2007 Suzuki SX4
2007 Suzuki SX4. Photo: Suzuki. Click image to enlarge

By Tony Whitney

They’re not minivans, they’re not SUVs and they’re not even straightforward hatchbacks, but whatever tag marketers (and buyers) eventually apply to them, the fact remains that a new vehicle class seems to be emerging.

It all started, at least in most respects, with the launch a few model years back of the Toyota Matrix and almost identical Pontiac Vibe. Basically, the two vehicles followed a four-door hatchback layout, as typified by the long-lived Volkswagen Golf/Rabbit, one of the pioneers of the hatchback class. The Matrix and Vibe differed from hatchback designs by being a little taller and, perhaps more importantly, offering versions with all wheel drive. Driver and passengers sit higher than they would in a subcompact sedan or hatchback and thus enjoy excellent all-round visibility.

Somehow, they seemed to offer a lot more than the average hatchback without straying into the compact SUV class. All-wheel drive versions were certainly capable of gravel road duty and similar light off-road chores, but buyers wanting to tackle any serious rough-stuff were better off opting for one of the numerous compact or mid-size SUVs on the market. Incidentally, not all products in this new class are available with all-wheel drive systems.

In other markets, there have been many choices in this class for years, but the concept never quite caught on in North America – until now. In Europe and Asia, vehicles that could be termed “mini-minivans” are very popular and I’ve tried one or two of them.

2006 Volkswagen Touran
2006 Volkswagen Touran. Photo: Volkswagen. Click image to enlarge

A good example is the Volkswagen Touran, which looks like a scaled-down minivan with a good-sized hatch, a nice safe “commanding” driving position and room for five. It’s unlikely that the Touran will ever be sold here unless the segment really takes off and automakers scramble to find products to fill gaps in their ranges. As it is, this is a rental vehicle I’d strongly recommend for anyone planning a motoring trip to Europe this year – especially in economical diesel form.

The recently introduced Mercedes-Benz B-Class seems to fit nicely into this emergent category, though it does sit at the upscale end of the market.

2006 Mercedes-Benz B200 Turbo
2006 Mercedes-Benz B200 Turbo. Photo: Jil McIntosh. Click image to enlarge

It’s a very practical vehicle – taller and roomier than the average hatchback – and probably earns the title of “segment aristocrat” with its typically-Mercedes luxury touches. It has all the comfort and engineering you’d expect from a Mercedes-Benz product but it’s not that expensive in basic form and is thus within reach of buyers who’ve never considered owning anything with the fabled three-pointed star on its hood. Although Mercedes offers all wheel drive for just about everything it produces, you can’t get it yet on a B-Class.

2006 Mazda5 GT
2006 Mazda5 GT. Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

Mazda’s Mazda5 is another product that seems to slot into this developing class. Again, this is neither a minivan nor an SUV, but it’s a clever piece of automotive design and is impressively practical. Like its rivals, the Mazda5 stands tall and offers a variety of seat configurations. The Mazda5 differs from rivals in this segment by being more of a “micro van” than anything else – mainly because of its sliding rear doors and third row seat. Even so, it compares closely as far as size goes and cannot be categorized as a true minivan or an SUV.

As if to confirm the fact that demand is growing for a new category of vehicle, Suzuki is bringing us its SX4 for 2007. This very attractive little rig is, again, a tall hatchback and thus fits the new segment nicely. Suzuki has even coined a name for the class: Sport Compact Crossover. Will we all be talking about SCCs before too long? Stranger things have happened in the ever-changing world of automobiles.

2007 Suzuki SX4
2007 Suzuki SX4. Photo: Suzuki. Click image to enlarge

Suzuki may not be a major player in the North American automotive field, but it’s always been an innovator – bringing us compact SUVs long before anyone else took an interest in that segment. Incidentally, the SX4 will be available with all-wheel drive and will probably be the least expensive AWD vehicle on the Canadian market.

As with any class of vehicle, there are lots of grey areas as far as these new contenders go. Even among SUVs, crossovers and minivans, there are numerous overlapping products and if buyers sometimes get confused, it’s only because there are so many choices out there – no bad thing.

So why buy one of these products? Compared to many vehicles in other classes, they are inexpensive, economical to run, easy to park, practical – and in all-wheel drive form – almost as “go anywhere” capable as compact SUVs. They’re just as appealing to young, first time buyers as they are to retired folk who don’t need a large sedan or SUV anymore.

It will be interesting to study the SCC market (yes, I’m using the term already) in the model years ahead. Already, several automakers have announced plans to build this type of vehicle and some are looking at products they already have available in offshore markets. For people downsizing from a larger vehicle for one reason or another, it’s going to be an exciting time to keep an eye on the arrival of new entries in this segment.

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