By Paul Roberts
It's the post-lunch lull at a Ford dealership in an upscale Seattle suburb, and a half dozen customers are gawking at the Excursion, Ford's entry in the "full-size" sport-utility vehicle market and, currently, the largest passenger vehicle on the planet. A low, bruised-looking sky has threatened rain all day, and the traffic noise from the nearby highway is incessant, but Ford has yet to be hit by looming recalls, and the mood on the lot is festive, even giddy. Although the Excursion has been out for more than a year, to see one up close is still like meeting a minor celebrity. The thing is surreal. Nineteen feet long and nearly seven feet high, with huge truck tires, bulging side panels, and a rounded chrome bumper and grill so oversize they look borrowed from a long-haul semi, the Excursion seems less like a passenger vehicle than some futuristic locomotive. Bob, my fair-haired, apple-cheeked salesman, unaware of the fact that I'm a journalist, leads me around an ivory-white model, describing how the Excursion is longer and wider and taller than its archrival, the Chevrolet Suburban, formerly the world's largest SUV. Bob's bosses back in Detroit have insisted to me that being the biggest wasn't the goal when they launched the Excursion; the newest Ford SUV, I've been told, is a "needs-based" car, designed for real customers--"married, down-to-earth, self-reliant, traditionalist individuals," according to the brochure--whose daily routines just happen to include transporting small crowds and hauling five-ton horse trailers over rugged rural roads. The brochure even invokes Thoreau: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life."
This is, of course, rather hard to take with a straight face, since nearly every other scrap of the Excursion's marketing material, including Bob's well-honed sales patter, is larded with references to the rig's great size and cargo capacities and sheer mass. Standing next to the $ 40,000, four-ton leviathan, whose V-10 engine can suck dry its forty-four-gallon tank in five hours, I'm having a hard time imagining it even getting off the lot without a tugboat. Bob senses my concern. Dropping his dimensional spiel, he assures me that the world's largest SUV can still fit into the parking garage at Bellevue Square, the Northwest's toniest mall. "Seriously," says Bob, smiling conspiratorially. "We measured."
By the conventions that once defined automotive quality, you'd be hard-pressed to imagine a category of vehicle less likely to succeed than the SUV. The typical SUV costs as much as a luxury car--anywhere from $ 19,000 for a little Kia Sportage to $ 82,000 for the tanklike Hummer--yet rides like a truck. It's hard to maneuver, harder to park, and possesses all the elegance and charm of a beer cooler. It's tall and bulked out, like some over-muscled gladiator, yet has less cargo space than most minivans or full-size sedans, and is harder for the family to climb into and out of. It can go off road, should the need arise, but since 89 percent of SUV owners never experience this need the vaunted off-road capability serves mainly to inflate the sticker price and drive up fuel consumption. And although billed as safer and more secure than lesser cars, SUVs were infamous, even before the Ford/Firestone debacle, for their high incidence of fatal rollovers and other deadly accidents.
Put another way, you'd expect to see SUVs relegated to the flukes and fads corner of the Museum of History and Industry, next to the Edsel or the Corvair. Instead, they are the most popular vehicles on America's streets and are getting more so, despite constant bad press and gas prices that, for a few months last summer, cost some Excursion owners $ 100 every time they filled up. To stroll the parking lot of any mall or high school is to find hundreds of SUVs, from the monster Excursions and Suburbans to the luxurious Navigators and Range Rovers and Lexuses to the tiny Toyota RAV4s and Mercedes ML 430s--all equipped with the four-wheel drive, big tires, and high ground clearance that off-road driving requires; and all so spotlessly clean that it's clear they've never been within thirty miles of a dirt road.
Yet the fact that sport utilities offer very little sport or utility matters little to those who buy them and not at all to those who sell them. Last year the SUV and its fraternal twin, the full-size pickup truck, accounted for roughly one third of the 17 million cars purchased in America, making the "light truck" category, to which they both belong, not only the most successful Detroit has ever rolled out but so profitable it has single-handedly dragged the American auto industry out of its decade-long doldrums.
Why should such a terrible car be so popular? Conservationists, who regard the SUV as a kind of industrial Antichrist, believe the "sport ute" is hot only because automakers and their parasitic allies, the oil companies, spend billions of dollars to brainwash consumers and bribe regulators not to close pollution and fuel-economy loopholes. This is sour grapes. True, these two industries have lavished money on Congress on behalf of the SUV.(1) But car companies actually spend less money advertising SUVs than they do for many other categories, such as midsize sedans. SUVs sell themselves.
