced me to realize that a world full of crossovers really isn’t so bad.
Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk
Trust Jeep to engineer a crossover that can actually go off-road. While almost every crossover has the option of all-wheel-drive, few have the ability to tackle anything more rugged than a light trail. The Cherokee Trailhawk, however, can tackle one big trail: the Rubicon.
Unlike regular Cherokees, the trail-rated Trailhawk uses Jeep’s Active Drive II four-wheel-drive system with a low-range transfer case and a locking rear differential. A Wrangler will still best even this most hardcore of Cherokees but the Trailhawk will leave other compact crossovers in the dust at the trailhead while still comporting itself well back on bitumen. That’s impressive, multi-layered capability for a platform that underpinned the Chrysler 200 and Dodge Dart.
The NY Daily News called it an insult to Newtonian physics and they were spot on. This hulking, 5000-pound SUV – underpinned by the same platform as the Bentley Bentayga – can haul five people in comfort on city streets. It can then ford a stream. Then, once the kids are dropped off at school, you can let loose and hear the mighty bellow of its exhaust and that 640-horsepower, twin-turbocharged 4.0 V8 under the hood. It’s remarkable how this performance SUV can wear so many hats – sedate urban cruiser, family vehicle, canyon carver, trail blazer. It’s the Lamborghini of crossovers and yet, somehow, even better than that sounds.
Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango
Once again, Jeep lives up to its reputation and builds a crossover with far more off-road capability than most of its owners will ever need. When the WK2 series was launched in 2011, it dramatically elevated the Grand Cherokee in refinement and cabin presentation while ceding nothing in off-road ability. Though the Grand Cherokee had always used unibody construction, the WK2 also took Jeep’s flagship SUV to new heights of on-road refinement and dynamic ability.
Grand Cherokee Trackhawk
For those Grand Cherokee buyers who do actually go off-road, there’s the off-road focussed Trailhawk which, like the posh Overland and Summit models, uses Jeep’s Quadra-Lift height-adjustable air suspension. There’s also three other four-wheel-drive systems available, though the Grand Cherokee can also be had with regular rear-wheel-drive. And for those who have absolutely no pretenses of going off-road and just want a high-performance crossover, there are the wild SRT and wilder SRT Trackhawk models, the latter of which uses the same 6.2 supercharged Hemi as the Dodge Challenger and Charger SRT Hellcats.
Though Jeep has missed a trick in not offering a three-row version of the Grand Cherokee (at least not yet), FCA did introduce a three-row platform-mate which resurrected the briefly dormant Dodge Durango name. Alas, while there’s an SRT Durango, there’s no Hellcat/Trackhawk counterpart; the Durango’s off-road ability is also shadowed by the slightly smaller Jeep. All Durangos, however, have a spacious cabin with a habitable third-row; the option of a Hemi V8 also makes it stand out in its segment. With the hotly-anticipated new Explorer on the scene, however, FCA will really have to bring it with the next Durango.
Not all crossovers need to have any pretenses of going off-road. It should come as no surprise that one of the most popular crossovers with enthusiasts is one that doesn’t even resemble a crossover. The Flex looks more like a latter-day LTD Country Squire, long, boxy and upright with a cavernous interior.
That’s where the comparisons to Ford’s old station wagons end. The Flex offers all-wheel-drive and Ford’s powerful 3.5 twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V6. There’s also many of the safety features and luxury niceties expected in this class and then some: adaptive cruise control, an automated parallel parking system and four (!) sunroofs. Other crossovers have come along with greater refinement and superior cabin presentation but the Flex remains a steady seller, particularly in California. Alas, it’ll soon be discontinued, Ford focusing on the much more successful Explorer.
The mere fact the Infiniti QX70 (nèe FX) used the same platform as a genuine sports car (the 350Z/370Z) is enough cause to celebrate its existence. That it offered – in both generations – standout styling and feisty performance makes the QX70 not just an exciting crossover but an exciting car, period.
In both generations, Infiniti’s first crossover offered a choice of an award-winning V6 engine and a powerful V8; the second generation was also available with a diesel V6 in some markets. Unlike Infiniti’s staid, Pathfinder-derived JX/QX60, the QX70 wasn’t exceptionally practical – its swoopy roofline ate into headroom and its cargo capacity was mediocre. But Infiniti’s sports crossover was fun-to-drive and full of character. It’s all the more sad that it’s been discontinued and a conceptually similar replacement has yet to be announced.
Maybe, just maybe, you want a mainstream three-row crossover that’s fun-to-drive. If that’s the case, the CX-9 is a superb option. It has a surprisingly upscale interior for its class, with top-line models featuring Nappa leather and real wood trim. Its build quality is exemplary and Mazda has a solid reliability record, while its turbocharged four-cylinder engine is flexible and grunty. Did I mention it’s actually enjoyable to drive, too?
Ok, so that third row isn’t the largest in its class. If you absolutely need to carry teenagers or adults in that last row, there are more spacious rivals like the Nissan Pathfinder. You won’t, however, find anything quite so enjoyable to drive in this class and there are precious few that are as nice to sit in.
The first-generation CX-9 was much more enjoyable to drive than a Toyota Highlander but it met its match in Australia. Here, the locally-engineered Ford Territory revelled in critical acclaim. It wasn’t just a spacious interior and a competitive price that earned the Territory accolades like Wheels Car of the Year. Its well-balanced rear/all-wheel-drive platform invited myriad comparisons from automotive journalists to much more expensive German crossovers.
