Magazine article Consumers' Research Magazine

Sport Utility Vehicles: A Work in Progress. (Big and Bad?)

Magazine article Consumers' Research Magazine

Sport Utility Vehicles: A Work in Progress. (Big and Bad?)

Article excerpt

There's no denying that a large segment of the buying public remains head-over-heels for go-anywhere sport utility vehicles (SUVs). Drivers dream of exploring windswept shorelines, discovering hidden forest valleys, or navigating rocky creek beds--even though tires rarely touch anything but pavement.

But while much has been done to make SUVs rugged, roomy, and powerful, making them safer and more environmentally friendly remains a work in progress.

Critics deride SUVs as menacing to smaller vehicles, prone to rollover, expensive to repair, and a drain on energy resources.

Regardless, several new SUV models roll off the assembly line every year. In 2001, light truck vehicles (LTV)--a category that includes pickups, vans, and SUVs--accounted for more than one-half of all new vehicles sold in the United States. If the trend continues, SUVs eventually will account for one of every five vehicles on the road.

Some History. It's generally accepted that the first American vehicle to fit the SUV mold was the 1935 Chevrolet Suburban. After that, SUVs remained little more than a blip on the radar screen until Jeep introduced the Cherokee and Ford the Bronco. Add to that Ford's introduction of the Explorer, and sales began to thrive. Throughout the 1990s, "SUV sales increased an average of 17% each year across the industry," says Marcy Byrn, Ford spokesperson.

Some people credit the rise in SUV popularity to the increased number of double-income, two-car households. The multiple functions offered by SUVs--off-roading, cargo-carrying, towing, and increased passenger room--made these vehicles more appealing to younger families who were enjoying greater mobility and a more active lifestyle than earlier generations. During the 1980s and 1990s, younger, more financially independent drivers also were buying more vehicles.

Quelling Concerns. As the number of SUVs have increased, so have the occupant safety and comfort options. Air bags, anti-lock brakes, drive-train choices (rear-, front-, four- and all-wheel), and features such as traction control and electronic stability control (ESC) provide an extra level of performance and safety.

These options, however, don't negate the concerns of SUV critics, and these concerns have become amplified as SUVs grow increasingly larger.

Are they truly a hazard to smaller vehicles? They definitely can be. The size difference, though, benefits occupants of the SUV. According to Russ Rader, director of communications for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, smaller, lighter vehicles in each class generally have higher death rates. "Vehicle size and weight are important characteristics that influence crash-worthiness," he says. "The laws of physics dictate that--all else being equal--larger and heavier vehicles are safer than smaller and lighter ones."

That's because larger vehicles typically have longer crush zones, which help prevent damage to the safety cage and lower the crash forces inside.

Added weight also offers better protection in two-vehicle crashes. In a head-on crash, for example, the heavier vehicle drives the lighter one backwards, decreasing forces inside the heavy vehicle and increasing them in the lighter one, Rader explains.

Of course, the added height on SUVs can provide drivers with an increased field of vision, but that improved perspective--along with added vehicle length--also can restrict drivers from seeing smaller vehicles. In addition, some SUV drivers may feel a false sense of security and invincibility.

The Driver's Role. But like any other segment of the driving public,

the blame for inappropriate, accident-prone driving behavior falls squarely on the person behind the wheel. No passenger vehicle--especially the large, boxy kind--was meant to be driven like a race car, and the people who do drive that way endanger themselves, their passengers, and everyone else on the road. …

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