Still, one can understand the critics' sheer horror. Tens of millions of Americans going into debt to buy what amounts to not only a dysfunctional, socially problematic, goofy-looking car but a very big one to boot--and this fewer than thirty years after an energy crisis and an environmental awakening were supposed to have killed our yen for gas guzzlers. Ironically, most of the people buying SUVs today learned to drive in a milieu that excoriated the big car and held up the Honda Civic as the acme of automotive elegance. How, exactly, did the SUV convince Americans big was again beautiful?
Bob fires up the Excursion and eases it out from between its brethren so I can get a better look inside. This is a "Limited" edition, designed for upscale utilitarians, and the interior is a cross between a bus and a Learjet, with a wealth of handholds and personal consoles and AC vents. Bob moves around inside with practiced grace, pointing out the various amenities: the leather seats, the leather-wrapped wheel, vanity lights, seat warmers, a six-disc CD player, and ten cup holders. He counts out the five power outlets for the refrigerators and televisions that down-to-earth, self-reliant SUV drivers cannot travel without. He demonstrates the popular "command position" front seats, which put the driver well above the road--and other cars--for an extra feeling of safety and security. Stepping back outside, Bob praises the lighted running boards, defrostable side mirrors, armored side panels, impact-absorbing hood, and special motor mounts that, in the event of a head-on collision, cause the enormous engine block to drop beneath the vehicle. "Because there's always going to be someone bigger than you out there," says Bob, grinning to show that he doesn't believe it either.
Nearby, the crowd of Excursion groupies has thinned to three. Two are fortyish, wearing the uniform of a Microsoft manager--khakis, polo shirt, and high-top urban hikers, with the pale skin and doughy midriff of someone who doesn't get outside much. The third customer is a tall, slender-waisted man with wide shoulders and an easy athletic gait. "Probably a ballplayer," says Bob, breaking from his pitch on amenities to describe the Excursion's emerging role as the status car for sports figures and other celebrities."Last week, we had a Seattle Seahawk come in for a test drive. They're hot."
SUV mania is the kind of turnaround business miracle that makes even hardened auto executives go all misty. By the early 1980s, the story goes, American car culture was in deep crisis. All the beautiful muscle cars--the Camaros and Firebirds, the Mustangs and GTOs---had been killed off or downsized by rising gas prices, tighter pollution laws and mileage standards, and a prudish disdain for products based on images of gratuitous hypermasculinity. Their departure left a great hollow place in the American psyche. The new imported automotive icons--the Hondas and Toyotas and Subarus--may have been the picture of efficiency, but they lacked sizzle. The American car had become so wimpy and domesticated that the biggest seller was the minivan, a rolling box perfectly suited to Family Values chic but about as sexy as a grocery cart. And although the minivan suited some folks--people who, according to market research, liked family gatherings, church functions, and volunteer work--it reduced even the wildest guys and gals to "family men" and "soccer moms"--responsible, domesticated, and, above all, sexually unavailable. It was a nightmare not even Ayn Rand could have foretold. Cars, which had once been central to American mating rituals and sexual identity and excitement, now seemed part of a vast puritanical conspiracy to replace fun with respectability.
But out in the hinterlands, a backlash against niceness was brewing. The pickup truck, long the jurisdiction of rubes and actual working people, had been steadily gaining popularity among urban and suburban cowboy wannabes. Similarly, another, less-defined category of vehicle, marked by off-road rigs such as the Chevy Blazer and the Suburban, the Ford Bronco and the Jeep Wagoneer, began to take shape. Initially, this new category appealed mainly to working types, hunters, and residents of the Snowbelt. But by the late 1980s, Detroit's marketers had begun to identify a new class of driver--a pleasure-seeking, "self-oriented" man or woman who liked to drive fast, cared deeply about a car's appearance, had an above-average fear of road dangers (including crime), and wasn't exactly eager to advertise his or her married status.
