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Monday, October 01, 2012

Fat and Thirsty: SUVs

From the Vault Dept.: Sometimes I’m surprised by the oddball pieces I discover in my files, pieces I've forgotten I wrote. Here’s such a one. Strictly an “on-assignment” piece intended to promote awareness of what became and has remained a disastrous trend in American business and American thinking. The sight of a suburban housewife climbing down from a Humvee in a supermarket parking lot would be completely hilarious if it weren’t also so, so sad.


THEY’RE KINGS OF THE HIGHWAY: roomy not-quite trucks driven for a sense of status or safety, lousy gas mileage notwithstanding. Sit in a sport utility vehicle and you’re high above the road, looking down (in all senses) on puny subcompacts. You’re surrounded by three tons of power that feels as if it could crush any two-door weakling that gets in your way.

You’re right.

A recent New York Times article portrayed the difference between SUVs and smaller cars. When one of each type collides, it’s the car’s occupants – not to mention the car itself – that suffer. For one thing, the bumpers on SUVs are a lot higher than car bumpers. This was intended to give the light trucks plenty of ground clearance when used on rough terrain. But the roughest terrain most SUV drivers travel tend to be city streets, where sitting up so high becomes a matter of feeling safe and looking important.

SUVs are also criticized for their poor fuel efficiency, getting less than 15 miles per gallon in city driving while small cars can easily achieve twice that. Undismayed by environmental consciousness, new car buyers continue to snap up these vehicles at such a rate that they’ve become Detroit’s biggest moneymakers. And Detroit would rather not mess with something that’s selling so well right now.

Building SUVs with better fuel efficiency could widen the trade deficit with Japan, say automakers, who also are resisting such recommendations as putting higher bumpers on cars--a move recommended by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

Recent Federal accident statistics show that people are more likely to die in a crash between a car and a light truck than in a crash between two cars. Federal crash standards, however, only test collisions between cars that are within 500 pounds of one another and, as with company-sponsored crash tests, favor head-on collisions in their methodology.

According to the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, those tests are a good measure of restraint system effectiveness, but don’t reflect the kinds of damage found in typical highway encounters. A recent IIHS crash test of six SUV models found that they “fared worse than passenger cars built 20 years ago.” After a 5 MPH front angle crash, only the Jeep Grand Cherokee could be driven away without immediate body repair. The impressive-looking rear-mounted spare tire is another liability, upping the cost of repair after a rear-end collision.

After four different 5 MPH crashes, repair costs ranged from a high of $8,173 for an Isuzu Rodeo/Honda Passport (they’re the same) to a low of $4,168 for the twin Chevrolet Blazer/GMC Jimmy.

“The popularity of SUVs is old news,” says Robert Rosen, former editor of the Motor World Car and Light Truck Buyer’s Guide and now a freelance writer covering the automotive industry. “People got interested in them ten years ago, back when they really were light trucks. Since then, they’ve become luxury vehicles with leather linings and CD systems, and they’re now even being built to handle like cars.”

Take the Range Rover, which has become the Hollywood producer status symbol. “It’s a great car,” says Rosen. “When I test drove one for a couple of months, I felt like the most powerful man on earth. This is what the Queen of England drives.” Appropriately, then, the $55,000 Range Rover compensates for its trucklike height by lowering itself like a bus when you’re getting in and out.

“Probably 60 to 65 percent of my new car sales are Ford Explorers and Expeditions,” says Dennis Enright, sales representative with Terry Morris Ford. “I deal a lot with professional people, and this is what they’re buying.” What they’re buying, especially with the new Ford Expedition, is luxury. “It drives better than a Cadillac,” says Enright. Like most SUVs, it’s built on a truck chassis, “but the suspension is soft and the handling is wonderful.”

Where the Explorer begins in the $20,000 range, the Expedition is priced at least $10,000 higher. “It’s meant to go up against the Chevy Suburban, and it’s already outsold that car in this area. When we get them on the lot, they last maybe two or three days.”

Although the common SUV-buyer profile is the yuppie family with lots of kids to shlep, Enright also sees older couples buying these cars. “Their kids are grown and they want to travel around the country, so they’re buying the Eddie Bauer models to do it in comfort.”

Insuring your SUV is another matter. “Some of those are what we call rollover vehicles,” said a Schenectady-based agent who spoke anonymously. “The Suzuki Samurai, Jeep Wrangler – vehicles like that. I’ve seen cases where a guy who’s driving something like a Nissan Sentra decides to trade up to one of those Eddie Bauer types of car and gets his policy canceled.”

Even vehicles with less of a rollover risk are subject to higher rates. “Companies assign a symbol value to determine the premium rate,” the agent explained. “For example, I drive a Buck LeSabre, and that has a symbol 8 rating. My husband has a Jeep Cherokee: that’s a symbol 19, so he’s paying more than double what I pay. Part of what makes that symbol rating higher are features. Someone who can afford a sport utility vehicle can also afford to pay for features like leather seats, CD player, moonroof and so on. Also, it’s hard to get parts for some of these vehicles, which also makes the symbol rating higher.”

Then there are the damage claims filed by SUV owners who are victims of malice. “People get jealous. You park your expensive car in the mall lot to go to a movie and you find that somebody keyed the side of it or slashed the tires. It’s like they’re saying, ‘Why should you have this car and I can’t?’”

Insurance companies also are noting the driving styles of SUV owners. As this agent pointed out, “Some owners think they can go anywhere and do anything in these things, no matter what the driving conditions. They end up hydroplaning, they end up in a snowbank. The cars are built better and stronger, but the drivers don’t know how to drive them.”

This is echoed by a professional driver, James Schubert, who has been behind the wheel of Trailways buses for over 20 years. “I’m scared of those things,” he says. “I’ve learned how to drive in all kinds of weather, and when there’s a snowstorm or icestorm, I go at a prudent speed and drive according to what the road is telling me. Who’s passing me, doing 65? The Explorer, the Pathfinder, the Trooper. And I know that, five minutes down the road, that’s the car I’m going to see overturned in the ditch. The only thing working in their favor is that they’re going into the cushion of a snowbank.”

Still, there’s a profitable future predicted for SUVs. Over a dozen new models are expected in the next two years, and Ward’s Communication predicts that sales volume will grow by almost a half-million units to 2.2 million by 2001 even as more luxury features and safety equipment are added. And, as U.S. carmakers continue to resist better fuel efficiency, smaller Japanese models will emerge to fill that gap.

Metroland Magazine, March 27, 1997

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