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Why the motorized toys we love keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger and BIGGER

Gargantuan machines -- boats, Jet Skis, you name it -- are increasingly popular, but this push has also super-sized noise, pollution and fatal accidents.

March 09, 2004|Philip Reed | Special to The Times

On "The Simpsons," Marge recommends driving into the wilderness in the fictional Canyonero, an SUV that is "12 yards long, two lanes wide, 65 tons of American pride." Exaggeration? Maybe not. Domiano RV's in Orange County sells the Travel Supreme ME -- a 41-foot luxury coach that has a built-in "garage" big enough to carry a Mini Cooper in its belly.

Only two Travel Supreme MEs have been built so far, but Chuck Cooper, a salesman at the Stanton dealership, says they've had plenty of interest in the vehicle. There's only one problem -- it's too big for campsites in most state and national parks. In fact, many of the recreational vehicles on the market are too big for the parks. Parks, Cooper says, "just haven't kept up with the times."

The go-for-broke trend toward bigness has been most conspicuous on the highway, with half the new cars sold in California being Hummers, light trucks and sport utility vehicles. But a similar trend toward super-sized motorized toys is sweeping campgrounds and lakes, snowy mountains and desert sand dunes as well.

Today's top bass boats are loaded with electronic gadgets and propelled by 250-horsepower outboards: engines as tall as a man, as powerful as a sports car and capable of going faster than 80 mph -- and on water, that's fast. "Personal" watercraft have become interpersonal water rockets that seat a family of four and carry price tags approaching $10,000.

Some houseboats resemble ferry boats. The biggest ones, at 75 feet long and 22 feet wide, require four months just to secure permits to transport across highways and require police escorts on the way to water. At Lake Powell, a behemoth called "Big Dog" is three stories tall, has twin diesel engines, multiple staterooms and cranes to load Jet Skis. Cost: $6.7 million.

"People see the size of these things and say they're bigger than my house. In fact, everything you'd want in a house, these boats have. Some have hot tubs, freezers and satellite TV. There's nothing you have at home that you don't have in your houseboat, except a garden," says Len Cook, president of the Marine Merchants Assn. in Page, Ariz.

The four-wheel-drive Dodge Durango, redesigned for 2004, is now 7 inches longer and 3 inches wider, with a 330-horsepower Hemi engine -- 100 horsepower more than last year's model, says Rick Deneau of DaimlerChrysler AG. Ironically, the Durango is considered a "tweener" vehicle, one that lands between classes and is short of being classified with the largest SUVs.

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Home on the road

The trend in RV manufacturing is to provide more room by creating sections that roll out once the vehicle is parked. The Travel Supreme Diesel Pusher has an optional "exterior entertainment center" unit that pops out of its side. Coaches can't get much bigger or they won't fit in an average highway lane, says Ron Epstein, a spokesman for the Ventura-based Good Sam Club, the nation's largest RV owners' organization.

"I saw an amphibious motor home at a show recently. If I hadn't seen it I wouldn't believe it. They have motor homes with plasma TVs, satellite TVs and most of them have mini-offices set up with phone port and desks," Epstein says. "People love the idea that they can go to Yellowstone and still watch the Dodgers."

While the vehicles are bigger and faster than ever, some campers complain that they're also increasingly obnoxious. More muscular machines make the outdoors more accessible to more people, but they also change the nature of recreation and human interaction with the environment, critics say. Just as McDonald's recently decided to drop its super-size menu options, so too is a backlash forming against gargantuan outdoor vehicles.

Ray and Susan Starbucks met through the Sierra Club and have visited Yosemite National Park nearly every summer during their 28 years of marriage. The drone of RV generators bothers them. Besides, Ray Starbucks argues, the machines the mini-power plants enable, from air conditioners to microwave ovens, "have no place in the outdoors."

Not that the Starbuckses are purists. Now in their early 50s, the couple left their backpacking days behind and went retro with a GMC 1500 pickup truck and camper. They use a solar panel to recharge batteries.

"There are people who would never see it [the outdoors] at all without an RV, but the crowds have increased constantly and we hate the noise of the generators," Susan Starbucks says. "Both of us find [oversized RVs] a little ridiculous. You can't really call it camping, it's just living."

The new giants add more than decibels to the recreational realm. Bigger machines powered by high-octane engines mean more mass in motion. That can lead to death and injury.

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