Lexus RX 400hClick to enlarge picture

The Lexus RX 400h is a new version of the popular Lexus RX 300. Powered by a gas-electric hybrid system and on sale in calendar 2005, it's the first luxury SUV/crossover.

The higher-riding, cargo- and people-hauling vehicles were all over the big Los Angeles and Detroit auto shows of 2005. It appears even some automakers that already sell several SUVs and/or crossovers want to add one or more others. And it's no wonder. As SUV sales grew in the U.S. over the past two decades the segment splintered, offering new opportunities for so-called crossovers that combine car-like amenities with less-truckish ride.

An example: The Lexus RX 300, which went on sale in March 1998 as a tall wagon offered with all-wheel drive, quickly outsold every one of the luxury brand's cars.

Now called the RX 330, it's still the top Lexus and had record sales of more than 106,000 in calendar 2004. In calendar 2005, Lexus adds a gasoline-electric hybrid version called the RX 400h, which also was on display at the auto shows. It's the first luxury hybrid model in this category. And according to a high-ranking source, Lexus is looking at whether to add another crossover to its lineup.

Auto industry analysts say many of the newest models are a kind of a convergence of SUV, station wagon, car and even minivan. Each vehicle may be a bit different, depending on whether its character leans more toward an SUV, a wagon or van, and how the blending of traits is accomplished.

But the basics—higher ride height than in a car, hatchback rear end, flexible interior with passenger seating that can mix with cargo space and the offering of all- or four-wheel drive—are there.

Also characterizing this segment is a "two-box" exterior design which features the hood and engine compartment area as one lower "box" and the passenger and cargo area as a second, larger "box."

Here's a closer look at the newest models:

Plentiful Selection

Call them what you want—SUV, wagon or crossover—but the new generation of tall, versatile, 5-door vehicles, each with a hatch at the back, continues to grow. At least a dozen of these vehicles were unveiled at the auto shows, and some already are planned for showrooms.

Subaru of America Inc. showed a new crossover that's on sale as of summer 2005. The 2006 B9 Tribeca, which is longer and wider than the Subaru Outback, is Subaru's first 7-passenger vehicle.

With its distinctive, large grille and contemporary, Lexus RX-type shape, the B9 Tribeca doesn't look like any current Subaru. Curtain and side airbags are standard, as is all-wheel drive. The vehicle rides on 18-inch wheels and is powered by a 250-horsepower 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine.

Don't miss the B9 Tribeca's sweeping dashboard. The tasteful mix of vehicle controls and flowing design is definitely worth a look.

Company officials won't announce price until the vehicle is about to go on sale. But they want the B9 Tribeca to be the brand's flagship vehicle, so it's expected to carry a starting price in the near-luxury range.

Acura showed a concept 5-door crossover/SUV. The 5-passenger RD-X is smaller than the 7-passenger Acura MDX and is expected to appeal to younger buyers and families with one or two children.

Due as a production model in summer 2006 with a new 6-cylinder engine and all-wheel drive, the RD-X is expected to help fill a gap in Acura's lineup where its only SUV is the MDX, which has a 2005 manufacturer's suggested retail price of nearly $37,000. Notice the RD-X styling. It's sleek, balanced, and there are no weird, distracting bulges or styling lines.

Inside, the RD-X concept has real rosewood on the floor. It looks clean, dark and uncluttered, with no floor mats on top. And the rosewood doesn't match the light and bright colors of the seats.

Too bad this wood isn't practical for a real car. But it may foretell some future floor materials that don't have to match the color of the seats or dashboard as they often do in today's cars.

Mercedes-Benz displayed its redesigned 2006 M-Class which went on sale in spring 2005.

The first redesign in at least seven years, the second-generation M-Class is nearly 6 inches longer and 3 inches wider than its predecessor. It sits 0.4 inch lower to the road, and its platform is new. So is the four-link rear suspension and interior. Rear-seat passengers get 1.3 inches of additional legroom. Even the four-wheel-drive system is updated.

The 2006 M-Class boasts the category's first 7-speed automatic transmission and is available with a new 268-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 engine, or a 302-horsepower 5.0-liter V8.

Among the novel features: Neck-Pro, where sensors detect that a rear-end collision is occurring and automatically move head restraints forward by about 40 millimeters to reduce the likelihood of whiplash injury to passengers. Pricing information is due closer to the on-sale date. The 2005 M-Class has a starting MSRP of nearly $38,000.

Pontiac jumps into the category in calendar 2005 with its 2006 Torrent, a 5-door, 5-passenger, midsize vehicle that uses the same platform as Chevrolet Equinox and Saturn VUE. It's on display at this year's auto shows, too.

