Every October at the start of what still is considered the new model year, Ward's tries to make some sense of the onslaught of new vehicles – sort of a segment-by-segment “what’s hot, what’s not” take on new product.

And every year, a super-hot segment comes out on top.

But for ’04, and presumably beyond, there’s something even hotter than being in the coolest segment: not being in a segment at all.

Auto makers are striving en masse to come out with successful “segment-busters,” the new holy grail of design. Scion xB, Chrysler Pacifica and Volkswagen Touareg all are hoping to fall between the cracks of segmentation in order to earn this coveted new designation as a conveyor of cool.

These neither-fish-nor-fowl entries are serving as the inspiration for plenty of destined-for-production concepts, such as the Lexus HPX. In fact, so many cars are claiming to “bust” segments, the assortment comprises a segment unto itself.

Not always related to the cross/utility vehicle, a true segment buster “will defy the ability to be placed in a standard segment the industry has always used,” says Wes Brown, partner at Los Angeles automotive trend-watching firm Iceology (formerly Nextrend).

But why the sudden desire to break free from the shackles of segmentation? Consumers, especially Generations X and Y, are not traditional shoppers in that they often stray across segment lines. The more trendy and image-oriented the vehicle gets, the less segments matter.

“Look at the Mini,” Brown says. “People who bought the Mini may have looked at SUVs, some pickups, coupes, convertibles – anything out there that would be considered cool and fun could have been cross-shopped.”

Mini customers weren’t, however, test-driving the similarly priced and sized Toyota Corolla.

Brown says it also would be a mistake to compare the Nissan Xterra and Volkswagen New Beetle to vehicles solely within their respective segments. And sometimes companies toss around the segment-buster tag, even when they’re not busting any segment at all.

“You’d rather have it be considered a segment-buster because it broadens the market for you,” Brown says. “Sometimes it’s going to be easy for the consumer to see it, and other times it’s going to take incredible marketing and position to convince the consumer.”

Nobody’s more fond of the term than Chrysler – which lays claim to the first segment bust of the modern era with the invention of the minivan in 1983.

And more segment-busters have followed: with the PT Cruiser (Is it a car or truck?), and this year with Pacifica, whose station wagon-minivan-CUV-pseudo-luxury-sedan characteristics defy definition.

Pacifica also is defying corporate expectations, with sales falling short of targets. Brown attributes Pacifica’s rocky start to Chrysler not playing up the “segment-buster” angle enough.

“They did not portray it well enough in its marketing and advertising to let people know it’s this very unique, very different vehicle, that pushes the envelope to the point that it’s unsegmentable,” Brown says. Conveying this message properly would have helped consumers justify its price tag.

Segment-busters strive to set trends but occasionally fall short of an OEM’s expectations. In this regard, Pacifica has plenty of company. Even though Honda Element sales are going great guns, this surfer segment-buster is appealing to an older crowd than Honda envisioned. The Xterra and New Beetle are struggling to stay cool as new automotive fashions come along.

And then there are the unmitigated disasters, such as Subaru of America Inc.’s slow-selling, dead-in-the-water Baja, an El Camino-inspired car with a pickup bed and, now, in hopes of kickstarting sales, a turbocharged engine. And this discussion just wouldn’t be complete without two little words: Pontiac Aztek.

So segment-busters, take heed. Breaking the mold could be key to a Mini-sized success. Or, it could be the shortcut to becoming the next Aztek.