Ur-Turn: High-Low and Crossovers to Go

by Ur-Turn

(Welcome Daniel Ho — a.k.a. “Waftable Torque” — who’s here to school you proles on the true appeal of the crossover/cute-ute/abominable mom-van. — JB)

There has seldom been a topic that riles automotive journalists and commentators up as much as crossovers. They inhabit categories that are successfully profitable and growing. Non-existent 20 years ago, they have become increasingly aspirational to a large segment of today’s drivers. There have been many theories as to why they’re successful. Some blame CAFE, others the baby boomers, and others still blame American exceptionalism. They may all be right.

The Truth About Cars has always pointed out things others don’t see. Sometimes it’s the authors who provide the evidence, but sometimes it’s the commentators who supply the observation. I’d like to show you something that, once you see it, you can never un-see.

The crossover is merely the tip of the iceberg.

Merging design with functionality usually results in a product form factor that persists for long periods of time and eventually becomes “how things are supposed to be.” Consumers want their fast cars to look fast, their rugged adventure cars to look rugged, and their status cars to look substantial and powerful. Crossover vehicles can be made very fast, roomy, or comfortable, but they usually have to compromise on curb weight, center of gravity, footprint size, or SUV off-road prowess to do so. So the crossover provides fodder for the “jack of all trades, master of none” disparagement often seen on automotive enthusiast websites.

Equally absurd is the tendency to buy expensive things that are objectively worse than their more common mass produced siblings. That’s the carbon fiber, one-speed track bike that abhors a hill; the full grain leather suitcase that would be scuffed and disposed of long before it’s ballistic nylon equivalent; the head-tossing luxury SUV that never leaves pavement; the Burberry trench coat that couldn’t survive a Gore-Tex-worthy drenching; and the mechanical wristwatch that keeps worse time than the cereal box quartz watch.

Incongruity by itself will earn scorn. Want to be hated? Try asking for government bailout money after you’ve gotten off your private jet. Alternately, try wearing that immature Ed Hardy shirt and Versace hoodie as you step out of your mature Bentley Continental GT. Go drive that BMW X5M to the shopping mall to pick up some organic milk and fair-trade coffee beans. Or bring your street-tire-clad Land Rover Evoque to cross the mountainous Continental Divide. Consistency is a social expectation, and it ought to be good for business to cater to those who stay within the archetypes.

So now we have a vehicle category that is compromised, pricier and incongruent at the same time. It should have been a sales disaster. The fact that the crossover category continues in its unabated growth ought to tell us something about the consumer psyche in today’s zeitgeist.

As it turns out, the discussion of the rise of the crossover is actually a smaller trend in the big picture of aesthetics and design. It’s so embedded in our subconscious that there isn’t even a common vocabulary for it yet. So let’s use one bandied about occasionally by fashion editors: High-Low.

High-Low is the synergy of intentionally coupling two or more non-complementary characteristics to form a third that is more desirable than the originals. Go high and go low at the same time. It’s congruent because it’s something that’s intentional and flaunted, instead of an oversight or concession. The polarity can come in many forms: price, quality, pedigree, formality, coloration, design, efficiency, or date of manufacture. High-Low exists because it solves the cognitive dissonance of those unable to find satisfaction from existing rigid choices. They want to have their cake and eat it too.

High-Low is the blazer and jeans look (dressy + casual). The Hermés handbag paired with your Uniqlo and H&M outfit (expensive + cheap). The business suit without a tie (semi-formal + informal). The Apple iPhone 6S Plus tucked inside your oilskin field coat (high tech + low tech). The multimillionaire movie star driving a Toyota Prius (“so rich I shouldn’t care” + “I care anyway”). The Tesla Model S (fast + efficient). A 1967 Buick Riviera with polished 20-inch rims (old + new). The Toyota RAV4 (kids + “I didn’t give up”). The Porsche Cayenne Turbo S (sports car performance + off-roading chops). And the Cadillac Escalade (work truck + prestige). I’m part of it; my own English Tudor Revival home has a streamlined Scandinavian Modern interior.

The crossover is, by intent and design, a chimera. In fact, there was once a time when the category was so new that automotive journalists were labeling them “hybrids.” Its impurity sends mixed messages, and throws traditional categorization by the wayside. Yet it sells, solving a problem that wagons never considered.

Chimerism is nothing new. Few of us are totally liberal or completely conservative, wholly good or thoroughly evil, a “Mac” or a “PC.” What is new is that it’s no longer a stigma to say that you pick and choose your position depending on the issue, regardless of what the opinion leaders say you should believe.

The rise of High-Low has been subtle, spending the last 20 years stealthily weaving itself into our clothing, consumer electronics, transportation, and housing choices. If I could hazard a guess, the High-Low phenomenon didn’t take off until 1989 with I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid as the proof of concept. We now take for granted High-Low’s cultural ubiquity, not realizing it lacked critical mass before the turn of the millennium.

High-Low knocks down barriers, flouts the rigidity of tradition and resists being pigeonholed. It respects tradition while seeking innovation. It goes beyond being ironic and in-on-the-joke. High-Low is, at it’s heart, an embodiment of both arrogance and humility. Wouldn’t that be the perfect expression for the modern day narcissist?

