Magazine article Consumers' Research Magazine

In Defense of Sport Utility Vehicles

Magazine article Consumers' Research Magazine

In Defense of Sport Utility Vehicles

Article excerpt

A great deal of ink and indignation have been directed at sport utility vehicles (SUVs), which have become explosively popular since Ford Motor Co. brought the original Bronco II to market in the early 1980s. Today, almost every manufacturer--even Volvo and Porsche--has or will shortly have an SUV in its model lineup. SUVs and light trucks now account for some 50% of the new car market--with that figure expected to grow even as fuel prices rise. But while SUVs are obviously popular with consumers, they continue to be reviled in certain quarters.

Socially Responsible. Environmentalists object to SUVs because they use more fuel than subcompact economy cars, the vehicles many in the environmental movement's leadership believe people should drive in order to be "socially responsible," as opposed to what consumers might prefer individually.

Dan Becker, of the left-leaning Sierra Club's "global warming program," fails to grasp the popularity of SUVs as a sign of rational consumer choice. The automakers "have found that the American public will buy a large pile of steel with plush seats and cup holders," he recently told the Associated Press, "despite the fact that they will guzzle gas, pollute the air and roll over and kill people."

Becker and others neglect to point out that SUVs also offer ample room for five or six passengers, plus their gear. Women in particular esteem SUVs because of the safety advantage they confer, in terms of visibility and impact protection, and are apparently willing to suffer a higher fuel bill in exchange.

Environmentalists rarely acknowledge the fact that SUVs offer attributes that smaller cars simply cannot provide. And with the exception of the truly gigantic models--such as the Ford Excursion and Chevy Suburban, which comprise a small fraction of the total market--most sport-utes actually get pretty decent mileage. The popular Ford Explorer, for example, returns mileage in the high teens/low 20s on the highway, not much worse than the fuel economy achieved by the smallest subcompacts of the 1970s, such as the VW Beetle and Honda Civic CVCC, or many large cars and minivans nowadays, for that matter.

Sure, SUVs burn fuel like the light trucks they are, but, arguably, it is more "socially responsible" for a large family to drive around in a single SUV than in two small passenger cars. The overall fuel consumption of a single SUV is less; and one vehicle, irrespective of its size, takes up less space on our clogged roads than two or three cars, even if they are subcompacts.

Given the SUV's symbolic value as wasteful machinery, environmentalists will likely continue to gripe about fuel economy, even if Ford succeeds with its 40-mile-per-gallon hybrid engine plans, which were announced last year; these vehicles, it seems, will always consume "too much"--especially when compared with the little "green" econo cars. But in light of the mileage-capacity ratio, SUVs should be given a break.

The `Safety' Perception. The more recent (and more serious) objection to SUVs, however, involves the perception that SUVs are unsafe and even "defective" because they are prone to rolling over. Trial lawyers have helped to foster this perception; The Bridgestone/Firestone-tire debacle this past summer has led to more than 100 lawsuits alleging that SUVs are dangerously unsafe.

The lawyers have painted bulls eyes on the Ford Explorer in part because of its popularity as America's best-selling SUV and in part because the vast majority of last summer's Firestone-tire-related rollover accidents involved Ford vehicles. This fact made the Explorer an easy target.

However, if the claims are valid, other SUVs--and the manufacturers of those SUVs--will be similarly vulnerable, as most SUVs share a number of common design characteristics unique to these types of vehicles.

So the question becomes: Is the Ford Explorer dangerous or defective, beyond the inherent limitations imposed by sport utility vehicle design characteristics? …

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