The next big thing is, perhaps by definition, pretty hard to figure out.

In a car industry ever hungry for new niches and new concepts, but terrified of launching a duffer, only very occasionally does something unexpected escape from the customer clinic.

Renault’s ill-fated Avantime is perhaps the best example of a niche too far, but that was an idea unique to one manufacturer. The chances of another carmaker having come up with a car like the Avantime would have been near non-existent.

So how can we explain the appearance of these three cars at the Detroit show?

The Acura ZDX, Toyota Venza and Honda Accord Crosstour look like they could have all been drawn up to the same brief. Looking like squashed SUVs that can’t decide if they’re tall estate cars or, in the case of the Japanese cars, four door coupes.

But although the Acura and Accord come under the same ownership umbrella, all were conceived separately.

The Toyota Venza was first off the production line, launching 12 months ago. The Acura ZDX appeared at the New York show in April 2009 and but the Accord Crosstour was announced in July 2009, so all were signed and sealed before the Venza became public.

Interestingly, both the Toyota and Acura were conceived in California-based design studios. But I’m not sure that trend spotters from Toyota and Acura had uncovered a latent demand from buyers who wanted a car that combined coupe looks with estate car versatility and a SUV-style raised driving position.

“The Accord Crosstour combines the sophisticated refinement of a premium sedan with versatile characteristics of an SUV to create an entirely distinct concept within the crossover utility vehicle segment,” Honda says.

"You're More than One Thing. So is Venza" says Toyota.

"The ZDX is truly a luxury performance coupe - plus," says Jeff Conrad, vice president of Acura sales. "The emotional coupe styling coupled with a luxurious and dramatic interior and surprising versatility, allows the ZDX to define its own segment and attract an entirely new customer."

The Acura ZDX – mastermined by a 33-year-old female designer – was born out of challenge from Acura marketing department to the design team. ‘Come up with something different’ they said.

Well, as different as it was in 2006, the production ZDX wasn’t that unique by the time it arrived.

The BMW X6 is also clearly part of the same trend, though it is based on a full-size SUV undercarriage. The new 5-series GT is another of these ‘crossover wagons’.

Toyota expects to shift 75-100,000 Venzas, Honda 75,000ish Crosstours and Acura around 60,000 ZDXs.

Here’s hoping. One of the last radically styled upmarket, versatile, high-seat hatchbacks was the Renault Vel Satis.

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