Ten years ago American Motors Corp. stopped selling an enigmatic 4-wheel drive wagon called the Eagle with a 4.2L inline-6 engine. Not just a station wagon with better traction, it had a macho, truck-like stance and several more inches of ground clearance than a regular car.

You still see them around once in a while. We spotted three in the Detroit area just in the last few weeks. The people driving them looked about as trendy as a baby boomer at a Spice Girls concert, but, hey, they must be onto something.

That mid-'80s Eagle wagon was so far ahead of its time it has taken the rest of the industry more than a decade to catch up. Suddenly cross-dressing cars and trucks is cool. Hey, it worked for Subaru, along with a little help from Crocodile Dundee.

"I think it's a very real trend," says Carl Olsen, chairman of the Transportation Design Program at Detroit's Center for Creative Studies. "Everybody is very worried about (the negative issues relating to) trucks, and they see the success of Subaru Outback. That stimulated a lot of work."

He hates the term "hybrid" because it confuses this breed of vehicle with those featuring diesel/electric powertrains that automakers also are touting, but Mr. Olsen likes the concept of mixing different vehicle types to invent new ones. "I think it's fun and opens up new opportunities and new aesthetics."

Call them crossovers. Call them HYVES (hybrid vehicles), a new acronym coined by WAW. Call them "carucks," or "sevans," as some in the industry do. Just don't you dare call them station wagons. Whatever the label, they represent the industry's next big design bandwagon - and automakers from Buick to BMW are hopping on.

Why? Barring a possible fuel crisis, tougher government regulations or a consumer backlash against sport/utility vehicles, these designs have better marketing prospects outside North America.

But most industry experts say this new segment has little to do with fuel economy and the environment. Instead it's mostly about marketing and style. The upscale vehicle buyers that automakers covet so much love new trends, and popular short-term leases make it ever easier for them to be fickle. What's more, aging baby boomers don't want to "settle" for anything anymore.

And believe it or not, there's a sizable market segment out there that doesn't really want a car or a truck.

In the opening scene of his 1991 movie LA Story, actor/writer/comedian Steve Martin mercilessly spoofs oh-so-trendy Los Angelenos by showing a group of diners ordering coffee. Well, not exactly coffee: "Decaf." "Decaf with espresso." "Double decaf cappuccino." "Decaf coffee with cappuccino ice cream." "Half-double decaf." "Half-caf, with a twist of lemon." "Oh, I'll have a twist of lemon, too."

That was seven years ago. It should be no surprise the desire for vehicular versions of half-double-decaf cappuccino now is bubbling up from the world's vehicle markets faster than you can say Tommy Hilfiger.

The Buick Signia "multiple-activity vehicle" concept introduced at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit, for instance, "delivers on its appearance that suggests aspects of a van and sport/utility as well as a sedan," Buick promises.

Based on the cushy Buick Park Avenue, the Signia offers luxury and comfort, but also lots of interior room, a higher ride height and all-wheel drive. Some critics love it, some hate it. But all agree it's a big new step for Buick, which has no trucks to sell.

Buick General Manager Robert E. Coletta says there are no plans to build a vehicle as extravagant as the Signia concept, but he emphasizes that it's not just a simple design exercise for the GM car division."If over 40% of the market continues to buy trucks, we've got to do something," he confides.

Many observers scoffed at the Signia as a design exercise driven by Buick's frustration that it has neither a sport/utility nor a minivan. But GM has a program to bring a true car-based utility vehicle to market by the 2002 model year and offer it through Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac dealers, according to supplier sources.

It will be based on the next generation of the MS2000 platform from which GM's front-wheel drive minivans, Pontiac Grand Prix and the Olds-mobile Intrigue are derived.

One of the most thoroughly scrutinized new vehicles at the NAIAS was the Lexus RX 300. No sooner had divisional general manager Jim Press concluded an introductory press conference than Chrysler Corp. Executive Vice President Thomas Gale and other high- ranking Chrysler managers swarmed into the room and visually dissected the chassis like a medical school class hovering over a cadaver.

But with sticker prices ranging between $32,000 and $36,000, Lexus' RX will be alive and kicking when it goes on sale in March, competing in the same neighborhood where well-equipped Jeep Grand Cherokees, Ford Explorers and the Mercedes' ML 320 SUV have romped.

"I'm envious already," declares Cadillac General Manager John F. Smith, who has been pushing for an all-wheel-drive "luxury activity vehicle" to be developed off the next Catera platform. "My personal bet is the crossover market represents the SUV market of the future."

Cadillac will be there, but probably not until the 2002 calendar year, supplier sources indicate. Others are hot on Lexus' heels.