The SUV was a perfect match for this new driver. Although ugly, uncomfortable, crudely appointed, and hard to drive, the early "sport utes" projected a genteel ruggedness that appealed to the fears and frustrations of suburbanites but stopped short of the pickup's dangerous machismo. A pickup spoke of beer guts and bushy mustaches, bar fights and rebel whoops in the dark of night; the SUV emitted a more urbane vibe: here was something a nice white-collar fellow might drive to go camping or skiing or mountain climbing--without looking redneck, blue-collar, or, worse, unavailable. As one industry marketing exec put it, "We have a basic resistance in our society to admitting that we are parents and no longer able to go out and find another mate.... If you have a sport utility, you can have the smoked windows, put the children in the back, and pretend you're still single."
Initially, Detroit was skeptical of the SUV's prospects, fearing that anything trucklike would be hard to sell, especially to women. Chrysler still thought the future belonged to sedans and minivans, while GM was actually phasing out the Suburban. But in 1990, perhaps realizing that the baby boomers were due for their midlife crisis, Ford launched the Explorer, a sporty, updated Bronco built on the chassis of the Ford's quarter-ton pickup. The timing was perfect. Nine months later, America went to war against Iraq, kicking Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and, in the process, moving all-terrain vehicles into prime time. In six short weeks, Operation Desert Storm not only convinced mainstream Americans that the fuel crisis was finally over--hadn't our boys just stabilized the Middle East?rebut provided the best free advertisement for off-road capability since Rat Patrol. Night after night, wewatched the Republican Guard get its collective ass kicked by real men in dune buggies, humvees, and other off-road rigs whose civilian counterparts were on display in neighborhood showrooms. By 1994--the year O.J. Simpson made the SUV the escape vehicle of choice for excessively masculine celebrities--the Explorer was the sixth-best-selling vehicle in America. Other carmakers saw the light. Between 1985 and 1999, SUVs went from 2 percent of all new car sales to nearly 20 percent, making them, in the words of one industry analyst, "the best thing that ever happened to Detroit."
Such ecstasy is hardly surprising, given the massive profit margins SUVs generate. Most vehicles are built on the unibody model; the SUV is simply a body bolted onto the frame of a pickup truck. That means SUVs are not only faster and cheaper to design and build than cars but cheaper to modify, since each "new" model is simply a restyled body bolted onto the existing chassis and engine. And because SUVs and pickups share engines, frames, and about 70 percent of other major parts, SUVs can be built in existing truck factories, on the same assembly lines, keeping costs down. As a bonus, because regulators still regard SUVs as "light trucks"--that is, low-production vehicles intended mainly for working stiffs--they remain exempt from many costly emission controls and fuel-economy requirements,(2) and were given more time to phase in some safety requirements, such as those mandating structural protection from side-impact collisions, all of which has lowered manufacturers' costs even further.
And if that weren't sweet enough, because demand was so high, Detroit didn't have to pass along these savings to consumers. By the mid-1990s, the SUV had become among the most lucrative automotive categories in history. The profit margin on each vehicle ranged from $ 6,500 for a compact model like Toyota's RAV4 to $ 17,000 for a luxury model like the Lincoln Navigator. On average, automakers made $ 10,000 for each SUV sold, ten times the margin on a sedan or minivan, which, last year, generated a stunning $ 18 billion in profits for the industry. For the first time in decades, the auto industry had a genuine cash cow, and they used it to fund a huge expansion campaign. In 1999, for example, with the profits from a single year's production of Expeditions and Navigators, Ford was able to buy the Swedish company Volvo outright. (Perhaps the threat to this great river of cash can account for Ford's molasseslike response to Explorer tire defects.)
Initially, environmentalists dismissed the SUV as a fad, but, as if to mock the critics, SUVs grew in popularity as well as in sheer size. Like athletes bulking up with steroids, each year's model boasted bigger wheels, higher tops, more bulging side panels--all accentuated with plastic "cladding" and wheel "lips" that added extra inches to the vehicle's silhouette. The SUV was now a rolling fortress, an urban weapon, both defensive and offensive, for consumers traversing the battle-scarred terrain between home and work and health club. SUVs became bullies, forcing small imports to join in, just like the skinny kids who send away for Charles Atlas muscles. The once prudent Subaru Loyale became the muscle-bound lozenge-shape Outback. The Volvo station wagon, for decades the symbol of steady living, metastasized into the Cross Country. The new size meant new weight, which meant bigger engines and greater fuel consumption, but most of the upper-middle-class people who bought SUVs didn't seem to care. When they were asked to rank the top forty factors influencing their decision to buy an SUV, fuel economy came in at thirty-seven. The age of conservation was officially over.
