Ford is playing to win in the crossover segment, and the prize is dominance in a market projected to top 3 million sales by 2010. Competition is fierce, with Ford and its rivals displaying an array of crossover products at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS).
Ford’s most recent crossovers, the Edge and the Lincoln MKX are being prominently displayed in Detroit and have arrived to predominantly good reviews and customer response. The new crossovers join Ford’s ahead-of-its-time Freestyle, updated for the 2007 model year, and a redesigned Escape and Mariner that offer crossover construction in the small SUV segment with the added attraction of hybrid models.
Crossovers topped SUV sales for the first time in 2006, driven partly by gas prices and partly by changing demographics. Customers have been attracted to crossovers from both ends of the auto-buying spectrum — sedan owners seeking the spacious and flexible interiors of the traditional sport utility vehicle and SUV owners looking for more fuel-efficient and maneuverable vehicles.
"This trend, underway over the past two years with SUV owners deciding they can get along with something less than a truck but still wanting something more than a car, has turned into a frenzy, under the relentless onslaught of bad news about gas prices, leaky pipelines and the deteriorating situation in the Middle East" said auto journalist Peter Frey, former editor of Motor Trend magazine.
As an example of how far crossovers have come, this year’s Truck of the Year awards at NAIAS featured competition between the Chevy Silverado, clearly a truck, and two new crossover vehicles, the Ford Edge and Mazda CX-7.
Ford’s redesigned 2008 Escape and Mariner are good illustrations of the changing market dynamics. Once, small SUVs like the Escape were viewed as entry-level vehicles, stepping stones to midsize and large SUVs. But with the market trending towards smaller utility vehicles, however, the Escape and Mariner are becoming more desirable in their own right based on their size and fuel-economy.
Ford has redesigned the 2008 Escape and Mariner inside and out, with bolder exterior designs and more upscale interiors. For hybrid models, Ford engineers have updated the software in the control system to improve the transition between gasoline and electric operation.
The Freestyle demonstrates many of the strengths possible in the crossover segment like the car-based platform, fold-flat, third-row seating provides either flexible cargo-carrying capacity, or seating for seven, available all-wheel drive and fuel economy that reaches up to 27 miles per gallon highway.
To be more competitive for 2007, Freestyle offers along with the standard safety equipment, available SIRUIS satellite radio and DVD Navigation and new exterior colors and exterior colors.
Another trend seen in new crossovers is an attempt to keep the utility of a SUV while designing and outfitting the vehicles in a style that is anything but utilitarian. The Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX, each in different ways, offer the people moving and cargo-hauling abilities of SUVs but with upscale interiors, improved ride and features like the optional VistaRoof and available all-wheel drive for sure-footed handling.
Still to come are crossovers for Ford and Lincoln based on the well-received Fairlane concept from last year’s NAIAS.
Mazda is moving ahead with the new CX-7 and CX-9 crossovers while Volvo is showcasing its XC-60 crossover concept at the auto show.
Ford’s rivals, however, are leaping into the crossover segment as well with General Motors releasing the Acadia and the Saturn Outlook crossovers for the 2007 model year.
Nissan is promoting it’s Rouge crossover at the auto show, a mid-size CUV with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, rated here at 170 hp and 175 lb-ft.
Korean automaker Hyundai is launching its largest vehicle so far, the seven passenger Veracruz crossover with a 265-hp 3.8-liter V-6 engine and available all-wheel drive. Meanwhile, the company’s sibling Kia is showcasing a crossover concept called the Kue which emphasizes a sportier design than the Veracruz.
Upscale crossovers are coming from Acura and Lexus.
The race for crossover sales is on, a race Ford intends to win with new products like the Edge and Lincoln MKX leading the charge.