Audi showcases a nearly production-ready concept in Detroit called the Audi Allroad Quattro that combines a permanent 4-wheel drive transmission with variable air suspension that can be adjusted, manually or by remote control, to three different heights to accommodate the terrain. It is powered by a 2.8L V-6 that kicks out 200 hp.

Engineers in Ingolstadt, Germany, pulled the prototype together in less than six months, and management will decide any day now whether to give it the green light for production.

"When we saw that Subaru is succeeding with a similar idea, but competing in a lower price range, we decided there also is a market for this type of vehicle at a slightly higher price," says Ulrich Hackenberg, director of technical projects for Audi AG.

But saying Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.'s Subaru of America Inc. subsidiary is merely "succeeding" by making truck-like cars is like saying Birkenstock is just another good shoe marketer.

After nearly dying in the early 1990s, Subaru logged all-time record revenues in excess of $2.5 billion in 1997 and sold over 133,000 units. That's a 10.8% increase over '96, and the best sales year since 1989, Subaru says.

And the driving force behind all this recent success is Subaru's focus on all-wheel-drive car/truck "hybrids" such as the Subaru Outback, Outback Sport and the new Forester.

"For us, it has literally turned the whole company around," says Subaru President George Muller.

"We had to build our business on what we did best and not try to copy other mainstream vehicles. We knew there were a lot of consumer groups that weren't getting everything they wanted out of their sport/utility vehicles. We call them opportunity groups for Subaru. They were sport/utility intenders, rejecters and defectors. That's really when the hybrid strategy started at Subaru.

"In 1993 we introduced the concept of active lifestyle wagons with all-wheel-drive active safety. In 1994 we introduced the first Subaru Outback. A year later we took the concept further and launched the world's first sport/utility wagon."

Now Subaru's trying to develop yet another hybrid niche with the brand new Legacy sport/utility sedan, introduced at NAIAS.

Interestingly, the concept wasn't a success at first. In 1993, automotive reviewers and dealers thought the concept of an "active lifestyle wagon" was pretty lame. It was panned by the press and did not sell well. Dressing the car up as a rugged "Outback" SUV and tying in the image of rugged Australian "Crocodile Dundee" Paul Hogan with the overall marketing program two years later is what finally struck the public's fancy and caused sales to skyrocket, Mr. Muller says.

While some critics still pan the various Subaru products as SUV pretenders, there can be no argument now that imitation remains the sincerest form of flattery.

Other head-turning concepts that fall into this emerging category include:

n Pontiac Montana Thunder, a macho and truck-like evolution of the Trans Sport minivan.

n Jeep Jeepster, blending the rugged foundation of a Cherokee with the quick acceleration of a sports car.

n Ford Alpe, a small all-wheel-drive wagon derived from the chassis of an Escort.

Ford has a smaller product it has developed with Mazda to compete against Toyota's RAV4 and Honda's CR-V. It is expected to debut sometime in calendar year 2000.

Chrysler, according to suppliers, is working on a similar vehicle that would come off the next generation of the Neon platform.

Are consumers really demanding these things, or is this trend driven by industry fears that Congress will raise the fuel economy bar for light-trucks or erase the regulatory distinction between cars and trucks?

"There's enormous potential," says Susan Jacobs, who tracks the luxury car and truck market for her Rutherford, NJ-based Jacobs & Associates research firm. "The demographics are very favorable for the over-45 age group, many of whom have already leased a sport/utility vehicle and may be ready for something in between a car and truck."

Subaru's Mr. Muller agrees. "Our research shows there are things consumers don't like about SUVs. A certain group does not like the high climb in, the poor fuel economy, and they don't like the road comfort."

What's more, unibody structures, which is what car-based designs allow, lead to lower weights, smaller engines and better fuel economy without sacrificing all of the agility and off-road capability of an SUV.

For example, a two-wheel drive Lexus RX 300 with an automatic transmission and 3L V-6 will average 19 miles per gallon (12.4 L/100 km) in the city and 24 mpg (9.8L/100 km) on the highway vs. 17 mpg (13.8L/100 km) city and 21 mpg (11.2L/100 km) highway for a Toyota 4Runner with a 3.4L 6-cyl. engine.

These crossover vehicles may also help automakers defuse the polarization already brewing between SUV owners, who tout the enhanced safety of their bulkier, higher-riding trucks, and passenger-car drivers, many of whom feel increasingly threatened by the sheer mass of the heavy metal sport/utility armada.

Volvo AB responded this past fall by introducing a new line of all-wheel-drive station wagons, including the V70 XC Cross Country, which sits slightly higher than a regular V70 wagon and offers side-impact air bags as standard equipment. Mercedes, in addition to its enormously successful ML320 sport ute, also offers an all-wheel drive station wagon. And BMW now has confirmed it's working on a vehicle based on its 5-Series platform that also likely will be a car/SUV hybrid.