Out on the road, big was becoming not only acceptable again but de rigueur as consumers, perhaps fearful of being crushed by their neighbors, competed to drive the biggest, tallest, most secure rig available. The Hummer, a "civilian" version of the military HMV made famous by Desert Storm and half a million survivalist morons, began appearing on side roads and culs-de-sac. Sales of the giant Chevy Suburban, once destined for the scrap heap, climbed to nearly 200,000 a year. In 1998, Ford executives, fearful of losing the upper segment of their own trend, announced plans for an even larger SUV--the Excursion. Critics and industry watchers felt the company had gone too far: no one would spend $ 40,000 on something they couldn't even fit in their garage. What the naysayers didn't grasp was that practicality had never played a part in the popularity of SUVs.
Bob is showing me the towing "package" at the rear of the Excursion, the hitch and cables that let this behemoth haul five tons of yacht or horse trailer or, apparently, concrete slab. I glance quickly at the other customers. The ballplayer is gone, but the two doughboys are still poking around their Excursions. I ask Bob whether customers like these have need of five tons of towing capacity, and without missing a beat Bob gives me a "need-based" spiel remarkably similar to the one offered to me by the Ford P.R. team. Then he smiles and throws me a knowing look. He has seen the truck I arrived in--an old Chevy half-ton with a towing "package"--and knows that I'm someone who understands big rigs. He rolls his eyes and lowers his voice. "You get these guys, driving up in a Honda, telling you they want an Excursion or the F-350 Superduty three-quarter-ton pickup, and you say, 'Okay, great, what are you planning on towing?' and they say, 'Tow?' and you realize they've never driven a truck or anything this big in their lives."
This farce isn't confined to towing. For years, automakers have claimed that people buy SUVs because they have a real need for extra "capability." Whereas the average car buyer gives styling or economy more priority, the SUV buyer is said to be looking mainly for more functionality--more off-road ability, more cargo capacity, more passenger safety. For these rugged individuals, the SUV isn't just transportation but a rolling tool--something to help them achieve their needs, whether that be carrying more groceries, providing their family with more safety, or getting to a more remote camping site.
This is, of course, one of the smoothest cons in modern marketing. Fewer than 11 percent of all SUV drivers go off road even once a year. In fact, SUVs do little more than the minivans and sedans they replaced, which isn't surprising, since Americans' need for more off-road capability, cargo capacity, and safety has actually declined since SUVs debuted. Today's families are smaller. Today's roads are better maintained. Crime is down. And, compared with even ten years ago, Americans today participate far less in any kind of serious outdoor activity.
But this misses the point as far as Detroit is concerned. Never mind that most SUV owners never traverse a landscape more rugged than a parking-garage ramp, or that they couldn't build a fire or use a compass to save their life. What matters is that, as one auto exec put it, "people aspire toward these activities and want to feel they have the capacity to participate, whether or not they actually do participate." Thus, nearly every facet of the SUV, from the design to the sales pitch, has been meticulously researched and refined to feed this gnawing need to feel capable. Model names imply action--Land Rover, Pathfinder, Explorer, Mountaineer. Advertisements feature daring maneuvers through rugged terrain. Even the act of selling has been roughened up: Ford now calls its SUV dealers "outfitters," as if the SUV were a backpack or a canoe and its buyers were traveling somewhere more rough-hewn than Little League practice.
And inevitably, as the gap widens between what SUVs actually do and what they merely look capable of doing, vehicles themselves have become overt props. As much special-effects technicians as engineers, designers brazenly appropriate symbols of ruggedness and utility from the movies, cigarette and beer commercials, and even the toy industry. The result is SUVs that look less like passenger vehicles and more like the vessels from Star Wars or Terminator or Alien--boxy, bulging objects covered with antennas and bolts and hatches. At one point, designers at Nissan proposed releasing the Pathfinder pre-scratched and dented.
Detroit has always used our insecurities to sell us cars. For decades, we bought cars because we hoped they would make us look "fast" or "sporty" or "sexy" or "bad"--attributes we hoped would convey our talents for courting or sporting or play; in other words, leisure pursuits. If someone wanted to advertise functionality, he could drive a panel truck. In contrast, the SUV turns the form-function equation on its head. Nearly every feature is meant to look as if it plays some critical part in the vehicle's operation--despite the fact that often the opposite is true. Functionality is the aesthetic, an end in itself, and increasingly divorced from any measure of true use. Like cargo pants or deep-sea-diving watches or urban hiking boots or prewashed jeans, SUVs are simply the latest example of America's gear fetish. If the old muscle cars let working-class men momentarily escape their utterly functional lives with a roaring display of machismo, the SUV lets middle-class white suburbanites pretend to some degree of usefulness: the muscle car said, "I am macho"; the SUV says, "I am a man of action, a woman with purpose. I go places. I have real, important things to do, and, by God, I may have to drive across your lawn to do them."