The Territory was actually sold concurrently with the wagon version of the Ford Falcon on which it was based. Even the most hardcore wagon fan (or crossover hater), however, had to concede the Territory was a vastly better car. The fleet queen Falcon wagon looked like a pallet of bricks, had an antediluvian leaf-spring rear suspension, and seemed to come from the factory with a taxi light on top.
With a smooth inline six and, later, a diesel V6 borrowed from Land Rover, the Territory had plenty of power to match its surprisingly able dynamics. Even as Falcon sales languished and despite fairly infrequent revisions, the Territory was generally the best-selling car in its segment. Sadly, Territory production ended when Ford closed its Australian factory.
As the Cayenne enters its third generation and the world embraces SUVs from Lamborghini, Maserati, Bentley and Rolls-Royce, it’s rather amusing to remember how much controversy Porsche generated when they launched the first Cayenne. Although it shared its platform with the Audi Q7 and Volkswagen Touareg, Porsche imbued the Cayenne with its sporty essence. This was no rebadged Volkswagen: the Cayenne was available with a twin-turbo V8 engine and a six-speed manual transmission. The flagship Cayenne Turbo was even pelted around the Nürburgring in the same time as a Boxster S.
Even the humble diesel and hybrid Cayennes boasted class-leading dynamics, while the Cayenne could also handily dispatch rugged terrain. Subsequent generations have built on the first-generation’s abilities, offering more powerful engines and improved cabins. The Cayenne isn’t just a good crossover, it’s a good Porsche.
The first-generation X5 was the original sports crossover, or as BMW called it, “sport activity vehicle”. It followed the inaugural Mercedes-Benz ML but eschewed its rival’s perimeter-frame for unibody construction. That allowed for dynamics befitting a BMW and, though it weighed over 4800 pounds, the X5 could be hustled through canyons with abandon.
Plans for a polarizing, Chris Bangle-penned second generation were scrapped and the 2006 X5 was instead a handsome evolution of the first X5’s design. Subsequent generations have been even more subtle evolutions, avoiding controversy. That means the third and new fourth generations of X5 are suitably conservative and upscale, inside and out, but remain enjoyable to drive as any BMW should. In some markets, you can still buy a 5-Series wagon. For Americans and Canadians where that option doesn’t exist, however, the X5 is no wooden spoon.
If you needed any more proof that Mazda has crossovers down pat and that crossovers can be satisfying to drive, there’s the second-generation CX-5. It offers a remarkable blend of driving enjoyment, fuel economy, quality, reliability and versatility. The first CX-5 was already an impressive, class-leading crossover and the second generation has built on that, featuring one of Mazda’s classy, high-quality new interiors and introducing an optional turbocharged engine and a new flagship trim.
Mind you, those of us outside of North America have the option of a Mazda6 wagon. It has slightly better fuel economy and handling, slinkier styling and the same high level of interior design and quality. You can also option it with the CX-5’s optional turbo four though it can’t be had with all-wheel-drive.
Tesla Model X
You can scoff at its fanciful gull-wing doors or sneer at its bloated-Model S styling but you can’t deny the Model X is one impressive piece of engineering. It has all the strengths of the Model S but with the bonus of a relatively comfortable third row of seating. Like the Model S, it has a modern, elegant interior with a vast and intuitive touchscreen infotainment system. Like the Model S, too, it offers more than enough range for most owners’ needs – between 270 and 290. It also offers more than enough power – the Performance trim, in Ludicrous mode, can hit 60mph in under 3 seconds. That’s Lamborghini Aventador territory except an Aventador can’t seat six other people.
It’s the first three-row battery-electric crossover on the market. American Curbivores, you must surely be proud too that it’s designed and made right in the USA.
Jaguar beat all its luxury rivals to the market (bar Tesla) with an electric crossover. The I-Pace (not to be confused with the ICE-powered E-Pace – how confusing!) was developed in just four years, a rapid turnaround for a company that had never before made an electric vehicle.
Launched 50 years after the first Jaguar XJ, the I-Pace heralds a new era at Jaguar. Designer Ian Callum used the position of the battery as the basis for an unconventional yet athletic body. It needn’t have been a crossover – and as the upcoming Porsche Taycan shows, an electric platform can make for a low and sleek silhouette – but Jaguar shrewdly developed the I-Pace as one. The Model X may narrowly best it in battery range (234 vs 238 miles) and pip it in power while also offering a third row of seats but the I-Pace has the edge in dynamic ability and, arguably, aesthetics.
If you have to be dragged into a crossover kicking and screaming and if you pine for the days where station wagons were found in every suburban driveway, you may find the Subaru Outback more palatable than most. First introduced in 1995 as a more rugged-looking version of the Legacy wagon, it’s now out-lived its progenitor yet its purpose in life hasn’t changed even as it enters its sixth generation.
Now exclusively powered by four-cylinder engines (a turbo four replaces the old six) and available only with a CVT, the Outback is a well-rounded family wagon. Just don’t call it a wagon or you’ll scare some buyers off!
The Range Rover Velar, perhaps the most attractive crossover ever.
Have I changed your mind on crossovers? Or were you already a fan, or at least somebody who begrudgingly accepted them? Are there other crossovers you like? Let us know your thoughts.