Crossovers are sort of the jacks of all trades in the automotive industry. They have the weather-battling ride height and (usually) the all-wheel drive of SUVs, but they’re small and efficient like a sedan or hatchback. They’re family friendly, like a minivan. Hell, some aren’t even that bad to drive, so feel free to throw a little sports car DNA in there, too. It’s no wonder then that CUVs have been dominating the automotive market in the last couple years. Crossovers have even dethroned sedans to become the most popular body style sold in America.
But while the marketing term “crossover” is a recent invention, the concept is not. Automakers have been making cars that fill the gap between utility vehicles and family cars for decades. Here are three that helped to determine what the crossover is today, along with their modern-day kindred spirits.
When it first came out the new Jeep Cherokee was chastised for its strange looks, but it represents a fair middle ground between the rugged off-road prowess we’ve come to expect of the Jeep nameplate and the perks of a small family road car. In that respect it’s very similar to the Jeepster in theory, but quite different in execution. It’s four-wheel-drive-based and can be had with all-wheel-drive. It has all the luxuries you need on the inside. It has a roof. Decades later the Cherokee is evidence of how far the crossover has come since the Jeepster.
The Beginning: Though it may not technically be a car-based family hauler like today’s CUVs, the Willys-Overland Jeepster may just be the first true attempt at a crossover vehicle. After WWII, Willys went about building the CJ (civilian Jeep), Jeep Wagon, and Jeep Truck. While these cars were all available for purchase by the public, they were still very utilitarian — more like a daily runabout for farmers than for suburbanites. To gain a better foothold in the consumer market, Willys decided to build a conventional passenger car (albeit one with no roof) with the same styling and ruggedness of a Jeep. The resulting Jeepster had a 4-cylinder engine and 3-speed transmission that sent power to the rear wheels. Compared to the CJ, the Jeepster had a much more comfortably appointed interior and featured frivolous luxuries like hub caps and sun visors. While its open-top design hinted that it might be a fun car, calling the Jeepster sporty is a stretch at best. Though it wasn’t exactly a sales success, the Jeepster did introduce the basic principle of what a crossover should be like.
You can pick up an AMC Eagle today at rock-bottom prices, but if you’re looking for a modern, refined version of the off-road wagon formula, there’s no need to look further than the ubiquitous Subaru Outback. While most CUVs take on the styling of a “mini SUV”, the Outback still maintains its wagon-like proportions, but, like the Eagle, it incorporates a raised suspension and permanent all-wheel-drive, making it a favorite among those with families in the snow belt.
The Refinement: Though the AMC Eagle was incredibly revolutionary, it doesn’t get the credit it deserves because it was built during a time when American cars were at a real low: the malaise era of the mid ’70s and early ’80s. It was derived from the Gremlin and looked like a typical station wagon — but its jacked-up suspension revealed the ace up its sleeve: permanent all-wheel-drive, which was a first among mainstream passenger cars. You heard correctly: it wasn’t Subaru or Audi, but an AMC derived from the Gremlin that brought permanent AWD to reasonably sized road cars. This made the Eagle somewhat competent off-road, but it was mostly praised for its ability in bad-weather conditions (it was used in America’s first ice-driving school) and its reasonable mpg figures — both prominent reasons CUVs are growing in popularity today.
Off-road focused. Luxurious interior. Excessive, retro-inspired design. If there is any spiritual successor to the Neorion Chicago, it’s the Spyker D8. Those familiar with the exotic Dutch marque will recognize its quilted leather and brushed aluminum interior and its Jet Age-inspired styling. Allegedly, the D8 is going to be developed sometime this year on the Saab PhoeniX platform, which (believe it or not) is still in development despite Saab’s currently uncertain future. Given all this and the fact that Spyker is a small, young sports car company, the D8 will likely made in small numbers — if at all.
The Oddity: Greece isn’t exactly what comes to mind when you think about countries that make cars, let alone crossovers. But one of that nation’s premier heavy industries, Neorion, did produce a small number of cars. Most of these were small EVs, but in 1972 the company decided to build a luxurious car…sort of. The Chicago was a 4×4 with the aesthetics of a 1930s limousine, and the end result looked exactly as muddled as you might expect. The Chicago was built with a steel chassis and aluminum body and got its power from an AMC V8 that also saw duty in the Jeep Wagoneer. Unfortunately for Neorion (and fortunately for everyone else) a change in Greek law destroyed any prospect of the car being brought to market; only two Chicagos were fully built and sold.