While car-based crossover SUVs are becoming increasingly popular in the United States, manufacturers still have work to do to convince SUV shoppers that crossovers are as functional and rugged as their traditional SUV counterparts, according to the JD Power and Associates 2005 online vehicle image and positioning study.

The study focused on the styling and image perceptions of 10 of the most recently released crossover models compared to five traditional SUVs. Crossovers, which are defined as SUVs built on car-based platforms, are increasingly gaining consumer acceptance. According to Power Information Network, crossover SUVs captured a 46.1% share of the total SUV market to the end of September-up from just 16.5% in 2000.

The study found that, among consumers who would consider purchasing an SUV, many perceive crossover SUVs to be less rugged and functional than traditional SUVs. In fact, perceptions of functionality and ruggedness are particularly important for crossover SUV sales, since ratings of functionality and ruggedness tend to correlate highly with those consumers who would consider a crossover SUV.

“While there may be increased emphasis lately on better fuel efficiency and smaller packaging, the perception of strength and function is still very important to consumers thinking about purchasing a crossover SUV,” said JD Power spokesman Chance Parker. “It is less of an issue with respect to traditional SUVs, given their generally higher level of rugged and functional styling to begin with. However, among crossover SUVs, it becomes an important positive differentiator.”

Important highlights of the study’s findings included:

Among the 10 crossovers evaluated, the Volkswagen Touareg and Cadillac SRx received particularly high marks for overall styling. Women, in particular, liked the styling of the Touareg, while the SRX is often perceived by consumers as being modern, established and upscale.

Despite being the most recently introduced model in the study, the new Mercedes Benz R-Class received a high level of brand recognition and is perceived to be quite luxurious. However, it did not receive high ratings from consumers for overall styling, largely as a result of somewhat negative perceptions of its exterior design by women.

Subaru‘s B9 Tribeca, which is also very new to the US market, had low levels of brand recognition as well as low ratings for overall styling.

However, men reacted much more favourably to the model than did women, perceiving it as an exciting, sporty and trendsetting new design.

Though its ratings for overall exterior styling are not high, the Nissan Murano was perceived as a particularly trendsetting crossover SUV and was often associated with being a younger person’s vehicle. It also scored well among women, who are likely to view it as a vehicle that can be “shown off,” and is perceived to be high tech, modern and flashy.

Respondents, especially women, particularly thought of the Ford Freestyle as very functional. However, it did not tend to connect with consumers in many other respects, and was not associated with being sporty, modern, exciting and high tech.