The Original Crossovers Were Pretty Cool

When Josh reviewed the Mazda CX-5, he was quite surprised at how much he actually enjoyed driving it – better than his BMW 328i loaner, in fact. Nobody, including us, really expects the modern crossover to appeal to driving enthusiasts. But going back in time, it’s pretty clear that the original car/SUV crossovers were actually pretty cool.

Before you tell me that I’m someone on the internet who’s wrong, I realize I’m skipping a lot of excellent 4WD and AWD vehicles here – the Mazda 323GTX, the Mitsubishi Galant VR4, the Jeep Cherokee, the Toyota Previa… These are all cool vehicles in their own right, but not part of the evolution toward the modern crossover, as I see it. The 323GTX and Galant are genuine cars, the Cherokee a genuine SUV. The Previa is a minivan, like my Dodge Grand Caravan AWD, and one of the main reasons crossovers exist is to avoid the stigma of driving a minivan. I’ve focused specifically on cool, key vehicles that I see as part of the evolution toward a car with SUV-like qualities, which basically defines the modern crossover.

Subaru 4WD Wagon

Subaru 4WD Wagon
Photo credit: The Truth About Cars

It could be argued that the original Subaru 4WD Wagon, introduced in the US in 1975, is not a true crossover. In fact, until just a few years ago, Subaru has gone out of their way to not build SUVs just like everyone else, focusing instead on AWD cars and wagons that provide the capabilities people look for in an SUV while retaining the superior driving characteristics of a car. But Subaru was the first to add four wheel drive capability to a car, rather than a truck or truck-based SUV. They first brought it to the US in 1975. The addition of four wheel drive to a more car-like vehicle was the first step toward the creation of the modern crossover segment, which now outsells traditional sedans as of last year.

AMC Eagle

AMC Eagle
Photo credit: IFCAR/Wikipedia

As fuel prices went up and Jeep sales went down, American Motors introduced the AMC Eagle. Though the category hadn’t been invented yet, it was the first true crossover vehicle. It was a car with higher ground clearance than most, plus four wheel drive. Unlike the Subaru, which used a part time system, the Eagle was the first to use full time four wheel drive. It was similar to the system that Ferguson Research had supplied for the Jensen Interceptor FF, and attempted to sell Ford for the original Mustang.

My friend Brian, whose Mazdaspeed MX-5 I reviewed, owned one of these a number of years ago. We affectionately called it the Uglymobile, because in bright 1970s orange with fake wood paneling, it had a face only its mother could love. Though it had the same inline-6 motor as the Jeeps of the time, it rode smoothly like a car. It also had the factory original AM/FM/CB radio.

AMC Eagle SX/4 rally car
Photo credit: Alden Jewell, Flickr

The smaller SX/4 version of the Eagle was quite successful in SCCA ProRally in the early 1980s. It scored frequent wins and podium finishes, and AMC took third place for Production Manufacturer from 1981-1983. This was the same time period that Audi was starting to find success with its own all wheel drive cars in the World Rally Championship.

Honda Civic Wagon/Wagovan

Honda Civic wagon
Photo credit: Allison Feldhusen

As the 1980s rolled on, more Japanese manufacturers jumped on the four/all wheel drive bandwagon. Honda added part time four wheel drive to their Civic “Wagovan” in 1985, and switched to their Real Time 4 Wheel Drive system in 1987, just before a redesign to the EF chassis in 1988. I’ve owned two of these myself – a 1991 FWD model, and the 1989 RT4WD model seen here at a Boston Chapter BMW CCA IceCross event.

These weren’t just the standard hatchback and sedan versions with a long roof. Though identical to the other body styles from the A-pillar forward, the wagons were quite different from there on back. They were taller than the other Civics. The rear suspension was unique to the wagon, with longer springs providing more suspension travel. It combined the standard Civic driving experience with the practicality of a larger vehicle with available all wheel drive. To me, the Civic wagon is the true prototype of the crossover vehicle as we know it today. You don’t need much imagination to see how it morphed into the Honda CR-V in the 1990s. It even retained the Civic’s “Real Time 4 Wheel Drive.”

But that’s not to say it was boring, by any means. The RT4WD wagon was the heaviest Civic in the lineup, so it got the D16A6 motor to make up for it – the same motor as the Civic/CRX Si. Manual and automatic transmissions were available. The manual was a 6-speed, unheard of in its time. It even had a super low first gear like the Porsche 959, presumably in place of a low range transfer case. With a set of studded snow tires, this was undoubtedly the best winter vehicle I’ve ever owned, and the best combination of fun and practicality.

Toyota Corolla Wagon

Toyota Corolla All-Trac
Photo credit: IFCAR/Wikipedia

Not to be outdone by Honda, Toyota added their rally proven All-Trac system to the Corolla wagon (and sedan, in limited numbers) starting in 1988. Unlike the Civic, the Corolla was more of a traditional wagon, without the taller roof of the Civic wagon. My friend Crys had one for about six months and absolutely loved it. It was already on its way back from the Moon when she bought it for $300, with 300,000 miles already on it. It was far from perfect, but like a true Toyota it still drove like a champ despite its issues.

The Corolla All-Trac would also disappear in the early 1990s, and, like the Civic wagon, would also return a few years later in true crossover form – the Toyota RAV4.

Subaru Forester

Subaru Forester
Photo credit: Artaxerxes [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
Meanwhile, Subaru continued to resist the new crossover trend. They did make all wheel drive standard, rather than optional, on all cars sold in the US in 1996. Models such as the Outback and Outback Sport were slightly taller, tougher looking versions of the Legacy and Impreza wagons, respectively. But the writing was on the wall, and 1998 saw the introduction of the Forester to the US. The Forester was a tall wagon, like the Civic wagon before it, rather than a true crossover like the CR-V, RAV4, and other “cute utes” then on the market. It remained very strongly based on the Impreza, and was essentially a taller, boxier Impreza wagon. The similarity was so close that the drivetrain from the WRX, and even the STi, could be swapped into the Forester. Subaru themselves made it available starting with the 2004 Forester XT.

Subaru Forester XT
Photo credit: jwright77

After the failure of the Tribeca, Subaru chose to finally give in to the crossover craze by turning the Forester into a small crossover, and split the Outback trim level into its own separate model, still based strongly on the Legacy. Sticking to the familiar, rather than the new name and wacky styling of the Tribeca, has proven successful for Subaru’s more mainstream strategy, which now sells more vehicles than ever.

But I still lament the loss these predecessors to the modern crossover, which have worn out and rusted away at this point. I don’t want to tower over traffic. I want reasonable ground clearance, but handling like a car. I want decent room for people and cargo, but I can get that from a wagon, and contrary to what the average consumer believes I think wagons are cool. But sadly, except for a few holdouts like Audi and BMW, the all wheel drive wagon is essentially dead.

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Top photo credit: Allison Feldhusen