Americans have always confused form and function, and one could argue that if consumers want to drive around in rolling Swiss Army knives it's really their business. The problem is, because Detroit has so brilliantly sold the SUV as a tool for performing useful tasks in extenuating circumstances, consumers willingly overlook a host of problems that would be intolerable in a mere car. For example, SUVs are famously hard to handle and park. And yet, because they are subtly perceived as "working" vehicles--like, say, delivery vans or ride-on lawn mowers--such discomfort has been written off as necessary, like the momentary displeasure of mowing the lawn. SUVs get lousy gas mileage-an average of 17 mpg--and are now so prevalent that they've actually dragged the average fuel efficiency for new cars to its lowest point since 1980, boosting American oil consumption and spurring oil lobbyists to dust off the absurd Reagan-era argument that we must immediately open places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling crews. But concerns over fuel consumption are somehow suspended, in the same way that someone who rents a U-Haul doesn't panic over its low gas mileage.
Despite significant improvements in pollution control, a full-size SUV like the Excursion will produce during a 124,000-mile average lifetime 134 tons of carbon dioxide--nearly double the output of a midsize sedan and nearly triple that of a Honda Civic.(3) Ten years ago, such numbers would have provoked a backlash among newly environmentally guilty consumers. Yet because Detroit has so successfully exaggerated the SUV's outdoor heritage--filling ads with lush wilderness settings, using natural, crunchy-sounding names like Yukon, Forester, Sequoia, and Tundra--the SUV has been recast as environmentally benign. This brazen strategy is so effective that automakers routinely make the most absurd environmental claims with near-impunity. Ford, for example, labeled the Excursion "environmentally responsible" because most of its building materials can be recycled.
Also troublesome is the way the SUV's phony utility promotes an illusion of safety. SUVs are assiduously marketed as safer than ordinary cars, protecting occupants from the full range of threats: bad weather, rough roads, auto collisions, even the criminal element.(4) Their great bulk, for example, is said to make them more impervious to collisions, while the "command position" seating provides better visibility in traffic.
But, in fact, SUVs have among the worst safety records of any vehicle. Whereas sedan front ends crumple during a head-on, absorbing the force of impact and sparing passengers, the SUV's rugged I-beam truck frame actually transmits more of the force back to the passengers. The larger models are notorious for their boatlike handling and slow braking--Excursions need forty more feet than most vehicles to decelerate from 60 mph to zero, and their extra height makes them more likely to tip over when turning sharp corners. (In part because many SUV drivers believe four-wheel drive means never having to slow down on snowy or slick roads, an SUV in a ditch now symbolizes the start of the ski season.) Worse, because car dealers know that hardly any SUV drivers actually go off road--intentionally, at least--they routinely underinflate the tires--a step that provides for a smoother ride but may make the vehicles even less stable turning corners. (In this, Firestone has a point.) In any case, SUV rollover accidents are up to five times as likely to be fatal than are accidents in other vehicles, but manufacturers have so far refused to publicize the flip-potential ratings provided by the government.
Nor is it just the SUV's occupants who suffer. A recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study found SUVs two and a half times as likely as other vehicles to kill the occupants of the vehicles they collide with. Many of the larger models are so high off the ground that during collisions they either ram their heavily reinforced bumpers straight into the passenger cabin of the other car or else climb up and over the other car, crushing it and its hapless occupants. The override problem is so acute that automakers are presently installing steel rails beneath SUV bumpers. In theory, such rails will push other cars out of the way, like a train cowcatcher, though this will do nothing for the tens of millions of SUVs already on the roads.
After forty-five minutes of info-rich jabber, Bob finally hands me the keys. I clamber into the command-position seat, adjust the back, and turn the ignition. The great engine roars. The electronic dashboard blinks to life. Above my head, near the rearview mirror, a digital readout flashes with the time, the compass heading, miles traveled, and, most intriguingly, the average rate of fuel consumption. Staring over an acre of hood, I ease the vehicle forward and steer toward the exit, though "lumber" is a better description. The Excursion moves like a huge flatbed truck, with mushy steering and a noticeable pause between hitting the gas and acceleration.
