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Attention All You Rugged SUV Owners: Get Real and Get a Van

May 07, 2000|James Ricci

I wonder, would it be asking too much to entreat all of you who own sport-utility vehicles to please stop driving them immediately?

You know, gassing them at today's fuel prices is ridiculously expensive, and only encourages OPEC, which is not your friend.

What's more, your SUVs are rather ugly, awkward-handling, rough-riding, unacceptably polluting and, with their enormous weight, stiff frames, decapitation-level bumpers and horizon-obscuring bulk, dangerous to others on the road.

Most poignantly, every time you drive them, you're living a kind of lie.

Let me see if I can help you get some clarity on why you do this.

According to automobile registration figures compiled by R.L. Polk, the oldest consumer marketing information company in the country, a total of 23,460,808 SUVs were hogging American road space as of last July--757,110 of them in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties.

Remarkably, according to industry surveys, only 15% are ever--even once--driven off-road. This is true even though their incessantly advertised off-road capability is what ultimately distinguishes them from ordinary cars.

"Sport-utility vehicles are station wagons for people who don't want to drive station wagons," says Aaron Ahuvia, a professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn who has studied the marketing ways of auto companies. "They provide the practical benefits of a station wagon without the stodgy image of a station wagon. Whereas a station wagon says of a person, 'I'm a suburbanite,' an SUV says, 'I'm rugged and adventurous.' "

Which, of course, you're not.

Marketing researchers, says Ahuvian, speak of "ladders" that go from "attributes" to "benefits" to "values." SUVs have the attribute of high ground clearance, which gives a driver the benefit of going off-road, which in turn relates to the value of escaping the rules of roadway driving, of being nonconformist, of getting away from it all.

The value, however, is a sham. Your SUV typically is to be found in a long line of other SUVs marooned in traffic on the freeway, not atop some isolated desert mesa under sherbet-colored skies, as the TV ads would have it.

Your SUV runs on irony as much as on $2-a-gallon gas. It symbolizes a connection to the natural environment, yet it is an environmental nuisance, belching more hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide than other passenger vehicles while making as little as 10 to 12 miles in the city on a gallon of OPEC's gas.

Stripped of its advertising cant, your SUV is 4,000 to 5,500 pounds of steel, plastic and rubber, typically transporting 200 pounds or less of human being.

Oh, some of you will plead that you need the extra interior space of an SUV for kids and mountain bikes and overly large dogs. But if that's the case, you'd be better off with a van.

The reason you don't have a van, says Jeffrey Hartley, General Motors' manager of brand character and theme research, is that "a van is making the statement: 'Wow, I'm married. I'm responsible. I'm not on the make anymore.' And an SUV doesn't do that. An SUV allows you to be not too much pigeonholed as middle-aged, over-the-hill."

What makes SUVs so aggravating to other drivers, says Hartley, is that "they're in-your-face, there's a chip on their shoulder." Research, he says, shows SUVs are "very much a masculine, powerful entity, and these are perceived more highly by both men and women.

"I hate to get too primeval about things, but it helps to understand that in any tribe of human beings, everyone defers to the most powerful one. The same thing goes with vehicles. It's like being attracted to the most powerful member of your pack."

This is a terrible example for the kids, this wallowing in confused identity, these atavistic notions of superiority.

I know, of course, that you're really not like that. This has been just a particularly costly fad, imposed by clever marketers at a time when you were especially vulnerable because of unprecedented prosperity.

Thank goodness the decline of the SUV culture is at hand. Gas prices are high. The feds have begun slapping on new safety regulations. Wimpier, scaled-down SUV pretenders increasingly are in evidence.

You will feel much better about yourselves if you park your Expeditions, Navigators, Explorers, Blazers and other sadly misnamed creepers of the clogged freeways for good now.

And, if you're interested, I've got an ultra-sensible 1994 Mercury Sable, veteran of a hundred scornful valet parkings in the remotest corners of restaurant premises, that I'm willing to let go cheap. As if I could put a price on your self-respect.

James Ricci's e-mail address is

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