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Fear and Loathing on the Highway

Driving SUVs inspire rapture among their owners but hatred among the have-nots. Is it just sour grapes?


In a blow struck for the little guy, literally, the state Air Resources Board announced last week that sport-utility vehicles will soon have to meet the emissions standards of their more diminutive counterparts: cars. Now, if we can legislate them into fitting the average parking spot we might get somewhere.

In the land of the slim, the sleek, the lipo-sucked svelte, where minimalism has scraped bare everything from architecture to couture, what the heck is going on with all these sport-utility vehicles? They're big and fat, stinky and greedy, and yet we keep inviting them to the party and then complaining when they take up all the room on the sofa.

Brobdingnagian bullies, cry those of us still scuttling about in coupes and compacts.

They guzzle gas (an average of 15 miles a gallon) and belch the digestive byproducts back into the air at a pollutant rate 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 times that of a standard car.

They turn freeway driving into the psycho-emotional equivalent of blindman's dodge ball. Once-sedate and spacious residential streets are narrowed to a single lane by the Land Rovers and Suburbans hogging yards of curb, and parts of the more labyrinthine neighborhoods--Silver Lake, say, or the Hollywood Hills--have become virtually impenetrable.

And parking lots? Well, enter at your peril. Balancing baby and groceries, I recently returned to my sensible compact only to find a candy-apple red Ford Explorer spooned up like a lover against my driver's side door while its owner, a young man unencumbered by child, parcel or even golden retriever, bounced away, too immersed in his cell phone conference to heed my pitiful pleas.

Their owners argue safety, practicality, flexibility and the hard-won American birthright to occupy space. And of course, there are cases of legitimate need--a friend of mine owns two bull mastiffs and those dogs will not go gently into any two-door compact.

Still, everyone has an SUV complaint--the arrogance, the illiteracy (C-O-M-P-A-C-T spells compact, not "anything smaller than an 18-wheeler"), the general feeling of being ever more crowded.

The math is hard to argue with. A Honda Civic two-door coupe, for example, is about 14 feet long, 5 feet wide and 4 feet high. The Ford Expedition and the Lincoln Navigator measure about 17 by 6 1/2 by 6 and the Chevrolet Suburban, 18 by 6 by 6.

Yet a compact parking space is 16 by 7 1/2, a standard space 18 by 9. Leaving room for error (and for doors to actually opene), space can get a bit tight.

Even SUV owners tell of garage doors that had to be replaced, the difficulty finding parking and, more recently, the resentful glares.

As a nation, however, we have always shown a remarkable capacity for holding two opposing beliefs. Thus, the kvetching is out-clamored only by the din of the auto makers' cash registers. In California, SUVs and light trucks account for 46% of auto sales, a figure that has more than doubled in the last 10 years. Add to that the fact that about 45% of SUVs are leased, and we're looking at a lot of high bumpers. Last year, 247,927 Californians registered their newly purchased and leased SUVs; this year, the number may top 300,000.

For some, these numbers defy any anti-SUV propaganda.

"It's not people who don't like SUVs," says Jim Hossack at AutoPacific, an auto industry analyst firm in Orange County, "it's the press. . . . SUV bashing sells newspapers. People in the market love them. They're safe and secure. Gas is low in price and abundant; why not own one?"

SUV owners, he adds, are not just happy about their vehicles; they're passionate about them.

And the complaints? "Sour grapes," he says. "Or they come from an area where people don't drive, like New York."

It would be nice to blame New York, with its mass transit preening and inexplicable devotion to the pedestrian, but most of the carping is home-grown.

"People look at these things and, well, [think] they're irresponsible," says Ken Gross, director of the Petersen Automotive Museum. "They use more of everything necessary to get four people and their belongings from here to there. And the laws of physics apply--the big things are going to beat up the little things. People get annoyed."

Coincidentally, while SUVs are a signature of the moneyed elite, they are also the preferred transportation of bank robbers, drug dealers and rebel armies (stolen SUVs do a brisk barter business in Bolivia and Serbia)s. Think of them, perhaps, as the white panel van of the late '90s, and the tang of sour grapes becomes a bit more palatable.

But this is why safety and security are the mantra of those riding high. Increased visibility, they chant, four-wheel drive. No need to fear that drunk driver. Come the revolution, come the apocalypse, come a broken water main on Robertson and we are prepared.

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