Families 'cross over' to the smaller side of SUVs

Suburban mom Shana Rampersad is looking for a new family car, and it's got to be fuel efficient, stylish and roomy.

That eliminates sedans, sport utility vehicles and even minivans such as the Nissan Quest that's been carrying the Rampersads around New Jersey for years.

On the top of her list is a crossover, a type of vehicle that's built like a car but looks like a downsized SUV. They offer more storage space than a traditional car and use less gas than SUVs, which are built on truck frames. And they're a good fit for families like the Rampersads, who are tightening their belts but still want enough space to haul around children, pets, luggage and sporting gear.

Crossovers -- including the Ford Flex, Chevy Equinox, Nissan Murano, and top-selling Honda CR-V -- are now among the fastest-growing segments in the auto industry. Their share of the U.S. market has nearly tripled since 2002 as SUVs' share slid by more than half.

For many families, downsizing to a sedan from a minivan or SUV would be too drastic; the equivalent to moving back into a small city apartment after owning a large suburban home. The crossover offers a compromise in tough times, when parents are forced to cut back on spending, fearing they could lose their jobs or see gas prices jump back to last summer's $4 peak.

Because of a tight household budget, Rampersad and her husband have decided to wait until next year to buy a new car. And it'll be a Ford Flex, a four-door that seats seven. The Flex's rectangular design has softened angles and blends the low length of a minivan with the sportier front-end of an SUV. Its second and third rows fold down flat, creating enough room for two adults to camp out.

Although her 1997 Nissan Quest minivan is "excellent" in terms of reliability, the mother of two girls, 9 years old and 9-months in Carteret, N.J., says it's style is "ancient" and it doesn't have enough versatility.

The Flex would comfortably seat Rampersad, her husband, daughters and two small dogs on the many trips they make across the Hudson and East Rivers to visit relatives in Queens, N.Y.

"We can't get the strollers, an overnight bag and a couple of other things into a passenger car," says Rampersad, 34. "We looked at a couple of SUVs, but they were horrible on gas. Living in New Jersey, you're driving everywhere."

The growth of crossovers points to the end of supersized family rides.

"When I was a kid, it was the station wagon. When I had children, it was the minivan. In the 90s it was the SUV, and now it's the crossover," says George Pipas, Ford's top sales analyst.

Earlier this decade, when gas was cheaper and bank accounts flusher, beefy SUVs and minivans emerged as the preferred family vehicle. In fact, between 1999 and 2006, their combined sales made up the largest segment of the auto market, peaking at 27.8 percent market share in 2000.

Now, sales of those bigger vehicles are being displaced by crossovers.

Crossovers made up 21.7 percent of all U.S. vehicle sales for the first eight months of the year, according to Ward's AutoInfoBank, up from 7.4 percent in 2002. They're the second-best sellers behind midsize cars.

Meanwhile, SUVs have seen their share of the market shrink to 6.3 percent from a peak of 17.7 percent in 2002. Because of worries about gas prices and the environment, sales are unlikely to return to the high levels seen in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Many crossovers start in the $20,000 range, compared with SUV price tags of around $30,000. Although the Rampersads priced out a Flex at about $33,000, including the options they wanted, the SUVs they saw would have cost a lot more to buy and maintain.

Crossovers are not new, with a few first appearing in the mid-1990s. Now, more crossover models are available, and several newer ones sport more luxurious-looking designs, offering more curb appeal than minivans, the official car of Soccer Moms.

"We'll see it capturing a larger part of the industry going forward," Jeff Schuster, executive director of forecasting for J.D. Power & Associates.

Automakers are taking notice. Ford is stepping up production on its Escape, one of its three crossovers. Sales of the Escape, among the top 10 vehicles purchased under Cash for Clunkers, rose more than 49 percent in August from a year earlier.

This fall, Honda Motor Corp. plans to introduce a new crossover vehicle, the Honda CrossTour, offering a new, slightly larger option to its popular CR-V.

The CR-V, which gets 23.5 mpg, captured the largest share of the crossover market last month, with a 52 percent increase in sales. estimates that 12,000 of the 30,284 CR-V sales last month were generated by the clunkers program.

"Eight out of 10 (potential) sport utility buyers are getting the CR-V," said Tom Rzeppa, new car sales manager for Troy Honda in Troy, Mich. when comparing CR-V purchases to Honda's Pilot SUV.

General Motors Co. said its new vehicle lineup would include only cars and crossovers over the next several years. Sales of its Chevrolet Equinox crossover rose nearly 189 percent in August.

The Equinox gets an average of 27 miles per gallon, with a base level version starting at $22,440. By comparison, its Chevy Tahoe SUV cousin gets 16.5 mpg and starts at $36,965. Chrysler's 2009 Town and Country minivan gets an average 20.5 mpg and starts at $27,160.

But Shana Rampersad doesn't have to parse data to know that crossovers are becoming the vehicle of choice for families. She just looks around her suburban neighborhood.

"Everyone's driving a crossover; you don't really see many minivans," she said. "They're not the cool car for moms to drive anymore."