I turn left onto the boulevard, into traffic, then straighten out, gently fish-tailing from side to side as I overcorrect seven or eight times. Up ahead, the light turns red, and I step on the brakes. The Excursion slows but without much dispatch, and I am suddenly acutely aware of its huge mass and poor braking; for a split second, I am certain that we won't stop on time.
"Let's go on through and up the hill," says Bob. He seems unconcerned by our brush with death, aware, as he is, of the Excursion's impact-absorbing hood, its reinforced side doors, and, above all, its sheer mass, against which all but the largest of cars and trucks must surely rebound harmlessly. As we approach the hill, I hit the gas. The great vehicle pauses for a moment, as the massive torque is transmitted through its four tons, then lunges forward. We begin to climb. The engine is maxed out. Above my head, the fuel-consumption meter indicates that we're getting 3.7 miles to the gallon. Bob smiles. "That's city driving, all stopping and starting. Wait till we get to the freeway. We'll get at least eight."
A few miles from the Microsoft campus, Bob directs me through a series of turns that put us onto the freeway. I accelerate to 60 mph and roll along in a pleasantly muffled cocoon. The ride is smooth, but there is a noticeable side-to-side sway, and every ten seconds or so we hear a staccato rat-a-tat-tat as the big tires hit the bumps on the lane markers. I look around and down, and am conscious of being several yards above the road and other cars. Traffic today is medium heavy but the other drivers reflexively give us a wide berth, and we roll along in a zone of safety, of emptiness. I relax my grip on the wheel and fiddle with the dash controls, switching on the AC and the stereo. Bob offers a steady commentary on each amenity, then points to a freeway exit. "Is that enough? Let's get off here." Above me, the fuel consumption meter reads 7.9 miles per gallon but quickly falls again to 3.7. At this rate, we'll need to stop for gas in about four hours.
The Excursion is, without question, the most ridiculous vehicle I've ever driven, a grotesque representative of a bizarre trend that substitutes true utility and function with toy-like impersonations and which shows few signs of abating. Despite rising gas prices and the eighty-eight deaths that led to a recall of 14.4 million Firestone tires, the SUV continues to be the vehicle of choice for a huge and varied consumer group--from the teenage girls who once wanted Mustangs to the midlife-crisis males who once wanted Porsches.
And although demand has flattened somewhat for current models among traditional SUV buyers, automakers have prepared a myriad of strategies for extending the boom. To keep the novelty factor high, companies have introduced "hybrids" with abbreviated passenger cabin and a short pickup-like cargo bed in back. To snare the youth market, a herd of smaller, cheaper "compact" SUVs are being released. Automakers are also pushing existing SUVs into decidedly nontraditional markets. The luxurious Lincoln Navigator, for example, may be the SUV of choice for retired affluent whites. But ever since rapper Puff Daddy was arrested in a white Navigator, with Jennifer Lopez at his side and a gun tucked under the front seat, the $ 40,000 rig has become a multicultural status symbol, appealing both to upscale urban blacks and the white hiphop wannabes who copy their every move--a marketing feedback loop that has executives in Detroit openly praising God. Granted, many traditional SUV buyers are less than titillated by the urban black thing, but automakers have found a way to exploit this anxiety as well. The prestige imports, like Mercedes and BMW, are dispensing altogether with the SUV as an outdoorsman's companion or a sporting tool and cutting straight to what focus groups tell them is at the root of a customer's buying decision: fear of the urban jungle and the carjackers who lurk in every alley. "Sometimes the greatest challenge for an SUV isn't going off road, but staying on," warns the ad for the sporty little $ 44,000 Mercedes ML 430. The two-page spread offers only a postage-stamp-size picture of the vehicle itself; most of the space is taken up by a grim picture of an empty freeway off-ramp at night with skid marks and a battered guardrail, and in the background a dark cityscape. The only element missing is a pack of slouching gangbangers. "Before you think about trail-blazing and bushwhacking, let's think about making it to the dry cleaners in one piece."
