Feature: A brief history of the crossover

Feature: A brief history of the crossover

When exactly did we cross over? Nissan claims its hugely successful Qashqai was the first real crossover and to give them their due they are right, at least in the modern sense. When it arrived in 2006, the Qashqai was the first vehicle to officially be termed a crossover by the marketing people, but was it really the first of the genre? No, not by a very long shot.

We can go back decades to find the first crossover vehicle, essentially a car with an adventurous spirit, possibly some limited off-road ability and a higher ground clearance to get you over the odd kerb, onto the parking area on the school sports day or across a field.

Identifying the first of anything is always open to some heated debate and we can argue that there were derivatives of the Willys Jeep in the middle of the last century that meet the crossover definition, even more so the AMC Eagle in the US that was a slightly raised estate.

Toyota trumps Nissan though, because in 1994 the company launched its Recreational Activity Vehicle, the Rav4 to the rest of us. It would be easy to pinpoint this as the first crossover as it met the modern remit of a small vehicle, barely bigger than a family hatchback but with a bit of ground clearance and the availability of all-wheel drive, although the latter is not essential to being a crossover.

Now this is where things get a little grey though because the Rav was about the same size as the iconic little Suzuki SJ410 Samurai, but the latter was never endowed with any fancy marketing term, it was a small SUV in the days before even the SUV term was really being used. But the Rav4 was built on a car platform, the Suzi wasn’t.

But sorry Toyota, even you were well behind the times in 1994. The 1980s saw two superb crossovers hit the market. The most famous of these was the loveable little Fiat Panda 4×4 with its go-almost-anywhere ability, cool looks (by 1980s standards, that is) and a thrifty little engine. You might find it hard to believe now, but back in 1983 when it was launched, the Panda 4×4 was an aspirational vehicle for some.

The Panda probably fits the crossover remit the best at the time because it was something of a city slicker. People loved driving around town in them trying to make others believe that at the weekend they would head into the mountains in search of adventure.

On the rare occasion that any Panda 4×4 owner would actually do that, they would probably come across another 80s crossover. The Subaru Justy was loved by those who lived in the countryside.

Many rural areas of Europe were full of them. You would see them parked outside the village pub alongside Defenders and tractors.

So was the beloved farm favourite Justy the first crossover? Sadly for Subaru, no, because there was one that came before it and it was one that holds a special place for me because the old man had one.

It had all the looks of a go-anywhere SUV. It even had a third row of seats, although they faced rearwards like those in a Mercedes TE estate.

It had plastic cladding on the sides, wheel-arch protectors and roof rails. It even had a stepped roof a full 12 years before the introduction of the Land Rover Discovery and little perspex panels on either side so the kids could look up to the sky like in a Defender.

And to top it all, some models had spotlights mounted on the wings at the base of the windscreen. They not only swivelled like those on American cop cars but they could illuminate a campsite. Back in its day, it had a decent degree of cool.

So the vehicle that can probably lay claim to being the first true crossover? The Matra-Simca Rancho. It was never sold in SA but it debuted in 1977 and later when Talbot bought Matra, it became the Talbot-Matra Rancho and it disappeared again long before Talbot was incorporated into Peugeot.

It was an odd thing really, with only front-wheel drive (later versions did have a limited slip diff), the option of a third row of seats and the looks of an SUV even though it was about the size of a large hatchback. It was a true crossover featuring all the looks of an SUV without the ability.

Over the years there have also been a number of other models that have fitted the crossover genre.

Subaru not only had the Justy, but in 1994 it had the Legacy Outback, an estate that can take you touring off the tarmac and could also pull the horse box and which continues in production today.

Subaru added the Forester in 1997 which was also more of a crossover until the modern-day versions evolved into being more SUVs.

Volvo created the V70 XC or cross country in 1998, but then Audi trumped its Swedish rival in 1999 with the superb A6 Allroad with its air suspension and bi-turbo diesel motor.

These days the car parks at the supermarket and outside your local school are packed with crossovers.

This year many of you are probably planning to buy one of these pseudo-SUVs, but the reality is that some manufacturers decided to cross over a very long time ago. – Mark Smyth