Who Hijacked Our Country

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Lose the SUV

No matter how high gasoline prices go, millions of Americans continue to lumber down the highway in their multi-ton dinosaurs that get 2.3 miles to the gallon. The biggest single reason for wanting one of these behemoths is probably the illusion of safety. If your big badass truck crashes into a smaller car, the other guy dies and you and your family will be safe and snug inside your land yacht. Right?

Wrong! Small cars are now much safer than they used to be. This is partially because of all the high-tech safety features that are so common — front and side air bags, anti-lock breaks, electronic stability control, etc. They're also made with higher-strength steel than their older counterparts.

Today’s compacts are larger and heavier; most of them weigh just under 3,000 pounds. This is the ideal weight for crash safety, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It's the point of diminishing returns; additional weight adds less crash protection.

Several modern compacts have gotten the highest score available from the IIHS in front and side crash tests. So if safety is the reason you're continuing to drive a huge gas-guzzler, trade in your Brontosaurus for a compact. You'll be just as safe and you'll save lots of gas money. Who knows, you might even get fewer dirty looks and one-finger salutes.

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Blogger Snave said...

I live in an area where we have occasional hard winters, and where quite a few people live out in the country or in the woods. Large vehicles (SUVs) are necessary for many people in this area. We still have the "look at me" types who jack their trucks up six feet off the ground, decorate them with all kinds of KC lights, chrome running boards, etc. Out here where SUVs are most often used for practical purposes, the contest becomes more a matter of who has the biggest winch, whose truck is muddiest, etc.

I was in Portland recently. When I am there, it never ceases to amaze me how many SUVs there are on the freeway, downtown, and in the suburbs. I tend to think that in areas where SUVs aren't necessary, like in metro areas, they have become a status symbol.

I think that if American automakers made it their plan to produce more high-priced fuel-efficient luxury cars and fewer SUVs, and to advertise the luxury cars more and the SUVs less, people would gravitate to the cars and away from the big guzzlers. Yes, this is probably a simplistic view, but it seems to me that if a big part of the American way is conspicuous consumption, why should it make any difference if your expensive car is a Suburban or the American equivalent of an Infiniti, BMW, Lexus, etc.? If the intent is to say to other people "look at me", flashy/sporty sedans and minivans should be just as good as something that is big enough to comfortably live in and that gets 5 or 10 mpg.

I think it comes down to American automakers and their advertisers taking on a sense of earth-friendlier reponsibility, along with a sense of innovation in design. I think you are right Tom, that small cars are getting to be more safe all the time. This needs to play a greater part in the advertising. If the idea that "the Focus is safer than the Silverado" can be promoted due to higher crash ratings, or "the Caliber is safer than the F-150" was promoted for the same reason, maybe such things could become the conventional wisdom among American consumers.

We have seen how our buying habits can be manipulated hrough the powers of television and American advertising. For America to move away from SUVs would call for a paradigm shift within the auto industry and their advertising, resulting in a shift in the thinking of consumers, but I think it could happen.

June 26, 2007 at 11:16 AM  
Anonymous Brad said...

Everytime I see an SUV with a W sticker on it, I want to plow my small, gas-friendly car right into the side of it. So far I've been able to resist that urge.

June 26, 2007 at 11:21 AM  
Blogger Leo said...

I can't even imagine how much people with suvs are paying to fill up, but it's gotta be an outlandish amount. My next car will be a hybrid, not only for the environment, but also for the satisfaction of knowing I'm screwing big oil out of a small fraction of their "record" profits.

June 26, 2007 at 11:58 AM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

Snave: In rural areas I'm sure SUVs serve more of a practical purpose rather than "hey, look at me." But I think in general the conventional wisdom is that the larger your vehicle, the safer you'll be in an accident. I always assumed that myself until I saw the article. I had no idea that 3,000 pounds was the ideal weight and anything beyond that didn't help. Detroit probably isn't anxious to publicize that information. I'm surprised they didn't pressure MSNBC to kill the story.

If the conventional wisdom can change, so that people realize that a 3,000 compact is just as safe as an SUV, hopefully that'll make a difference in people's choices.

Brad: I get that same urge when I see any vehicle with a W sticker on it.

Leo: You're right, that's definitely part of the satisfaction of driving a compact or a hybrid. The money you're saving is money that isn't going to Big Oil.