Actually, if thinking had anything to do with it, Americans would have stopped buying SUVs a long time ago--or at least last year, when the news was filled with excruciating gas prices, the Ford/Firestone fiasco, and horrific tales of SUV rollovers; when even the chairman of Ford, William Clay Ford Jr., admitted the need to address the SUV's serious pollution and safety problems. Last fall would have been the perfect moment for American drivers and politicians and even automakers to come to their collective senses, to be embarrassed by their obsession with bogus ruggedness, to recognize the real costs of firing up an oversize station wagon every time they need to run down to Blockbuster.
But that moment, if it ever existed, has clearly passed. Although the Clinton Administration only weakly pressed Detroit to make smarter cars, President Bush is more likely to ensconce the SUV as our new National Rig. We're talking, after all, about a former Texas oil man whose energy secretary fought on behalf of oil and auto interests while in Congress, whose chief of staff was a lobbyist for the auto industry, and whose pick to run the Department of the Interior is already talking up the "need" to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Never mind that simply by forcing a mere 15 percent improvement in the fuel economy of SUVs and light trucks--that is, less than 3 mpg--Bush could save more oil each year than the projected annual production from the refuge. That kind of thinking is for liberals and other losers. It's time for Texas-size lifestyles.
Detroit can't wait. Despite flat sales, new market niches, and promises of cleaner, "greener" vehicles, automakers haven't abandoned the bigger-is-better formula. The Excursion is selling nicely--while Ford's conscientious young chairman has been all but muzzled by company publicists. Mitsubishi is redesigning its Montero Sport SUV with more power and interior space. Honda is planning an "apartment on wheels" SUV called the Model X. GM, hoping to steal back the "biggest SUV" moniker, is now talking about producing a bigger, six-door Suburban. And in 2002, General Motors will start building the H2, a "sport" version of the gigantic Hummer military vehicle. The H2, which made its debut last spring at the Detroit Auto Show, will be sleeker than its martial ancestor, with more modern side styling, a bigger windshield, and a broad swatch of chrome on the grill. "This is a more civilized Hummer," Clay Dean, a design manager, told reporters at the show. "But it's still capable." What, exactly, the H2 is "still capable" of, Dean never mentioned, nor did reporters ask--a polite silence that perfectly illustrates just how self-deluded the American consumer has become. Whether we're in the market for cars, clothes, or off-road running shoes, we are a nation of naked emperors, unable to distinguish between want and need, between actual utility and simply looking the part. What else can explain the H2? Or a six-door Suburban? Or the Toyota Tundra, a 4x4 monster whose cabin was specifically enlarged to accommodate a passenger wearing a ten-gallon cowboy hat? The Age of Reason is ended. The energy crisis is over. Get out your cowboy boots and your stonewashed jeans and prepare to party, because from now on, Midland rules.
(1) From 1992 to 1999, campaign contributions from oil and car companies totaled $ 56 million, and lobbying expenditures were even higher. In 1998, GM, Daimler-Chrysler, and Ford spent more than $ 25 million lobbying Congress; the total for auto and oil industries combined was $ 90.9 million.
(2) This is no accident. Although, technically, the Transportation Department has the discretion to raise SUV and light-truck fuel standards, it hasn't--mainly because industry has spent so lavishly to protect the status quo. In 1999, industry allies in Congress actually passed a bill preventing the department from raising SUV fuel standards. Environmentalists begged President Clinton to veto the bill and even found enough Senate votes to support a veto. But in September 1999, Clinton, fearful of costing Al Gore Michigan, signed the measure into law--at 9:00 P.M. on a Saturday.
(3) In 1999, the Clinton Administration belatedly passed new emission standards for most SUVs but exempted the largest models, such as the Ford Excursion and Chevy Suburban, until 2009.
(4) According to surveys, SUV owners have a higher, than-average fear of crime, which Ford's marketers have done their best to exploit. In a historical timeline celebrating the Ford Explorer's tenth birthday, for example, publicists included such 'representative' world events as the World Trade Center bombing, the Branch Davidian standoff, the L.A. earthquake, the Oklahoma City bombing, the arrest of the Unabomber, and the Rodney King "incident"--all threats best faced with four-wheel drive and 18 inches of ground clearance. And today's threats are not only physical: Ford's publicists included such indicators of moral decline as Vince Foster's suicide, the Lewinsky affair, Clinton's impeachment, and the end of Charles and Diana's marriage.
Paul Roberts is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine. His article on the sugar industry, "The Sweet Hereafter" (November 1999), was a National Magazine Award finalist.