Review by Justin Pritchard, photos by Justin Pritchard and courtesy of manufacturers

Thanks to the original success of a few car-based crossover pioneers like the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Mercedes ML, CUV’s began multiplying like a herd of bunnies on a Viagra binge, and today, they’re bigger business than ever.

Northern Exposure: Best Pavement-to-Dirt Vehicles
Northern Exposure: Best Pavement-to-Dirt Vehicles
Northern Exposure: Best Pavement-to-Dirt Vehicles
Northern Exposure: Best Pavement-to-Dirt Vehicles. Click image to enlarge

Key in the success of the crossover was automakers convincing shoppers that the minivan was for suckers, and planting the idea that you needed four-wheel drive and ground clearance to move you and yours from suburban strip mall to neighbourhood schools and back to the home in a newly plotted subdivision or condo. What if it snowed? What if your driveway got slippery? What about the two times every year you drive down a gravel camp road? Surely, you’d need the safety and traction of a sport ute.

Shoppers bought into it, massively. And although most crossovers aren’t used for more challenging situations than a grocery run in a snowstorm, their premise implies occasionally hitting the road less travelled. A crossover is a machine marketed to work on the road, and to varying degrees, off of it.

“You won’t, but you could if you wanted”. That’s the idea.

But here’s the deal. Most crossover models (or all of them, depending on how you define the term), ride a car-based platform.

This has benefits.

A car-based platform is typically lower in cost and spreads development expenses across more models. This benefits the carmaker, and to some degree, the shopper. Car-based platforms are typically ideal when you want maximum interior space in a minimal overall footprint, which shoppers like too—especially if they have gear, cargo or offspring to haul around. Car platforms are typically lighter than truck platforms, which saves fuel. Shoppers like that sort of thing, too. So, for aspiring or professional parental units, the car-based crossover seems more ‘win-win’ than having your birthday on Christmas.

But here’s what the marketing folks won’t tell you: car platforms aren’t designed to go off road.

This can be disguised with heavier shocks, plastic skid plates, extra cladding and thicker body welds—but beefed up and stiffened or not, car-based sport-ute alternatives often lack something the often-heavier truck-based models have built in: an inherent feeling of toughness. A robustness during roughness. A sense of belonging when the road turns to rocks and ruts and slop. The ability to whack the odd log with the underbelly and say ‘whoops!’ instead of ‘crap, was that the oil-pan caving in?’

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