June 26, 2007 at 4:23 PM  
Blogger J. Marquis said...

I don't mind SUVs if theyr'e filled with people or if the weather is rough. However, 99% of the time here in Seattle it's just a single person going to work or returning their DVD to Blockbuster.

I have an old F-150 pickup I inherited from my dad. I just use it when the weather's bad or I need to haul something.

This "safety" issue has always aggravated me....I have to buy an SUV so my family will be safe during an accident with another SUV...on and on and on it goes...

June 26, 2007 at 5:39 PM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

J. Marquis: You've got it, that safety illusion is exactly what's driving this. Everybody wants to be in the biggest car on the road in case they're in an accident. And the manufacturers fan the flames by making bigger and bigger vehicles. And consumers keep buying into it.

June 26, 2007 at 6:40 PM  
Blogger Larry said...

What would happen if the masses stop buying any gas from a Exxon or Chevron entities.

I wonder how fast prices would fall.

June 26, 2007 at 8:31 PM  
Blogger Snave said...

I think that by instilling "bigger is safer" as conventional wisdom, the manufacturers are just using fear to market their fuel-inefficient products because it is what they can do to make the most money right now. I also think there is the status-symbol thing going on...

I would love to have a truck just for the purposes J. mentions, to haul things a few times a year, and maybe to take up into the mountains once in a while. 4WD helps out in the winter, too.

I like my hybrids, for the reasons Leo mentions. If enough people drive hybrids for those reasons, I believe it can make a real difference.

June 26, 2007 at 8:42 PM  
Blogger LET'S TALK said...

I'll just say that yes, I have a SUV and when it comes to travel, well you can't be them.

I would love to have a hybrid car and maybe my next car will be just that.

June 26, 2007 at 9:56 PM  
Blogger LET'S TALK said...

I don't know why my last comment did not post.

I own a SUV and it's great for road trips even though I'm not getting much on the miles. I did not purchase the SUV for safety, I got it for the comfort.

I would love to purchase a hybrid car in the future, but right now I'm just not trying to get into any debt.

June 27, 2007 at 12:18 AM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

Larry: I'm not sure if boycotting certain oil companies makes any difference. They're all so huge and overlapping, I suspect they're just one huge monolith that pretends to be competing against itself. Just my guess.

Snave: I hope the conventional wisdom will change so that people no longer equate Bigger with Safer. Detroit certainly doesn't want the public knowing the truth, but hopefully the word will get out.

Let's Talk: I'm sure comfort is a factor too, as far as why people buy SUVs. I'm not saying people shouldn't buy SUVs, just that their size doesn't make them safer than the newest compacts. I didn't know this myself until I read that article.

June 27, 2007 at 12:32 AM  
Blogger BaxtersMum said...

I own a subaru - its the fourth I've owned. AWD and comfort, with luxury options - and I get almost 30 mpg. With side air bags and a high safety rating.

It may not have the highest ground clearence, but on the beaches of the outter banks and the snows in the rockies, it handles better than any big SUV out there - and is admired for it by most of the SUV drivers while it does so...

I believe one said, "We tried to stay in your tracks, but your car just floats on the sand...Very cool."

June 27, 2007 at 7:49 AM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

BaxtersMum: That sounds like a great vehicle you've got. Safety, good mileage, handles the beaches -- hopefully more people will make choices like that.

June 27, 2007 at 8:56 AM  
Anonymous Brad said...

Here's something very anti-SUV: a 157-mpg car.


June 27, 2007 at 9:19 AM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

Brad: Cool. Comes out in 2009. Hope they sell a lot of them.

June 27, 2007 at 9:54 AM  
Anonymous JollyRoger said...

Deaths per mile are actually slightly higher for Suburban Useless Vehicles than they are for passenger cars.

I drive an Outback. 30(+)MPG, and 4 wheel drive. I drove it to the northernmost parts of Michigan in December and never had a problem. Put another way, I simply don't buy the argument that a SUV is any kind of "necessity." They make importing oil from some really bad actors a "necessity," and that's all they do.

June 28, 2007 at 11:36 PM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

Jolly Roger: I wouldn't doubt that the death rate is higher for SUVs. That rollover factor probably outweighs whatever advantage they get from their size. And their low mileage is aiding and abetting the Turrists; for some reason Dumbya doesn't seem to mind.

June 29, 2007 at 1:06 AM  

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