2019 Hyundai Kona Electric
It happened again.
At this week's New York auto show media days, a manufacturer rolled out yet another vehicle that it calls a "crossover" despite that vehicle having neither the ground clearance nor the all-wheel drive to qualify as a light truck.
The car in question was the 2019 Hyundai Kona Electric, a 250-mile battery-electric vehicle more accurately described as a subcompact five-door hatchback.
Its gasoline counterpart, the conventional Kona, offers 6.7 inches of ground clearance and optional all-wheel drive. Hyundai has not released a specification for the Kona Electric's ground clearance, but it appears lower than its gasoline counterpart; all-wheel drive is not offered.
So what is a "crossover utility vehicle," anyhow?
It's a term that emerged from the auto industry to denote a vehicle that looked like an SUV (sport utility vehicle) but was built on unit-body passenger-car underpinnings, rather than using the traditional separate chassis-and-body construction of the trucks that were adapted into SUVs.
2018 Chevrolet Suburban
The umbrella term "utility vehicles" now encompasses both traditional SUVs and the far more common crossovers, which are available these days in sizes from subcompact to almost-as-large as full-size sport utilities like the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban.
The NHTSA has a formal definition of what constitutes a "light-duty truck," however, the category that the bulk of crossovers fall into because light trucks have fewer regulatory requirements to meet in some areas—which manufacturers like because it reduces costs.
To qualify as a light truck, a vehicle must have a flat load bay (meaning fold-down rear seats), available all-wheel drive, ground clearance of at least 20 cm (7.9 inches), and certain minimum approach and breakover angles (essentially the ability not to scrape the front or rear ends on steep slopes).
Close observation may point out that the North American versions of many models of utility vehicle have restyled front ends, different rear bumper shields, and higher ground clearance than very similar versions sold in Europe and Asia.
That's to ensure they get the "light truck" designation from the NHTSA, and fall under that regulatory regime.
Under those qualifications, however, no Hyundai Kona qualifies as a light truck—even the gasoline versions with available AWD.
2019 Mazda CX-3
The same applies, incidentally, to the similarly sized Mazda CX-3, its smallest "crossover," which like the Kona is best viewed as a somewhat taller five-door hatchback with bigger wheels than usual (and optional all-wheel drive, in this case).
But carmakers have caught on that in buyers' eyes, what constitutes a "utility vehicle" among smaller cars may be a case of shoppers knowing it when they see it—regardless of what the NHTSA calls it.
Among the most adept at playing that regulatory game is Subaru, known far and wide for the all-wheel drive it fits to all but one model in its lineup.
Its popular Crosstrek "small crossover" is a jacked-up Impreza hatchback, while its Outback "SUV" is a Legacy wagon, jacked up and modified specifically to qualify as a light truck.
Meanwhile, numerous vehicles that do not qualify as light trucks under NHTSA rules are now being peddled as "crossovers" by makers desperate to cash in on the utility-vehicle craze and elevate their products out of the passenger-car category.
Just in the last two model years, those include the Chevrolet Bolt EV, Hyundai Kona, Kia Niro, Mazda CX-3, and Toyota C-HR. Only one of them (the CX-3) is offered with all-wheel drive, and none of them have ground clearance of 7.9 inches or more.
2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV
2018 Hyundai Kona first drive
2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid
2018 Toyota C-HR
Given the state of our driveway in the wintry Northeast, we could live with slightly less ground clearance.
But we're firm on one thing: if you can't get all-wheel drive, it ain't a utility vehicle. It's a hatchback or a wagon, no matter how many dirt roads you park it on or kayaks you put on the roof for photos.
Got that, Hyundai ... and Chevy, and Kia, and Toyota?