The Nation's Pulse

Crossover Repeal

The big automakers are making too many kinds of cars. Enough, already.

By 2.25.08

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In Detroit recently, Toyota unveiled another new "crossover" -- a wagon-like vehicle built on a car chassis that sort of looks like an SUV or sporty minivan but isn't built to go off-road.

A mouthful.

Maybe too much, also.

I'm not singling Toyota out for any particular reason. They just happened to be the ones introducing the
latest of these duplicative, already got it/don't really need it/probably won't sell too well vehicles that'll just add to the already overwhelming confusion brought on by a bloated surfeit of cars of every type and description ... sometimes, several examples of each type.

There are too many of them -- and they all look just the same. Or many of them do.

"Crossover" has become the latest overheated fad that has instilled in every automaker the frantic urge to
get a version of their own onto the market. Even though the market is torpid already -- with anemic (at best) growth and a strong chance of going into a state of paralysis as the perfect storm of a burst housing
market bubble, credit crunch, income stagnation, dollar deflation, price inflation and energy shocks
takes hold.

Squeezing a profit out of the US. auto market is getting to be a real chore. Throwing new models into already well-represented segments just makes it that much harder to eke a dollar out of each individual sale.

And it is becoming too much for most consumers to deal with, too. It's manageable when there are, say three or four competitors in a given segment. Not so few that the pickings are slim, but not so many that it
makes you swoon just trying to acquire the specifications and keep track of the relative pros and cons of each one -- and compare them against all the others.

But that is the point we've reached. Sometimes, too much choice isn't helpful to the consumer or the companies trying to get their attention.

LET'S LOOK AT some stats. Something on the order of 17 million passenger vehicles are sold each year in the United States. There are (roughly) about 300 million of us out there with about a car and half for each one of us, give or take -- which correlates with the well-known stat that most American families have two cars each.

Of course, not all 300 million of us buy a new car each year; so the automakers are actually dealing with
a much smaller pool of people. Take away kids, older people and people who simply aren't in the market
right now and you're probably down to, oh, 75 million.

Now the math gets harder -- if you're trying to make money selling cars, anyhow.

There are about 50 different brands of cars trying to sell their wares (this includes the various individual
divisions of larger automakers such as Toyota, for example, which also sells cars under the Lexus and
Scion nameplates, etc.) Most of these brands are what's known in the biz as "full line" automakers;
that is, they sell a complete range of vehicles, from small economy cars through trucks and SUVs to luxury
cars and sporty cars. Half a dozen individual models is about the typical number, per brand.

That new Toyota referenced at the beginning of this article -- the Venza -- will become the 17th model (yes, you read it right) that Toyota sells under its own label, not counting the additional dozen (literally) Lexus models and the three Scion models Toyota also sells.

GM and Ford field a similar panoply of vehicles. So do Honda, Nissan and Chrysler. Each of them have a car for every conceivable purpose, often in multiply overlapping forms.

All of them are chasing a relatively small, relatively static buyer pool (at least in the US) for
ever-diminishing returns, since the profit margin per vehicle continues to trend downward as more and more vehicles flood each market segment.

TAKE THIS NEW Toyota Venza (please).

It's another recycling of a well-worn theme: Five door hatchback wagon that (in the equally well-worn words of Toyota PR) "combines a unique blend of sedan refinement and sport utility functionality."

"Unique"? Er, maybe on Planet Zolton. But here on Earth, this concept is about as unique as a
Wal-Mart/Bed, Bath & Beyond/Regal Cinema shopping mall. Toyota's PR spiel could have been lifted in toto from the press kits of half a dozen other automakers.

Guys, if there's more than one of something, it ain't unique. Ok?

I selected crossovers for this rant because they're the worst offenders, but you encounter the same pap
when reading about the latest SUV bling-mobile, too. Or minivan. Or econo-box. Hang around long enough and it feels like Groundhog Day -- every day.

Makes my head hurt.

The question is, how long can it go on?

Maybe there is a happy medium between the mostly empty shelves of a Soviet-era government supermarket and the overwhelming, wastrel overflow of supercapitalism run amok. No sane person can claim we need (or could ever hope to make use of) thirty different types of toothpaste -- or the 400 or 500 different makes and models and sub-models of vehicles we currently have to choose from.

I don't know about you, but my cup runneth over.

Enough, already.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.