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COMMITMENTS : THE HUMAN CONDITION : We're All Just Blazing New Trails in City Living

March 27, 1995|SUZANNE SCHLOSBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The other day at Gelson's supermarket in Encino, I counted in the parking lot three Jeep Grand Cherokees, two Ford Explorers, a Nissan Pathfinder, a Chevy Blazer, an Isuzu Trooper and a Toyota Land Cruiser.

Excuse me, but just what land does everybody think they're cruising? The plains of the Serengeti? Since when do you need four-wheel drive and industrial steel brush guards to make it over a couple of speed bumps?

Apparently since America became infatuated with sport-utility vehicles (SUVs), those parking-space-hogging, gas-guzzling car-trucks that resemble giant toasters on wheels.

"It's a macho thing," says Ken Von Helmolt, executive editor of Four Wheeler, a Canoga Park-based magazine that has tracked the rapid rise of the SUV. It's not that Gelson's customers drive over boulders and haul around moose carcasses; they just want to look like they do.

By the way, that Isuzu Trooper at Gelson's . . . did I mention that it's mine?

*

Alas, I, too, have succumbed. I traded in my blue Honda Accord for a moss-green four-wheel-drive Trooper that has 90.2 cubic feet of cargo space and the capacity to tow 5,000 pounds, should I ever buy a boat or go crazy at Nordstrom.

I even spent an extra $200 for some gizmo called "limited slip," so that if I happen to be roaming around a Tanzanian crater and get stuck in a ditch, the power from one wheel will get transferred to the other one and I won't break an axle. Or something like that. It all made sense to me back in the showroom.

Sport-utility vehicles, or sport-utes as they're called in the industry, now account for 10% of all vehicle sales--1.5 million were sold in 1994, up from 7% in 1990, the year Ford introduced the Explorer.

"It's a phenomenon that's gone on across the world," says John Rettie, editor of the California Report on automotive marketing for J.D. Power & Associates in Agoura. Ford expects to sell 450,000 Explorers in 1995, while Jeep has added a third work shift in Detroit to increase manufacturing capacity to 300,000.

Soon BMW, Mercedes, Lexus and Infiniti will be offering their own versions.

"The market is moving upscale," says Four Wheeler's Von Helmolt. "People are moving out of Mercedes into SUVs." But they're not giving up their car phones, CD players or leather seats. Instead, they want it all: the rugged image of the 4x4 and the amenities of a luxury car, but without the stigma.

"For some of these people, there's a prestige that does not carry the same onus of conspicuous consumption as a luxury vehicle," says Joel Pitcoff, Ford's market analysis manager. "It's a way to spend without being ostentatious."

*

Like many SUV owners, I had a perfectly legitimate reason for my purchase: I wanted a car large enough to carry my bike. In that respect, my Trooper has lived up to the "utility" part of its name. But it has proven to be less useful for carrying my Grandma Ruth, who, at five feet tall, has to perform a bit of gymnastics to hoist herself up into the front seat. (I've offered to help; she refuses.)

I could have solved the bike issue and averted the grandma issue by buying a Ford Taurus station wagon or some such vehicle. But that was completely out of the question. Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks so--and that's a big reason SUVs have become so popular.

"Baby boomers have this horrifying memory of going to pick up their prom date in their parents' station wagon," says USC marketing professor David Stewart. "The older adult consumer doesn't want to be seen driving one because they're just not stylish."

The same goes for the minivan.

"No one gives you a second glance if you're driving down Wilshire in a minivan," Von Helmolt says. "If you have a sport-utility vehicle, you're hot. You're happening."

That's what West L.A. attorney Tamara Edwards figured when she bought her four-wheel-drive Toyota Land Cruiser.

"I didn't want to look housewifely--like the mom who takes kids to school and then goes home and cleans the house," says Edwards, 40, a mother of two. "Of course, on weekends, I do the same thing."

She and her husband could rationalize their Land Cruiser in other ways too. "We sort of had this theory that we might use it for backpacking vacations . . . of which we took zero."

The only time her car went into four-wheel drive was when she had a business meeting at a Santa Barbara ranch. "It was kind of hilly and we drove through the dirt," she says. "But no one else had four-wheel drive. We could have driven around without it."

Edwards did enjoy riding up high--"You have this sense of power, like if anyone comes near me, I'll mow 'em down." But after 16 months, she finally realized that the Land Cruiser just wasn't practical for her. She was stopping for gas every third day, and the car was too tall for some underground parking structures.

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