On sale in the second half of calendar 2005, the 67-inch-tall Torrent is 1.2 inches shorter than the Pontiac Montana minivan but is taller than any other Pontiac and offers an SUV-like 72.5 cubic feet of cargo room. Power comes from a 185-horsepower 3.4-liter V6 that's in the Equinox. But the Torrent has suspension tuning that makes it drive more like a Pontiac sedan, according to company officials.

Pricing will be announced closer to the selling date, but the base MSRP for a V6-powered, 2005 Equinox is just over $21,000, while it's more than $22,500 for a 2005 VUE. There will be front- and all-wheel-drive versions of the Torrent.

Chevrolet, which already sells five SUVs including the popular Tahoe and TrailBlazer and long-running Suburban, adds a smaller crossover vehicle in showrooms in calendar 2005.

The 2006 Chevy HHR, on display at auto shows, rides on the car platform of the compact Chevrolet Cobalt. But the HHR's styling makes it appear more like a shrunken 1949 Chevrolet Suburban.

The retro look isn't all that's distinctive about the 5-door, 5-passenger HHR. There's a surprising amount of interior room and versatility, including 63.1 cubic feet of cargo room at the back, and Chevy officials say the HHR is a vehicle that's perfect for customizing.

It's no surprise, then, that one HHR concept at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show was already customized by the West Coast Customs guys affiliated with MTV's Pimp My Ride television show.

Audi AG showed a concept of its Audi allroad. But unlike the allroad already sold in the U.S., the concept model has a diesel engine. The tall-riding allroad concept also has a more aggressive look than the current model but still retains a more wagon-like, rather than SUV-like, profile. Of course, Audi's quattro all-wheel drive system is there.

The 4.0-liter V8 runs on diesel and produces an awesome 480 lb-ft of torque at a low 1600 rpm. Horsepower tops out at 290. Audi officials have talked about offering a diesel for U.S. consumers. As for the allroad concept, they said they were looking to gauge public reaction.

Concepts Indicate More Models Coming

Several other automakers showed concept versions of future crossovers/wagons/SUVs but refused to divulge if these vehicles will be production models.

Mazda officials, whose MX-Crossport concept generated considerable interest at the Detroit show, wouldn't say it was going to add another versatile vehicle like the Crossport to its lineup. Mazda already sells the MPV minivan and Tribute SUV, and it was announced that a gas-electric hybrid Tribute will go on sale at U.S. dealerships by calendar 2007. It would mark the first hybrid vehicle in Mazda showrooms.

Still, the MX-Crossport has the requisite two-box design, 5 doors and hatchback rear, not to mention styling that couldn't be mistaken for anything but a Mazda. The full-length glass roof and distinctive, individual seats for four are nice touches.

Nissan's luxury brand, Infiniti, unveiled the Kuraza concept. The 6-door sport wagon featured a long, flat roof with glass from front to rear. Inside are three rows of seats, for a total capacity of six people.

The Kuraza's shape and wraparound rear glass is similar to the Fairlane concept wagon shown by Ford at the auto show in Detroit. The Fairlane has six separate seats, too, but note the rear door. The glass flips upward and the triple-hinged tailgate can be opened to the left or the right. Ford officials said the Fairlane represents future travel possibilities for families and empty nesters.

The Fairlane wasn't the only wagon/crossover from Ford Motor Co. Sister division Lincoln-Mercury revealed the Mercury Meta One concept, which Mercury officials said explores how a future Mercury crossover might look.

A notable feature is a reconfigurable display on the dashboard that allows each driver to change the placement and size of the Meta One instruments, such as the speedometer, to better fit his or her preferences.

Toyota said its FT-SX concept is designed to appeal both to baby boomers and young couples. The distinctive styling belies a vehicle that's lower-to-the-ground and wider than a traditional SUV and more versatile than a sedan.

Power comes from a V6, and the FT-SX has full-time all-wheel drive. Officials declined to say if/when this model might make it to showrooms, but they noted there is considerable movement among consumers back and forth between sedans and SUVs. The FT-SX might be a vehicle that successfully taps into the best attributes of sedan and SUV, they said.

South Korean automaker Kia took the wraps off its first large SUV. The 6-passenger Mesa concept has striking styling with 22-inch wheels and tires out at the corners, rugged body on frame and the largest wheelbase of any current production Kia—116 inches, which is more than the 114.6 inches of the Kia Sedona minivan.

Interestingly, some of the dashboard controls inside the Mesa use race-type toggle switches, and the roof contains not one, but two full-length sunroofs.

Kia Motors America President and Chief Executive Officer Peter Butterfield said the company "is assessing" future product plans. Tom Kearns, chief designer at Kia's U.S. design facility in California, said the Mesa "sets the tone for future truck and SUV designs" at the company.

Ann Job is a writer for T&A Ink media group.

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