Mercedes GLA 6.jpg

Time to redefine ‘Car’?

When someone says the word ‘car’, what type – or more basically, shape – comes to mind? Cars are ingrained on our memory from a young age and your basic notion of what de facto ‘car’ is probably depends on where you were born. If you’re in Europe it’s probably a two-box hatchback. The States or China? A three-box sedan. Why? Well, these are the predominant vehicle typologies in those territories – and have been for the last few decades. 

But in the future, that might be different. The very way we think of ‘car’ is perhaps migrating its centre of gravity away from the traditional ‘hatch’ or ‘sedan’ and become something a bit higher, a bit more crossover-like. 

That’s because the crossover is becoming the default car type of choice. The premium brands in particular are focusing on this area – CAR magazine today reporting that Audi have five new crossovers planned, BMW three and Mercedes two in the next development cycle. 

It’s worth unpicking this a little. The very definition of crossover is an interesting one. Typically something that’s positioned between a normal car and an SUV (typically with an SUV-like body on a uni-body, rather than ladder-frame car platform). But as the hatch and sedan have grown, crossovers are increasingly shrinking. What do we mean by this? Well, if you chart the growth of the C-hatch or D-sedan segment over the past few decades, it’s a universal truth the cars have got longer, wider and – crucially – higher. So a crossover is higher than a hatch, right? Not quite. Take the new Mercedes GLA (which seems to be accepted by the market as a crossover) and compare it to a traditional European C-hatchback such as the Opel Astra, and you’re in for a surprise. The Astra’s higher (GLA's 1494mm plays Astra's 1510). 

The GLA is in effect, defining a new breed of crossover, that’s essentially a high hatchback. It’s a scant 61mm (6cm) higher than the A-class on which it is based. So what’s the appeal? GLA nets you more space inside, for negligible increase in body size (and thus no more difficult manoeuvrability). You sit slightly higher – something increasing numbers of consumers like for the feeling of security and authority it brings. And crucially, the exterior aesthetic of more purposefully defined wheel arches, lower body cladding, front and rear bashplate and some roofrails speak of an outdoor, more adventurous lifestyle which seems to be how every middle class westerner wants to define themselves today.

Mercedes GLA 4.jpg

The critical bit is that, unlike a full-SUV, the car does this without reverting to real in-your-face show-off aesthetic values; manages a negligible weight/aero penalty to mean that fuel economy is barely affected and drives just like the hatchback in all but extremis.

It seems to irritate many motoring journalist and a still vocal anti-SUV/green minority, but with such an obvious list of benefits and so few penalties, it’s no wonder that so many consumers believe a crossover is the answer as their next car. And with Americans keen to save money on fuel, Europeans still conscious about ostentatiously showing off too much wealth and the Chinese looking to step beyond the three-box sedan, around the world perhaps we should get used to the idea that ‘crossover’ is simply going to become a byword for ‘car’?