Image: Infinity FX35
Crossover SUVs like this Infinity FX35 are not only the hot new car, they're tops when it comes to fuel economy.
updated 10/19/2007 4:36:05 PM ET 2007-10-19T20:36:05

All of the most fuel-efficient sport utility vehicles forsake their truck roots for car-like qualities that not only improve fuel economy, but make for a better ride on the road. A lot of people, from automotive analysts to manufacturers to marketers, are pretty excited about the growth prospects of this new breed of SUV called the “crossover.”

Sales of these vehicles are climbing while traditional SUV sales are declining. One reason often cited in these times of lofty gas prices is crossovers’ better fuel economy. But there are other factors at play.

“This year, the traditional SUV market will fall below 2 million units sold in the U.S. for the first time since 1995,” says George Pipas, U.S. sales analysis manager at Ford, the company that perhaps reaped the most rewards from the 1990s SUV craze with its then best-selling Ford Explorer and Lincoln Navigator. “At the same time, the crossover utility market this year will be 2.7 to 2.8 million,” a fivefold increase since 2000.

Back then, the term “crossover” didn’t even exist, unless you were talking about a basketball move; these in-between vehicles were often dubbed “sport-cutes” or “cute-utes” by industry insiders. Now they can be called crossover utility vehicles, or CUVs. Regardless of the name, it’s an incredible growth rate considering the slight decline in overall SUV sales since then. “Crossover utility vehicles have been, and, in our view, will continue to be the fastest growing category in the U.S. industry,” Pipas says.

What are crossovers?
Named for the way they blend the characteristics of cars, minivans and SUVs, crossovers are often touted for combining the high seating position and utility of an SUV with the better on-road handling and less stigmatized image of a car.

There’s another meaningful, if less visible, difference: Like cars, crossovers are built on unibody platforms, which are typically smaller and lighter than traditional SUV body-on-frame designs that are based on pickup trucks.

Both crossovers and SUVs usually offer four-wheel drive (4WD) or all-wheel drive (AWD) systems; 4WD is intended more for serious off-road use, while AWD implies a system designed more for foul-weather security and traction on paved roads.

In exchange for their better ride and on-road handling, crossovers lose some of the ruggedness of traditional SUVs, such as the ability to tow or haul extremely heavy loads and, in some cases, the ability to tackle rough terrain. Considering that most SUV buyers rarely, if ever, go off road, the compromises crossovers create aren’t an issue for many drivers.

Are crossovers really better?
Traditional SUVs might be brawnier, but crossovers tend to get better gas mileage. All of the vehicles on our list of Top 10 most fuel-efficient luxury SUVs are crossovers. See the full list in the slideshow.

To illustrate the fuel economy differences in a fair comparison, we looked at crossovers and traditional SUVs of similar size, weight and specifications. According to the latest EPA fuel-economy data, two crossovers — the Ford Edge and Nissan Murano — have a 3-mile-per-gallon advantage in combined city/highway driving over comparably sized and equipped traditional SUVs — Ford Explorer and Nissan Pathfinder.

Here’s how the Edge stacks up against the Explorer: The base Ford Edge with a V6 engine and front-wheel drive gets 19 mpg overall, while the rear-wheel-drive Explorer with a V6 engine achieves 16 mpg, according to the EPA. Both figures drop by 1 mpg with optional four-wheel drive.

Likewise, the Murano bests the Pathfinder: The front-wheel-drive Nissan Murano with its V6 engine returns an estimated 20 mpg, while a similarly equipped Pathfinder gets 17 mpg. Fuel economy for both Nissans also drops by 1 mpg with the addition of four-wheel drive.

Much of the Ford Edge’s and Nissan Murano’s (the two crossovers) advantage in fuel economy lies in their smaller V6 engines and more efficient transmissions.

“It is clear that crossovers achieve better mileage, and often mileage that is within 2 to 3 miles per gallon of the figures achieved by the sedans that they are based on, particularly if they are two-wheel drive versions,” says NADA’s Taylor.

But keep in mind that the EPA’s fuel-economy estimates are produced in a lab. Real-world numbers are a function not only of the vehicles, but of their drivers — as well as the terrain.

Gas mileage isn’t the only reason crossovers are catching on. “Fuel economy definitely plays a part in what makes the new crop of CUVs more popular than the SUVs they’re replacing, but their newfound popularity goes beyond that,” says Aaron Bragman, an analyst at research firm Global Insight.

Crossovers ride better, are generally quieter, handle more capably and can swallow nearly as much gear, cargo and kids as SUVs can. They even provide some of the rough-and-tumble image that made SUVs such a hit. “At the height of their popularity, SUVs were seen as much for styling statements as they were for utility,” Bragman says. “People are starting to realize that you can have the utility in a much more sensible package.”

Yet while crossovers and SUVs may share a bit in the styling department, some in the auto industry don’t think it’s fair to compare the two. “Crossovers and SUVs are distinct markets,” says John M. MacDonald, a General Motors spokesperson. “There might be some [SUV and crossover] cross-shopping done, but there’s also some done between sedans, wagons and crossovers.”

In fact, some of the closest competition for crossovers may not come from their SUV fraternal twins, but from car-based minivan cousins. “Crossovers are favored by consumers currently looking for a vehicle beyond the minivan, although I believe that the minivan will survive its current status as unfashionable,” says Paul Taylor, chief economist for the National Auto Dealers Association. “Both crossovers and minivans represent practical boxes that are quiet, can be parked easily in a standard parking spot, and ride comfortably and quietly.”

Fuel-efficiency winners’s list of the top 10 most fuel-efficient SUVs focuses exclusively on luxury brands and uses the EPA’s recently released 2008 Fuel Economy Guide to rank vehicles based on fuel economy estimates for combined city/highway driving. For the sake of simplicity, we’ve included crossovers under the umbrella category of SUVs.

Not surprisingly, a hybrid tops the list: Lexus’ RX 400h gets the best mileage of any luxury SUV thanks to its hybrid electric powertrain that drastically reduces fuel consumption in city driving.

A trio of new Mercedes-Benzes, all equipped with the same diesel engine, also rank high on the list. Beyond that, the rest are smaller models, such as the Acura RDX, BMW X5, Infiniti FX35, Land Rover LR2 and Lincoln MKX, whose relatively compact size and reduced weight give them an advantage over larger SUVs.

For models that offer several drivetrain configurations with different EPA ratings (like the Infiniti FX35, which gets 18 mpg combined with rear-wheel drive and 17 mpg combined with all-wheel drive), we averaged the combined fuel-economy numbers.

© 2013


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