I’ve just written a rambling piece on the increasing popularity of the crossover, in which I challenge the misconception that the Nissan Qashqai was the first of its breed. In fairness, Sunderland’s finest export was the first car to be called a crossover, and it was – and still is – one of the most popular vehicles of recent times.
But what of the crossovers that were built before the crossover was a thing? Here’s a selection of just some of the cars that blurred the automotive lines before the Qashqai was a sketch in a Nissan design studio.
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1: Matra Rancho
Much maligned when new, but with the benefit of hindsight, seriously cool, the Matra Rancho was a pioneering vehicle. That’s assuming your pioneering spirit didn’t take you too far off the beaten track, because despite the ‘Land Rover Discovery before its time’ styling, this French soft-roader was strictly two-wheel drive only.
Production ended in 1984, by which time Matra had shifted its focus to the original Renault Espace, itself another pioneering vehicle. But having arrived in 1977, the Rancho pre-dates the Qashqai by three decades.
2: Toyota RAV4
Toyota claims the RAV4 was the world’s first recreational compact SUV. Launched as a three-door in 1994, the RAV4 could boast permanent all-wheel drive and a 2.0-litre 16-valve petrol engine.
“The RAV4 (Recreational Active Vehicle with 4WD) sets new standards in the small four wheel drive or sport utility sector and is designed for those with active lifestyles, a sense of fun and who want to be just a little different,” said Toyota at the time. Two decades on, buying a crossover is the last thing you should do if you want to be different.
3: Land Rover Freelander
With a strong wind, Land Rover could have beaten the RAV4 to market by a good few years. The Freelander can trace its roots back to the late 1980s, when Land Rover began thinking about a smaller sibling for the Discovery. As it was, the Freelander launch in 1997 was perfectly timed to coincide with a new wave of lifestyle SUVs arriving from the Far East.
In truth, the Freelander was as much a full-fat SUV as it was a crossover – certainly when you consider what passes as a crossover today – but by positioning it as a lifestyle vehicle and keeping the price low, Land Rover hit the mark. It’s just a shame so many early cars were dogged by reliability and quality issues.
The Honda CR-V might have been the Freelander’s chief rival, but the original HR-V was the true crossover. Launched in 1999, the HR-V was part hot hatch, part estate car, part SUV, but also 100% joyous. The original three-door HRV was, after all, positioned as the ‘Joy Machine’.
It was positively dripping in lifestyle, with an achingly cool ‘shooting brake on stilts’ body, five cupholders, a storage net for your mobile phone and two gloveboxes. At the time, its ‘Dual Pump’ four-wheel drive system was properly innovative, too. In short: the HR-V was cool in a manner a modern crossover can only dream of.
If the HR-V was part hot hatch, part estate car and part SUV, the AMC Eagle was part car, part truck and part 4×4 – a proper crossover, then. Launched in the late 1970s, the Eagle was available in a number of different body styles, including a delightful two-door coupe.
In 1979, Popular Science likened the Eagle’s off-road ability to that of a mountain goat, while praising its on-road ride and handling. God bless America for building a proper crossover that was way ahead of the curve.
You’ll need to adopt some leftfield thinking to allow the Skoda Roomster into a crossover gallery, but hear me out. Who said a crossover has to be part hatchback, part SUV? The Roomster – which was based on a concept car from 2003 – offered the practicality of a van with the dynamics of a car.
In many ways, it was the sensible alternative to the likes of the Citroen Berlingo and Renault Kangoo, boasting 450 litres of boot space. Note the ‘Popemobile’ styling, which helped to cement Skoda’s proud claim that it offered two distinct spaces – a ‘Living Room’ and a ‘Driving Room’. The Roomster is no-nonsense motoring at its finest.
In the Leone AWD, Subaru is able to claim the world’s first jacked-up off-road estate car, but the Forester was its first attempt at a true crossover. Launched in 1997, the original Forester was, according to Subaru, “SUV tough, car easy”, offering a near-perfect blend of on-road comfort and off-road ability.
It was based on the Impreza, which itself spawned the brilliantly-named Gravel Express.
TV fans will recognise the Toyota Tercel as Jesse Pinkman’s vehicle of choice in Breaking Bad. It’s fair to say that Toyota didn’t have the transportation of illegal substances in its mind when it launched the Tercel back in 1983, but that large load area and ‘flick in, flick out’ four-wheel drive meant that it was an ideal winter wagon.
The styling was an acquired taste – not least the ‘greenhouse’ rear windows and ‘ATM machine’ on the tailgate – but by marketing the Tercel at folk who wanted to venture off the beaten track but didn’t want an SUV, Toyota was ahead of the game.
Yes, it’s another car that was thrust back into the limelight by a starring role in Breaking Bad. Casting the Pontiac Aztek as Walter White’s choice of wheels was a stroke of genius, as this much-maligned crossover is high on comedic value and intrigue.
That it often appears on lists of the ugliest and worst cars of all-time hides the fact that GM set out with the best intentions for the Aztek. It was versatile and could be accessorised with everything from a tent to racks for bikes, canoes and snowboards. Popular it might not be, but a crossover it most certainly was.