TCS Daily


By Ralph Kinney Bennett - March 5, 2003 12:00 AM

As the drumfire against SUVs continues from those who seem to deeply resent America's love affair with large, roomy, versatile vehicles, it might be useful to remind ourselves about just why and how SUVs came to exist in the first place.

The first thing to remember is that an SUV is at heart a truck - a "light truck" but a truck nonetheless. Beyond the fact that they tend to be big and have lots of cargo space, trucks are designed and built the way they are for certain reasons:

  • They are made heavier and sturdier, to take a beating in commercial use in all kinds of places and situations - mud, snow, unpredictable roads or no roads at all.
  • They are made higher off the ground (ground clearance) and are more heavily sprung to enable them to deal with rough terrain and unforeseen conditions.
  • They are made with less overhang (the distance from the tires to the front and rear ends of the vehicle) so they can climb very steep grades without "bumping into" the ground.

These characteristics have generally been bought at the price of speed, fuel economy and relative ride comfort. However, these very characteristics of durability, cargo capacity and "go anywhere" capability have proven so appealing to so many motorists that the hybridization of trucks into "sport utility vehicles" would seem to have been inevitable.

By the end of World War II, for instance, the rugged versatility of the military Jeep had made it a legend. Willys-Overland decided to capitalize on that by introducing its CJ (for "Civilian Jeep") line of vehicles. Famed designer Brooks Stevens came up with the Jeep Wagoneer, the first all metal station wagon, in 1946. The next year a pick-up truck version was introduced.

That first rather austere, boxy Jeep wagon has gone through many changes (although you can still discern its "bloodline") and been a phenomenal success. It spurred many rivals, including the British Land Rover and the Japanese Land Cruiser - both initially modeled after the Jeep - two vehicles that have created their own legends all over the world. Now, SUVs are virtually a must item in any automaker's product line.

No matter how luxurious, curvy and "car like" they have become, SUVs are, to restate the obvious, very different vehicles from ordinary cars. And these truck-derived differences became all the greater as efforts to make passenger cars more economical and efficient proliferated. Passenger cars tend to be built lighter and relatively less sturdy because they will not have to undergo the beating of a truck. They are built lower to the ground, not only for appearance sake, but to enhance their ability to slip through the air thus increasing their fuel economy.

Air passing under a car creates significant drag that reduces miles-per-gallon. So, while the average passenger car is not as low to the ground as a Formula I racer or a NASCAR competition machine, there is an effort to minimize the amount of air passing under the car at speed. The consequently lower front bumpers and air dams on cars offer a very different profile than the squared off front of a Hummer.

Thus there is an inherent incompatibility between cars and SUVs. Different profiles, structures and weights have inevitable consequences in accidents. And guess what? Vehicles with higher centers of gravity will generally roll over easier than those with lower centers. These are simply facts of what we might call automotive diversity. When someone shows up in Central Park walking a Mastiff, those who are walking terriers and poodles may be wary and the Mastiff walker, it is hoped, will act responsibly. That's just the way it is, folks. Should drivers of SUVs be more attentive to the possible effect their vehicles might have on smaller vehicles? Sure. But then, driver attentiveness and particularly courtesy is always a good idea whether behind the wheel of a Geo or a Suburban.

The wide variety of cars on American streets and roads is the inevitable result of free choices Americans have made about what they drive. Those choices have tended to reflect a desire, not only for vehicle roominess, but also for potential performance and capability that may be seldom if ever used. Some people buy convertibles because they like the looks but they never put the top down. Some big pick-up trucks have load beds unscathed by cargo of any kind. The guy who buys a Toyota 4-Runner and half-dreams of one day taking it up some rock-strewn back road in the Sierras may never act out that dream. On the other hand, the night he gets caught in a snowstorm, he is grateful for the 4-Runner's high ground clearance and sure-footedness.

Packaging truck-like characteristics and performance potential into smaller, more car like vehicles has been taking place for some time. These "crossover" vehicles are proving popular with consumers. The public will decide on what relative risks (safety) and rewards (performance potential) it wants in vehicles and the market will sort things out. Latest sales figures, for instance, show that Ford's new Escape SUV is up 28.4 percent, while the large Explorer is down 7.1 percent. Right now, GM and Ford are sitting on big inventories of their larger SUVs. But I'll bet the romance isn't over yet.

The anti-SUV crowd (check this out in letters to the editor and various internet screeds) is not pleased that American drivers want all this potential in their driveways. They get heartburn because all that cargo space in someone's Yukon is left empty most of the time. They are concerned that someone living in Miami is driving a hulking four-wheel drive better suited to the wilds of British Columbia. They don't like the idea that soccer moms in the suburbs of Philadelphia or Atlanta may be at the wheel of a Chevy Suburban rather than a Dodge minivan.

It is interesting to note that these anti-SUV ranters have begun to brand the vehicles themselves with human characteristics. Democrats even introduced Congressional legislation to "reduce the aggressivity of light trucks." The aggressivity of light trucks!! And SUVs have been anthropomorphized by self-appointed arbiters of how we should live, like auto safety gauleiter Joan Claybrook, who finds them to be "antisocial."

There will always be Pecksniffians who deplore the fact that too many Americans have more car, more house, more boat, more wattage in their sound system than they "need." They cry "safety;" they cry "environment," but in their hearts they want sumptuary laws. Theirs is the politics of resentment and envy, and the sad thing is that while they would get hooted out of any bar or diner in America, they continue to be treated seriously by the media and by politicians.


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