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Fueling The Fire For Crossovers

Luxury consumers and carmakers alike are converging on the sweet spot of the upscale automotive market: crossovers that combine the …

Luxury consumers and carmakers alike are converging on the sweet spot of the upscale automotive market: crossovers that combine the drivability of a sedan with the roominess of a utility vehicle and are packed with the amenities that big ticket buyers demand. 

Testifying to their growing appeal, sales of crossovers-also known as “crossover utility vehicles”-were up about 20 percent in 2007 while the rest of the U.S. luxury market was flat. So now, just a few years after crossovers emerged as a distinct segment, you can choose from among a herd of strong new entries with European, Japanese or domestic origins and for prices ranging from the mid-$30,000s to $70,000 and up. 

A handful of other luxury crossovers are worth considering as well. Given demand that is only expected to rise, every player will have a shot at carving out a long-term share in the segment. 

Here are five of the most interesting luxury crossovers, each of them brand new or relaunched in the last few years. 

Audi Q7: A new species in 2007, Q7 combines the classic power and responsiveness evident in Audi’s fine German-made sedans with the ample capacity and luxury touches that American crossover buyers require-including an exceptionally quiet ride. The available 4.2-liter V8 pumps out 350 hp., which makes Q7 hoggish on fuel. Among Q7’s many advanced technologies is a feature that lowers the chassis at highway speeds by up to 1.3 in. to reduce drag. 

“Adaptive” cruise control allows aggressive drivers to keep  up with traffic without tailgating, because Q7’s computer will autopilot you to a safe distance from vehicles ahead or, if necessary, bring you to an abrupt stop. Front-seat adjustable lumbar supports are primo, and nightlights in and out are helpful. But controlling the defroster is an arcane process, to be kind, using Q7’s mid-console “joy button.” 

BMW X5: The company redesigned X5 for the last model year to add an optional third-row seat and room for seven, making it 7 in. longer. Still, BMW likes to call X5 a “Sport Activity Vehicle” to emphasize its athletic driving lineage. A new double-wishbone front suspension helps deliver great handling even in a big vehicle that weighs in at nearly 5,000 lb. (though X5 is choppier than expected in low gears). 

BMW engineering shines through in the two-piece hatch, which makes for easy loading and unloading; a rear-DVD screen that folds neatly into the front-row armrest; and high placement of rear speakers for optimum sound. BMW still hasn’t made its iDrive uber-control knob user-friendly enough, and the confusing shifter layout could use a redesign. 

Infiniti FX45: Its schizophrenic design is the segment’s clearest statement about the dual intentions behind crossovers. The extremely sleek styling, which company executives said is supposed to resemble a “bionic cheetah,” is plopped on top of huge, optional 20-in. wheels to emphasize driving aplomb over carrying capacity. 

Indeed, especially in the all-wheel-drive version with a 4.5-liter V8 engine, FX45 is segment-quick with very tight handling and a stiff, sporty ride-but probably too much so. Niftily, the instrument panel adjusts up and down as a unit with the steering wheel. The leather seats are reminiscent of a fine old chair in the drawing room- although they’re a bit too firm. In the end, FX45 pays a price for its airfoil design by being left without a third row of seats and with relatively little cargo room.

 Curb Side-by-Side Comarison

 Model

Base Price Range 

Max. Horsepower 

 Fuel Economy (mpg) 

Max.No. of Passengers 

 Audi Q7

$42,500-$58600 

280 

14 city / 19 hwy 

 BMW X5

$45,900-$54,500

350 

15 city / 21 hwy 

 Buick Enclave

$32,255-$36,455

275 

16 city / 24 hwy 

 Infiniti FX45

    $50.100 

320

 13 city / 17 hwy 

 Lincoln MKX

$35,420-$37,170

265 

16 city / 24 hwy 

5

 Lincoln MKX: Dumping its slow-selling Aviator SUV, Lincoln debuted this new crossover as a 2007 model along with the Ford Edge,  whose outside appearance is too similar to suit Lincoln’s aspirations.

In any event, the MKX’s clean design, high window lines and waffle pattern grille make it stand out visually, especially in the striking white chocolate color. MKX’s ride and handling, while not special for the segment, at least make it a worthy entry. 

MKX also deserves kudos for a pleasing interior that features blond wood and satin nickel, as well as a Vista Roof over both rows of seating. Other state-of-the art touches include bright-white LED reverse lights and Sync, the voice-activated communications and entertainment system co-developed with Microsoft. MKX’s rear hatch, however, is very difficult to open and close manually. 

Buick Enclave: General Motors’ latest entry barely slips into the luxury-crossover category, encumbered in qualification by its reasonable pricing and its relatively behemoth size for this segment. Still, Enclave’s stylish looks and representative ride and handling enable this all-new entrant for the 2008 model year to hold its own against true luxury brands. 

Enclave’s design is deliberately overdone, including bulbous headlights, nonfunctional “portholes” that nod to a classic Buick marking, numerous chrome accents on the outside, and the oval-on-oval theme of the interior. Enclave also makes the most of its volume, including sliding second-row bucket seats, separate climate controls for the third row, and a rear storage area rife with securing hooks and a power outlet. Yet, Buick designers should revisit things like a too-small analog clock   in front and a sliding center armrest that is too far from the driver or front passenger.

 In Case You Missed It….

  1. Height helps: Gallingly, you can open but not close-Audi Q7’s rear hatch from the key fob. To close it, you must be at least medium height to reach the necessary button on the hatch when it is open.
  2. Vestigial feature: One thing that many owners liked about the old BMW X5 was the little ducktail design on the tailgate. The new X5 retains that design cue-and tailpipes that exit from the rear bumper cover. 
  3. Movin’ on up: Buick says the Enclave’s interior was inspired by the designs inside private jets-thus, the aqua-blue instrumentation, gently curving dash, rich-looking wood grain inlays, and double-stitched leather that could make you forget this is ��only’ a Buick.
  4. Guardian angel: Like others in the segment, the FX45 features an enhanced cruise control system that uses lasers to maintain a safe trailing distance at any speed. Infiniti calls it Intelligent Cruise Control. It’s certainly smart enough to save most of us from an accident.
  5. Cry me an ocean: The Lincoln MKX gets the prize for most disturbing TV ad in the category so far: Last fall’s spot showed singer Harry Connick Jr. assessing Katrina’s destruction in his native New Orleans-in an MKX

About Dale Buss

Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.