SUV owners: automotive darwinists

In this post-Cold War prosperity that is American life, an everyday arms race has emerged. Chances are, you or your neighbors are the purveyors of this menace, and by all accounts, you’re not about to give up your weapons.
For the unarmed, it’s a threat more real than Russian missiles or communism ever were. And it kills — not in apocalyptic atomic battle, but on any average day.
Automakers unveiled the latest, most powerful weapon two weeks ago in Dearborn, Mich., that should be in the hands of consumers in a few short months.
It’s called the Ford Excursion — a 19-foot long, 3.5 ton sport utility behemoth — and it is to my 1980 Volkswagen Rabbit as a tank is to a rickshaw. No freakin’ contest.
That’s right — sport utility vehicles are the choice ride for the young and upwardly mobile these days. And sensible motorists seeking function over fashion are paying the price by sharing the road with SUVs, inferior to cars in every automotive safety category — until that horrible moment of impact, that is.
Anyone who owns one of the 40-plus SUV models currently available in the United States might think their gargantuan gas-guzzler is built for rugged, heavy-duty hauling, off-road use and commodious conveyance. They are marketed as adventure machines; built tough with the outdoorsy-type in mind. Baloney.
SUVs are built for two things: to make money for automotive companies, and to smash other cars. Most affluent consumers buy them for two reasons as well: as a necessary 1990s fashion accessory, and to smash other cars.
SUVs don’t get muddy. Most never even leave the pavement between the suburban home, the suburban grocery store and the suburban soccer field. They are built for rich, self-indulgent, self-preserving fashion lemmings who are willing to pay more than $40,000 for a pickup-truck chassis with a trumped-up station-wagon body welded on.
A report issued by the California-based automotive market research company J.D. Powers and Associates shows that while more than 20 percent of vehicles currently sold in the United States are SUVs. These gargantuan sissy-trucks account for more than 60 percent of total automotive manufacturers’ profits. Do I need to do the math for you? Does anyone else smell a crafty ruse?
I can only surmise that the same arrogance/ignorance vortex that sucks these people into buying an SUV is the same one that dupes them into believing that they are behind the wheel of a car — as evidenced by the row of SUVs I routinely see parked in the “compact” spaces in most ramps and lots.
Environmental groups are squawking because the Excursion (a full foot longer than the average parking space) gets a meager 12 miles-per-gallon, an all-time low in a vehicular category notorious for hoggish fuel economy.
I couldn’t care less about that — hell, I say the quicker we burn up all the fossil fuel, the quicker we turn to more sensible energy resources. Besides, when oil prices shoot back up (and they will, soon enough), SUV owners will justly deserve that unbearable lightness in their wallets. These people don’t care about pollution. Why should I? I fear for my life, right now, to-day.
So Suzy Suburb Cell-Phone Soccer-Mom is safe in that Land Cruiser she’s driving. I just don’t think she realizes that while a collision with my Rabbit might mean an insurance tangle for her, it’s more likely to be a close encounter with the Jaws of Life for me.
Besides their unnecessarily high ground clearance (making them particularly effective at riding up on and destroying cars), SUVs, — because of their classification as “trucks” in the eyes of the government — adhere to the same safety standard regulations as commercial trucks, standards that are significantly sub-par compared to those of normal passenger vehicles.
Also because of their inherent top-heaviness, SUVs offer an infamous proclivity to roll over in tight corners that results in about 49 percent of single-car SUV accidents. Their above-chassis weight also exacerbates cumbersome cornering and braking capabilities, ignoring the best means of preventing injury: accident avoidance maneuvers.
Instead, SUVs take injury prevention to another level: accident dominance.
Couple that with four-wheel-drive capabilities and elevated seating to give drivers a false sense of security and WHAMMO! End of Rabbit, end of Josh, end of story.
It’s automotive Darwinism, and it’s terrifying. To think that the American consumer spurns the many wonderfully adept and functionally designed sedans that Detroit, Berlin and Tokyo, et al, have to offer makes me wonder: When I’m gainfully employed, will I feel the need to buy one of these oversized titans, just to keep myself and my family alive?
This isn’t even about class — I’m not sorry for myself because I drive a tin can — it’s just all I can afford right now. I’m aware that semi-trucks, buses, vans and other moto-monsters lurk on the streets and freeways. But the proliferation of elephantine vehicles such as the Ford Excursion begs the question: what happens in 20 years, when a generation of 16- to 20-year-olds inherits the thousands of ram-mobiles that suddenly become affordable? I’ll tell you what happens: a bona fide driving machine like a BMW or a sensible, trustworthy Honda ceases to be a car. It becomes a guppie in a shark pool.
SUV owners will try to justify their stupendous trendy-trucks, claiming the “need” for extra passenger and cargo room or four-wheel-drive for inclement weather. But most SUVs have insufficient head and leg room and many full-sized sedans boast comparable cargo space. And while four-wheel-drive might come in handy a couple of days out of the year, it’s merely a superfluous fashion appendage for the other 363 days. Besides, a large percentage of SUVs on the streets don’t even offer four-wheel-drive.
It’s time to put a tourniquet on the profuse bleeding of common sense that accompanies people’s choices in purchasing vehicles these days. The federal government must realize that SUVs are not being bought for use as trucks per se. A new set of standards must be forged for a new class of vehicle; responsible motorists must demand SUV safety standards for cornering and breaking that give sensible, efficient cars a fighting chance.
A government that fails to recognize this deadly trend tells the rest of us, who can’t afford or don’t care to drive a Lexus Leviathan, Jeep Jumbo or Plymouth Prodigiou, that we can all just die on the road.
Josh Dickey’s column appears every Thursday.