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The Shifting Marketplace

The SUV is dead. Long live the crossover Add to ...

So long, SUV. Hello to a world where tall, mid-sized wagons that look like SUVs dominate. This is the world of the crossover.

"The new unit-body (Ford) Explorer's release marks the traditional SUV's last curtain call," says auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers, adding "Ford's choice to switch Explorer - arguably the [SUV]segment's first superstar - gives us the ability to call it an era."

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The 2011 Explorer, in fact, looks just like the truck-based SUV it used to be, but there's a difference. Underneath that brawny exterior is the platform of a car - the Ford Taurus, to be precise. And because the Explorer is no longer a body-on-frame truck, an entire shift has been completed. DesRosiers argues we should toss the term crossover entirely.

"The era of the body-on-frame SUV, dating approximately from 1990 to 2007, is basically over - a blip on the trend radar," he notes in a recent report. "Crossovers are the new SUVs and should be termed thusly."

He has a point.

Pick a mid-size SUV, any mid-size SUV, and you'll be pointing at something car-based. Toyota Highlander? Car-based. Ford Flex? Car-based. Acura MDX, Volkswagen Touareg, Kia Sorento, Hyundai Santa Fe, Nissan Murano, Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia, Mazda CX-9…? All car-based, as are the Hyundai Veracruz, Honda Pilot, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Subaru Tribeca, Mercedes-Benz ML, Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Edge, Lincoln MKX and Nissan Pathfinder.

Most of these may look like trucks, but they're not. They're cars with tall bodies. That makes them more pleasant to drive than, say, the original Ford Explorer, which was really a Ford Ranger pickup with a wagon body. The car-like "unitized" construction also saves weight, improves fuel efficiency and ride comfort.

Consumers obviously have noticed. The crossover segment in Canada has absolutely exploded.

"Between 2000 and 2010, crossover share of the SUV market grew from 26.9 per cent to 84.7 per cent," notes DesRosiers, adding crossovers now account for 24.1 per cent of the total Canadian light-vehicle market.

"Before our eyes has occurred an important paradigm shift. The public has taken notice of a new type of vehicle, rallied and hoisted it as the champion. Those same buyers - the ones seeking value, space and everyday capability - are now finding a good mix of their preferred qualities in crossovers of various stripes."

The rise of the crossover had hit mid-size car sales hard. A decade ago, sales of mid-size cars accounted for nearly one in five new-vehicle purchases or about 20 per cent of the market. By 2010, mid-size cars were down to about 10 per cent of the new-vehicle market. In a nutshell, buyers moved from cars to crossovers.

With the crossover craze firmly established, we thought it would be interesting to put together a list of the best affordable mid-size crossovers. This, after all, is where huge swaths of Canadian buyers are shopping.

We started with price. To get on the list, our mid-size crossovers - maybe we should in fact call them SUVs now - had to have a base price of less than $36,000 for a rig with all-wheel-drive. We focused on AWD as key because the assumption is that Canadians buying this type of vehicle want all-weather traction. Many owners likely have cottages or ski cabins or at the very least lead an active lifestyle where AWD is just a must.

Then we went looking for SUVs that were Top Safety Picks from the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. These picks do well in high-speed front and side crash tests, as well as a rollover test. They also are rated "good" for protection against neck injuries in rear impacts - they all have good head restraints, in other words.

No one wants an unreliable SUV, therefore we limited our picks here to those SUVs with above-average or better predicted reliability, as reported by Consumer Reports - with some exceptions. The 2011 Explorer, 2011 Ford Edge and 2011 Dodge Journey are all too new to have a track record on reliability, but these three are attracting a lot of potential buyer interest, so we thought it wise to put them on the list - with an asterisk for reliability until the research is conclusive.

That's it, then. The list of top mid-size SUVs that in the recent past were called crossovers is a group of multi-use vehicles that offer mainstream affordability, along with reliability and plenty of safety features the value of which show up on a Top Safety Pick.

Top seven best affordable mid-size crossovers

2011 Toyota Venza
These multi-use vehicles - all top safety picks - offer mainstream affordability, along with reliability and plenty of safety features

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