Car makers these days are obsessed with crossovers. The classic market is saturated and has established players, it's not really possible to achieve meaningful growth in that sector; whereas with completely new ideas, you can snatch away a competitor's customer base. Of course the problem is that your own buyers might start moving away from the staple diet - like buying the brilliant Mercedes CLS instead of the bland E-class - so you need to make your new model different from the sort of thing you usually do.
The last big thing was niche models; unfortunately there is a very good reason why it's a niche, why nobody has been selling a million cars a year to this audience - there is simply not enough demand to justify development. Not that this market has been without its success stories, which used a combination of reasonable creativity and existing platforms to excellent result. The Audi TT made an enormous amount of money for VAG; they had to invest in tooling for the new body, but underneath it was still a Golf, the development costs for which have been recouped many times over. With the New Beetle, they didn't even need to spring for real aluminium in the interior.
These days it's crossovers. The idea is that existing segmentation is somehow inappropriate, that people's needs have moved away from traditional sedans, wagons and hatchbacks. Of course if you give them just a little bit more functionality, you can ask for more in price - and it's not more expensive to develop an urban semi-SUV than it does a traditional sedan. In fact it's well known that the bigger the car, the easier it is to make good.
In an atmosphere of uncertainty, with dividing lines being blurred by crossovers - not to mention normal model growth from generation to generation - I feel it is important to remind ourselves of the established taxonomy for classes of car. In Europe, the following segments are generally recognized:
- A-segment. These are small urban runabouts, ill-equipped on the motorway but quite appropriate on crowded streets. There aren't many of these left, but notables include the Daewoo Matiz/Chevrolet Spark, VW Lupo and now the Fox, and most famously, the original Smart. These cars often have engines under a liter in size, and offer only the most cursory rear legroom; also, don't expect them to be proper five-seaters. Basically this is the smallest vehicle that can still be reasonably termed a car.
- B-segment. Known as superminis in UK parlance, these are what you get when you need a small car with decent room. Typical examples are the Skoda Fabia, Nissan Micra and Fiat Punto. There has been a major trend for making these cars more vertical, cramming decent passenger space into a small footprint; examples such as the Opel Meriva, Renault Modus and Honda Jazz are all quite adequate family cars in European terms. Interestingly enough the Toyota Aygo/Citroen C1/Peugeot 107 are officially termed sub-B - not because of size certainly, but rather because all three companies have significantly more upmarket B-segment offerings.
- C-segment, also known as the Golf-class. Just like the warships classified on the first of their kind, the name comes from the fact that Volkswagen Golf is the founder and unassailable leader of this segment - although the Ford Focus certainly has something to say about that. The Japanese are very strong contenders in this class, with the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. Formerly the biggest market in Europe, it has recently been overtaken by the B-segment.
- C-segment minivans. This is a fairly recent development, but popular enough to merit a separate mention. The subdivision was started by the Renault Megane Scenic in 1995, and right now this is one of the bestselling ones. The secret of success is that by combining a Golf-sized footprint with a high roof, you can create a proper sense of exceptional space. Mentions go to the Opel Zafira, Toyota Corolla Verso and the new Mazda5.
- D-segment. Whereas lower classes were almost universally ruled by hatchbacks, this is the first level at which we can see the classic sedan shape dominate. It is also the minimal classically appropriate segment for premium manufacturers. Typical examples are the Ford Mondeo, Honda Accord and Opel Vectra in the everyman section and the Holy Trinity of 3-series/C-class/A4 in the luxury department.
- D-segment minivans. This is where minivans were born, in Europe at least. People carriers were introduced by Renault's Espace in the late 80s, and since then this has been the soccer mom's vehicle of choice. A Passat-sized footprint allows for genuine seven-seat space while still retaining manouverability around town. Major players, besides the founder, are the Peugeot 807/Citroen C8, the ancient Volkswagen Sharan and the outsized Chrysler Voyager, built for European purposed in Austria.
- E-segment. This is well and truly the realm of luxury. The E-class, 5-series and A6 reign supreme, casually fighting off challenges from the likes of the Jaguar S-type and Lexus GS. Non-premium cars are few and far between, with the Opel Omega (beloved of cab drivers everywhere) discontinued and the quirky French offerings, consisting of the pointless Peugeot 607 and beautifully excentric Citroen C6, rarely seen outside their home market.
- F-segment. The vehicles of choice for plutocrats. The Germans are still in charge, although the Jaguar XJ is a genuinely excellent car and the Maserati Quattroporte a compelling alternative. Interestingly enough, these cars - in standard wheelbases especially - are not as roomy as you might expect. The F-segment also contains, technically and purely because of size, the Chrysler 300C, which seduces with its looks and practicality: a lot of car for well-specced 3-series money.
- Urban SUVs. The choice of soccer moms who don't want the stigma of the minivan. Based on C/D-segment platforms with token AWD capability, these offer more safety and a chance to see over the next car's roof. Notables are the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Hyundai Santa Fe/Tucson; interestingly enough the Land Rover Freelander seems to be the main European offering, unless you seriously consider the useless BMW X3.
- SUVs proper. Don't confuse these with offroaders! Big SUVs have no business off the beaten track, but you can expect a bit more confidence in snowbanks. Honorable mention to the VW Touareg, Volvo XC90 and BMW X5.
That's the simplified explanation. Join me next time, when I explain the difference between bodystyles.