TCS Daily


The Age of the SUV

By Brock Yates - April 4, 2002 12:00 AM

One can only hope that blood pressure levels at the New York Times editorial offices have returned to normal. Surely hypertension was off the Richter Scale last week while the New York automobile show was underway a few blocks to the west of the Gray Lady's Manhattan headquarters. You will recall that it is from this Olympian height that the grand eminences of the Times pass judgment on all aspects of society, including the profligate use of the hated vehicles known as SUV's.

The Times has been in high dudgeon over these machines for years. Its writers moan incessantly that they consume both too much fuel and too many lives (while conveniently ignoring statistics that since the dreaded devices became popular over a decade ago, vehicular traffic deaths have trended downward annually at an increasing rate.)

No doubt the bustling activity at the Javits Center on the city's west side produced massive distress among the Timesmen. This was due to the giant place being jammed with all manner of shiny new SUV's from home and aboard; smallish ones from Japan, mid-sized and large ones from Europe and building-sized humpers from Detroit. Horsepower numbers commonly exceeded 200 and in a number of models jumped past the 300 mark.

Lincoln, for example, showed off its new Aviator, a plush version of the Ford Explorer that boasts a 302hp V8. Even Honda, which constantly pats itself on the back for its fuel-efficient automobiles, displayed its new Pilot, a downscale knockoff of the Acura MDX. It packs a 240hp V6 that will get no more than 23 miles to the gallon on the highway.

Scattered throughout the cavernous Javits Center were dozens of SUV's with edgy styling and engines that the Times would surely fuss about as being too powerful and too thirsty.

Despite the grousing of the media elites from Manhattan and Washington (where driving is restricted to dainty weekend jaunts to suburban restaurants) the sport utility vehicle market is booming across the nation. Nearly four million of the beasts were sold last year, an increase of 12.5%. It is the most energetic sector in the overall automobile market. If we include pickups and vans in the mix, these non-conventional automobiles accounted for 51% of domestic sales last year and are sure to increase in 2002.

Why is this so if our opinion-makers, our towering geniuses at the networks and the super-dailies, universally turn thumbs down on such purchases?

Is it possible that the American public makes wiser decisions in these matters than the magnificios who monitor our lives?

Is it possible that people purchase SUV's because they are functional, not because the buyers are witless status slaves?

Is it possible that women purchase then in inordinate quantities because they added height of the vehicles enhances visibility and a sensation of security?

Is it possible that men purchase them because they offer extra cargo space plus a wide range of utility and flexibility and the power to tow trailers of all descriptions?

Is it possible that consumers of all stripes are prepared to sacrifice a few miles per gallon and a few extra bucks for the added benefits of an SUV? (Driving 10,000 miles a year and averaging 20 mpg, vs. 35 mpg from a compact car at $1.50 a gallon, will cost $322 extra. That's not a staggering amount to pay for added benefits.)

And, be warned, my dear friends at the Times, the worst is yet to come. Porsche's new Cayenne SUV, due later this year or early the next, is said to offer a twin-turbo V-8 making 444 horsepower. Mercedes-Benz is sure to counter with an ML55 carrying a tweaked AMG V-8 producing figures well north of 400. And if that happens, will Cadillac let its 345hp Big Mamma Escalade fall out of the race? The age of the ground-pounding, muscle-bound, mega-power SUV is here, just as the McCain/Kerry whimsies for a 35 mpg CAFE standard disappear in a cloud of rubber smoke. And if you thoughts the Times editorial board was having palpitations at the Javits this March, wait until next year.
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