"I just did not want to drive a big vehicle," says Carol Race, 66, of Winter Haven, Fla., who traded in a Mercury Gran Marquis large sedan for a smaller Ford Escape last summer.
"It's so nice to have that extra room in the garage," the elementary school secretary says.
Gas mileage also was important to Race. Her Escape gets 26 mpg in combined city-highway driving, while the Marquis got around 19.
Toyota started the segment with the RAV4 in 1995. The Japanese barely compete in the red-hot pickup market, so these vehicles complement their best-selling small and midsize cars. The Detroit automakers want to capture new buyers as they diversify their model lineups to rely less on pickup trucks and big SUVs for profits.
The Escape is close to outselling Honda's CR-V, the longtime segment leader, for the second time in three years. Escape sales have grown 14 percent this year, almost twice as fast as the CR-V. Honda sold 251,636 CR-Vs through October; the Escape was next at 250,543. General Motors' Chevrolet Equinox ranked third at 202,583, followed by the RAV4 at 177,832.
Subaru introduced a reworked Forester in the spring. It's bigger inside than the old model, and gets better gas mileage. It was Subaru's top-selling vehicle last month, and U.S. sales are up 57 percent this year to 96,953.
"We're a roomy five-passenger car as opposed to a four-passenger car that you could squeeze five passengers into," says Kirk Schneider, who owns a Subaru dealership in Salt Lake City.
Analysts expect the crossovers to maintain their popularity, although they'll soon face new challengers.
Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC, sees growth in small crossover sales leveling off as automakers roll out more "multi-activity vehicles," such as the Mazda 5. Those are boxier people haulers that sit lower to the ground than crossovers and in some models have three rows of seats.