Beyond regulatory pressures and market research is the primal need to innovate, to constantly evolve product lines to anticipate, rather than react to, changes in consumer tastes.

Chrysler Vice Chairman Robert A. Lutz cautions against reacting to the success of one or two products, such as Subaru's artful marketing of its Outback wagon package, or the RAV4/CR-V small SUV niche.

"The minute you permit yourself to get compartmentalized and bring something out that all these others have already you are not looking at the market creatively," Mr. Lutz says. "There are almost limitless ways to package automobiles in new and exciting ways that totally defy categories.

"The best example I can think of is the new Beetle. It is impossible to find a category for that car. It's not a coupe. It's not a sedan. It's not modern. It's not retro."

No, it's a combination of all of the above. Kind of like a half-decaf cappuccino.

WHISTLER, BC - Amid the breathtaking beauty of this corner of North America it is hard for any man-made contraption other than ski-lifts and fluorescent colored snow boards to leave all that much of an impression.

The ski resorts up here, about 100 miles (161 km) north of Vancouver, draw upscale sport/utility vehicles (SUVs) the way a dropped popsicle in summer draws ants. And after awhile they all tend to look the same.

That is until Lexus decides to let a gaggle of journalists drive the new RX 300. Don't get me wrong, Lexus has jumped into the me-too game every luxury nameplate is playing with large, high-riding "mine-swallowed-more-steroids-than-yours" SUVs with its new LX 470, about which we'll say more next month.

But the RX 300 is on the frontier of "crossover" country, that half car/half truck phenomenon that is showing all the signs of being the industry's next big thing (see p. 30).

Developed in about 18 months, the RX chassis shares some parts with Camry, but has its own body stampings, its own 3L V-6 and the extremely smooth variable valve timing system Lexus earlier introduced in the LS 400, GS 400, GS 300 and the marque's luxury coupes, SC 400 and SC 300. The result: up to 220 hp (20 more than in the ES 300) and 222 ft.-lbs. of torque.

You don't get that "above-it-all" dominance rush. The 7.7 in. (19.6 cm) of ground clearance is much closer to that of a minivan, and a good inch below that of most compact SUV entries.

Is there a market for this, or is it the latest flavor-of-the-month?

After a day of tooling along well-paved, winding mountain roads and snow-caked lumber trails, here's my take:

If you're looking for that aggressive aura of impenetrability and status and you're comfortable in the mid-$30,000 range, the Mercedes ML 320 likely will be more of your romp through the woods.

If you're towing large boats or other recreational possessions, you're probably looking at a truck-based SUV anyway, although the RX can tug up to 3,500 lbs. (1,588 kg) with a receiver hitch accessory.

For those secure enough to recognize they're rarely, if ever, going any farther off the beaten path than their son's or daughter's scout camp, and who appreciate that cars in this price range are still more agile and road-hugging than the most refined SUV, this is a breakthrough. It's an entirely different animal than what Mercedes has created. The driving experience is much closer to a sports sedan than one expects from an outwardly utilitarian machine.

Nearly every other automaker is chasing the concept, and Lexus gets credit for delivering now.

It may not look that big from the outside, but there's plenty of cargo space inside (131.2 cu. ft./3,715 L of total interior volume).

Lexus puts more creativity into the instrument panel than Mercedes does in its ML 320. For example, there's a rectangular video screen that initially displays climate controls. Eventually it will house an on-board navigation system. The back seats slide forward and back along a 5-in. (12.7 cm) track. They also recline far enough to permit easy napping on long trips.

Side air bags will be standard.

It's not fashionable to think about fuel economy, but the RX's 4X4 package will get you 22 mpg (10.7L/100 km) on the highway, while the 4X2 comes in at 24 mpg (9.8L/100km). In city traffic the figure is 19 mpg (12.3L/100 km).

Built at the same new assembly plant in Kyushu, Japan, where Lexus builds the ES 300 (it is also sold in Japan under the Harrier nameplate), the RX will start at a base price of $31,550, not including the $495 dealer and delivery charge. Jim Press, senior vice president and general manager of Lexus Div., says a commonly equipped 4X2 package will sticker for around $32,950, while the 4X4 will go for $35,505.

Lexus marketing officials already have boosted their sales projections from 20,000 to 25,000 for the first full calendar year. The RX 300 goes on sale in March.

Chris Hostetler, Lexus and Toyota corporate manager of product development, says it will be classified as a car for emissions and fuel economy regulations.

Perhaps the only risk is that this intriguing new hybrid could cannibalize a few ES 300 sales, although Steve Sturm, Lexus corporate marketing manager, insists it will appeal, on average, to more under-45 buyers than the sedan.

The other unresolved issue is whether a version of the RX will join the Toyota stable. The official word is no. But the debate within the corridors of Toyota Motor Sales headquarters in Torrance, CA, is far from over.