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We Need a More Versatile Definition of "Utility Vehicle"

Moment of Zenlea

Our office lot is overflowing with subcompact crossovers. We have a Nissan Juke, a Jeep Renegade, a Honda HR-V, a Mazda CX-3, and a Kia Soul. Sometime next week we'll be comparing them all. Yeah, we're excited, too.

The idea behind these little boxes (not to be confused with the "Little Boxes" Malvina Reynolds and Pete Seeger sang about) is that they offer lots of utility in a small package. Not a bad deal. Yet, as I gaze at a lot of little boxes ("There's a green one and a pink one/and a blue one and a yellow one…"), I can't help but wonder: when did we decide vehicles with utility had to be utility vehicles?

The workhorse in my family growing up was a 1992 Chevrolet Camaro like the one pictured above. It had a hatchback, the rear seats folded down, and we constantly hauled crap with it. Sounds like a utility vehicle to me. The few items too big to jam into the hatch, we loaded onto our flimsy roof rack. This setup served my family faithfully for years. I won't say the 'Maro was perfect—I remember the time said roof rack failed and a sheet of plywood fell onto my dad's foot. But it worked just fine most of the time and looked way cooler than a Honda HR-V.

Evaluating the new car market today, I see not a single car like those old hatchback F-Bodies. There are barely conventional hatchback cars at all. Automakers, in their drive to compartmentalize every buyer into a rigidly defined segment, have decided that if you want a hatchback, you also want a raised suspension and a boxy body. You probably want to pay extra for all-wheel drive, too.

Still, there are sporty, non-boxes that can be utility vehicles, in a pinch. Just last week, I filled our Four Seasons BMW M235i with four adults and their bags for a trip to the airport. Then I drove home, folded down the rear seats, and stuffed a road bike in the trunk. The M235i is a small car, yet it makes the most of its room with an upright roofline and a rear bench that folds down easily. No gimmicks, just good design. Oh, and when it's not hauling people, gear, and bikes, it hauls ass on a racetrack. Sounds like more versatility than any of those little boxes offer.

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