As if higher crude-oil and gasoline prices weren't enough bad news for SUVs, the latest accident data out of Washington provide more reason to think carefully before buying one. According to the Department of Transportation, SUV occupants are nearly 11% more likely to die in a crash than are folks in passenger cars. But the government's recently released rollover test results for the 2004 model year show that SUVs vary widely in their tippiness, giving buyers more incentive to shop around. Such statistics may well accelerate the popularity of crossovers, the new breed of bulked-up station wagons flooding the market that combine car and SUV elements. Built on car platforms, not on truck frames like most SUVs, crossovers ride lower to the ground and boast better maneuverability and gas mileage than truck-based SUVs do (though crossovers typically aren't rugged enough for serious off-roading). Many in the new class come with high-torque V-6 or V-8 engines and all-wheel drive for grippier road handling. With their lower centers of gravity, they score better in rollover tests than most SUVs do, with the Chrysler Pacifica earning top marks, followed by the Nissan Murano, Honda Pilot and Volvo XC90. (See results at safercar.gov.
More than two dozen such models now populate showrooms, up from just a handful in 1999. While sales of traditional SUVs stalled during the first seven months of this year (or were propped up by generous incentives), those of the crossover clan were up a sizzling 18.5% over 2003. Characteristic of the breed are versatile models like the all-new 2005 Chevrolet Equinox, powered by a 3.4L V-6 engine, with optional all-wheel drive and a neat, flexible seating configuration: the rear seats slide on an 8-in. track for extra legroom or more cargo space. Starting at $21,560, the Equinox stacks up competitively against such rivals as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. Volvo, meanwhile, just launched an all-new wagon, the V50, featuring the automaker's typical sturdiness and premium safety. The burlier Volvo XC90 (with a V-8 on the way) also earns high marks for crashworthiness, with an enhanced crush-resistant roof, a roll-stability system and inflatable side curtains. Volvo's parent company, Ford, is launching a pair of crossovers, the Freestyle and Mercury Mariner, as well.
Manufacturers aren't giving up on their bigger, higher-profit-margin SUVs but are adding more safety features. Ford is including a roll-stability-control system as standard equipment on four 2005 models, including the Explorer. The all-new 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee will have optional electronic stability control, which can detect skidding and automatically slow the car, along with a new tire-pressure monitor (rollovers can be caused by a blown tire) and side-curtain air bags. You'll pay extra for some of these features, but they may well help SUVs turn the corner toward improved safety.