The new family car may be a truck

When Ben Harwood bought his new 2000 Nissan Frontier Crew Cab pickup, he didn't know he was on the cutting edge of a trend.

The so-called "crossover" or "lifestyle" vehicle -which blends car-like comfort and safety with truck-like utility -promises to be the next big thing filling American garages.

Couples like the Harwoods are eschewing traditional minivans and sedans in favor of something with a youthful image that says more about their lifestyle than their family status.

Lifestyle vehicles, along with luxury and sports cars, are fashion vehicles. And those segments are booming, says David Cole, president of the Center for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan.

People buy them because they're different, and they make a statement. "They say that you like to go hiking on trails, for instance, even if you never do" says Dr. Cole.

Traditional, non-sporty, station wagons, sedans, and minivans are need-based vehicles, he says. People buy them because they meet a need for commuting or carrying people.

Model year 2000 will roughly double the number of fashion "crossover" vehicles on the market by some estimates, to more than a dozen.

Call them the Swiss Army knives of the automotive world.

Lifestyle vehicles come in many shapes and sizes, but most are sport-utility vehicles, pickup trucks, or station wagons.

People are buying them to replace minivans, wagons, and even sedans, says Art Spinella of CNW Marketing Research, an automotive consulting firm in Bandon, Ore. While minivan and sedan sales have risen slightly in a growing market, sales of lifestyle vehicles have exploded, analysts say.

"Most people want more utility than they've been getting" from their vehicles, said Hal Sperlich, father of the Chrysler minivan, in an interview with Automotive News, a trade magazine.

That's what crossovers offer.

Mr. Harwood's Crew Cab pickup has a full back seat and regular rear doors, with an abbreviated 5-foot pickup bed behind. Full-size pickup beds are usually six or eight feet. He had been driving a more traditional extended-cab pickup and didn't want to give up the utility of a pickup when his 10-year-old son, Alex, outgrew the jump seats in his old truck.

While he doesn't have as much space for long lumber and such, "It doesn't matter," Harwood says. "I only carry fertilizer, dirt, rocks, plants -things for the garden." As a side benefit, he uses his new truck more.

"On weekends, we would never drive the [old] truck because of the back seat." Now they take it instead of his wife's SUV.

Harwood's not alone.

Mr. Spinella found that four-door pickup owners drive their trucks more miles than the cars that share their garage, usually economy sedans and SUVs, he says.

The crossover vehicle trend goes hand-in-hand with today's do-it-yourself lifestyle, says Jim Kornas, brand manager for the GMC Sierra pickup. Three quarters of GMC pickups are extended-cab models with back seats.

"This generation is saying 'I'm doing things myself.' Their self-identity is not wrapped up in things, but in accomplishments and abilities" that utility vehicles support, he says. More and more women are buying full-size trucks as a statement of their independence. Mr. Kornas adds. Women also account for more than half of SUV sales.

Driven by versatility

But not all crossover vehicles are trucks.

They range in size from the huge four-door Lincoln Blackwood and Ford F-150 Super Crew pickup trucks to the small Toyota RAV4 and 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser.

What they share is versatility.

Most, whether they're SUVs, pickup trucks, or wagons, offer some form of all-wheel drive. They have a flat floor and big tailgate in back for loading bulky cargo. And most are taller than typical cars for extra ground clearance and a better view of the road.

On the large end of the scale are trucks with more comfortable, car-like features.

These are SUVs and pickup trucks with four doors, leather seats, cushy air suspension, and electronics galore. The 2000 Lincoln Blackwood and the Lexus LX470 sport utility vehicle are good examples. The trucks are big enough to tow a small yacht, and classy enough to take to dinner at the yacht club afterward. They guzzle gas and cost from $36,000 to $70,000.

At the small end of the spectrum are vehicles based on the familiar station wagon -but with a twist.

Today's lifestyle wagons have to have something extra: an outdoorsy cachet like the Subaru Outback or a sporty flair like wagons from BMW and Saab, says Spinella.

As drivers look for more car-like vehicles than traditional SUVs, "I don't see how you can avoid the comeback of the station wagon," he says. What won't come back are traditional wagons, says Spinella.

And new segments are emerging. Mercedes-Benz plans to offer a high-performance version of its M-class sport-utility vehicle this year, and Porsche will follow with an even faster SUV of its own in 2002.

Subaru sells a "sport-utility" sedan.

Even the hopelessly dclass car-based pickup, like the Chevy El Camino or the Subaru Brat, may be on its way back. Volkswagen sells two such cars in Europe, BMW is developing one that may come to the US, and Pontiac showed a version at the 1997 Detroit Auto Show.

Two larger trends have fueled the boom in lifestyle vehicles: manufacturing and demographics.

"Manufacturers are quickly filling in gaps between [market] segments," such as sedans, wagons, and SUVs, says Dr. Cole.

Fast product development cycles, flexible manufacturing plants, and reduced parts inventory have made it easier and cheaper for automakers to fill a wider variety of smaller niches, he says, all of which today are identified as crossover vehicles.

Demographics also play a huge part, Spinella says.

It's the old adage in the auto industry that people won't drive what their parents did, he says. Boomers launched the minivan and SUV trends because they didn't want traditional station wagons. GenXers' won't buy "anything that resembles a Taurus or Camry," he says.

Now young buyers want the antistatus car that's affordable and cheap to run, says generation expert Bruce Tulgan at Rainmaker Thinking in New Haven, Conn.

Growing backlash

A consumer backlash is building against big SUVs and trucks that don't have to meet the same strict fuel economy standards as cars under complex regulations. They produce more Earth-warming carbon dioxide.

Today, big SUVs "are already looking very dated," says Ellen Liang, a Seattle driver who recently bought a Subaru Forester. "Frankly, I'd be a bit embarrassed to drive one of them now."

And as those ordinary mid-size SUVs climb over $28,000, families are looking for cheaper alternatives, says Jim Hall, an analyst at Auto Pacific in Detroit. Today, they can buy an extended-cab pickup with the same amenities as an SUV for less money.

"There's got to be a change coming," says Craig Fitzgerald, an analyst at Automotive Information Systems in Westborough Mass. "People are going to get tired of pushing these big things around the road." He expects wagons and small trucks to rebound if the economy cools off.

No one is anticipating the demise of lifestyle vehicles anytime soon, even as hulking SUVs gradually shrink and become more car-like.

But Cole raises a yellow flag. If lifestyle vehicles are fashion purchases, fashion can change, he notes.

If gas prices went up, the economy went down, or public perception changed, people might opt again for cheaper vehicles that meet only their basic needs.

"The demand is more stable [in the long term] for need-based vehicles," he says.

*Comment to evarts@csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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