So why does High-Low flourish? At least three major reasons, none of which are mutually exclusive.

One, it gets you out of the worst spot possible: being caught in the middle. The middle is profitable today but probably not tomorrow. Minivans and family passenger sedans represent that uncomfortable middle ground between economy and luxury, as do car manufacturers with more than two brands (everything between their premium and value labels). Good luck to retailers like Sears or JC Penney on surviving the attacks from below by discount stores and from above by luxury merchants. High-Low allows you to save on the basics and splurge where it counts.

Second, it has a strong signalling component and costly barriers to entry, making it a good status marker. High-Low is a simple concept in theory but notoriously difficult to execute well in practice. The rank amateur would not know that the blazer-and-jeans-look only works if 1) you’re thin or in shape; 2) the jeans are straight fit (boot cut for women), dark, and without tears and holes; 3) sleeves and pants are perfectly hemmed; and 4) you wear long and narrow dress shoes (pointed toe heels for women). Miss any of the four and your tell outs you as a poseur and outsider. But when it works, it really works, and you stand out as sharply dressed in a sea of slobs.

And third, High-Low has been helped along by technological and digital convergence. We really don’t want: feature phones, music-only players, home hi-fi, desktop-replacement laptops. We really want: iPhones, automotive hi-fi, iPads. Convenience is slowly triumphing over performance, and the generalists have become more aspirational than the specialists.

In fact, it is virtually certain that there will come a time when the specialists will be lampooned as the spiritual descendants of the Luddites. Choosing specialized excellence rather than High-Low universal compatibility will be outre, regrettable, a sign of insufficient taste. In the end, the line may be draw neatly between High-Low and what the kids now call “try-hard.” It’s something to mull over, at least, while you’re in your sports car, hot lapping alongside an X6M and a Model X P90D.


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2 of 266 comments
  • John John on Feb 18, 2016

    If you ask me, the pyramids are the venereal warts on the beautiful Louvre.

  • Jeff S Jeff S on Feb 18, 2016

    What is so functional about a sedan with a sloping roof with little headroom in the back and a not so big trunk? We did not buy a CRV to be cool but to be functional and easy to get in and out. Maybe a CUV is a jacked up station wagon but then if you want a wagon there are few choices. There is more reason to the trend toward CUVs than the cool factor.

  • Dartdude Having the queen of nothing as the head of Dodge is a recipe for disaster. She hasn't done anything with Chrysler for 4 years, May as well fold up Chrysler and Dodge.
  • Pau65792686 I think there is a need for more sedans. Some people would rather drive a car over SUV’s or CUV’s. If Honda and Toyota can do it why not American brands. We need more affordable sedans.
  • Tassos Obsolete relic is NOT a used car.It might have attracted some buyers in ITS DAY, 1985, 40 years ago, but NOT today, unless you are a damned fool.
  • Stan Reither Jr. Part throttle efficiency was mentioned earlier in a postThis type of reciprocating engine opens the door to achieve(slightly) variable stroke which would provide variable mechanical compression ratio adjustments for high vacuum (light load) or boost(power) conditions IMO
  • Joe65688619 Keep in mind some of these suppliers are not just supplying parts, but assembled components (easy example is transmissions). But there are far more, and the more they are electronically connected and integrated with rest of the platform the more complex to design, engineer, and manufacture. Most contract manufacturers don't make a lot of money in the design and engineering space because their customers to that. Commodity components can be sourced anywhere, but there are only a handful of contract manufacturers (usually diversified companies that build all kinds of stuff for other brands) can engineer and build the more complex components, especially with electronics. Every single new car I've purchased in the last few years has had some sort of electronic component issue: Infinti (battery drain caused by software bug and poorly grounded wires), Acura (radio hiss, pops, burps, dash and infotainment screens occasionally throw errors and the ignition must be killed to reboot them, voice nav, whether using the car's system or CarPlay can't seem to make up its mind as to which speakers to use and how loud, even using the same app on the same trip - I almost jumped in my seat once), GMC drivetrain EMF causing a whine in the speakers that even when "off" that phased with engine RPM), Nissan (didn't have issues until 120K miles, but occassionally blew fuses for interior components - likely not a manufacturing defect other than a short developed somewhere, but on a high-mileage car that was mechanically sound was too expensive to fix (a lot of trial and error and tracing connections = labor costs). What I suspect will happen is that only the largest commodity suppliers that can really leverage their supply chain will remain, and for the more complex components (think bumper assemblies or the electronics for them supporting all kinds of sensors) will likley consolidate to a handful of manufacturers who may eventually specialize in what they produce. This is part of the reason why seemingly minor crashes cost so much - an auto brand does nst have the parts on hand to replace an integrated sensor , nor the expertice as they never built them, but bought them). And their suppliers, in attempt to cut costs, build them in way that is cheap to manufacture (not necessarily poorly bulit) but difficult to replace without swapping entire assemblies or units).I've love to see an article on repair costs and how those are impacting insurance rates. You almost need gap insurance now because of how quickly cars depreciate yet remain expensive to fix (orders more to originally build, in some cases). No way I would buy a CyberTruck - don't want one, but if I did, this would stop me. And it's not just EVs.