Something extraordinary is happening in the American automobile market. A new style of vehicle is taking over the supermarket parking lots, rural highways, and city streets. It’s part SUV, part car, part minivan: a mutt of a vehicle.

People call them crossovers, and they’ve grown from an interesting experiment by Toyota, Honda, and Subaru in the mid-1990s into the biggest thing in the car business since the sedan, which most people know simply as “the car.”

What does that change look like? Recently, I pulled into a hotel parking lot in Colorado. There were 24 parking spaces—and slotted into each and every one was a crossover.

I am also now part of a demographic category called young families with kids, and being part of this demo means feeling the cold, clammy hand of the market forcing us towards these vehicles. Moms and dads can flail and fight it, but we might as well acquiesce: They’re easy to get kids in/out of, they’re great for the carpool, they hold lots of stuff.

But all this was just a feeling, or an even less coherent feels. So I called up Stephanie Brinley, a senior analyst at IHS Automotive, to put numbers to the rise of the crossover. Was it just my imagination or were they really everywhere now? Nope, they’re really everywhere.These days, three times as many crossovers are sold as SUVs and minivans combined. Even SUVs in their Clintonian fin-de-siècle glory days cannot touch the growth of the crossover. Just take in these numbers.

If the trend we have witnessed in the first two months of 2014 continues for the remainder of 2014,” Libby wrote, “it would mark the first time in recent memory—if not ever—that a car segment did not lead the industry.”

Now halfway through the year, “it seems like that might be case,” Libby’s colleague Brinley said, though obviously there’s still some time left in the year.

In comparison with the rise of Android, say, or WhatsApp, this change may not look impressive. But this is an industry that measures change in decades, that requires new factories to build different kinds of cars, and that has been selling something that someone born in 1890 could understand.

In other words, in the car business, the crossover is what monumental, generational change looks like.


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