You'll get me out of my SUV when . . .


November 23, 1997|By NORRIS WEST

THEY ARE the suburban machine of the '90s, popular enough to survive the image of O.J. Simpson's infamous chase in the Bronco, powerful enough to climb charts in Detroit and Tokyo, hungry enough to keep gasoline pumps whirling at a record pace.

They are sports utility vehicles, or SUVs, for the uninitiated.

In Howard County and elsewhere, the SUV rivals the minivan for suburban supremacy. The minivan is the quintessential vehicle for practicality while the SUV evokes escapism.

Advertisers of SUVs have tapped into our quest for adventure with shots of Pathfinders and Blazers rolling through rugged terrain or hauling households. These commercials have made us realize that we've needed vehicles that are better off the road than on it. We've wasted so much time on winding, curving roadways when we could have made short cuts through mountain ranges.

The topic of SUVs came up in a brief conversation with my colleagues about overconsumption. Good arguments could be made -- were made -- that SUVs are the very manifestation of over-consumption.

Editorial cartoonist Kevin Kallaugher, the artist currently known as Kal, noted the heavy demand for these vehicles by people who really don't need them. A writer pointed out that a commercial showing an SUV rumbling over hills ends with the vehicle at a suburban mailbox. Someone pointed out that much space in sports utilities goes unused. Few will carry large pieces of furniture.

Another problem is their unquenchable thirst for gasoline.

Besides, said another critic, these supposedly sturdy vehicles have the propensity to tip over while making sharp turns. Indeed, a Consumer Reports review that was much maligned by some auto manufacturers found that certain models couldn't be trusted to remain on all four-by-fours while maneuvering through a course -- not in the Appalachians, mind you, but on a level road.

Symbol of overconsumption

As the owner of an SUV, I became defensive as these attacks came in rapid succession. I countered that the enormous size of SUVs, although establishing them as poster children for over-consumption, makes them safer to its drivers and passengers than a compact car.

There's no fear of bodily harm while driving past a deer crossing.

I'd like to think there are plenty more reasons to own a sports utility, but it all boils down to two other things -- image and the misperception of need.

Until I bought a Ford Explorer 10 months ago, all my automobiles were subcompacts and practical. My first car was a used 1972 Mercury Comet with a peppy engine I enhanced with mag wheels and wide tires. I used it mostly for school, parties, dates and to chauffeur my mother to church.

Six years later came a terrible decision to buy a new 1980 AMC Spirit. I still don't know why. I dropped from eight cylinders to six and got somewhat better mileage, but it was a stylistic faux pas.

Then came the best automobile investment I've made, a 1987 Honda Civic. I went into the dealership looking for an inexpensive buy that would deliver good mileage and have enough room for our young family. After testing slightly larger cars, and checking their price tags, I decided that the Civic was roomy enough.

I got nine great years out of the car and a 10th marked by several trips to the mechanic. Last January, I decided to get a vehicle that would be reliable for work and for transporting our children to their assortment of school and social functions. Even if I could count on the Civic, it no longer was able to accommodate our five-member family so comfortably. A six-foot-tall teen-ager needs more leg room.

A logical choice would have been a minivan. These vehicles have enough room for seven adult-sized people and are more fuel-efficient than sports utilities that gobble a gallon of gasoline every 15 miles.

Soccer moms drive minivans

I considered the minivan briefly, but decided that it was too suburban. Soccer moms drive those vehicles, don't they?

The station wagon was not an option.

So I joined the ranks of over-consumers and bought a used (new SUVs are expensive) Explorer.

Although I drive alone most trips, the SUV gives the family plenty of space and has come in handy for a few other chores. There have been occasions to haul furniture, and I've avoided the trouble of renting a truck or asking a truck-owning friend for a favor. Once, my six-foot son and I loaded the old sofa bed into the Explorer and dumped it at Alpha Ridge.

I'm keenly aware that I'm under-using space most of the time, as commuters do when driving subcompacts to work when there are opportunities to carpool. Still, I appreciate the room when our family is together, and I enjoy the heightened view.

When our children leave home for good, there will be no real or imagined reasons to over-consume anymore. Then I'll go shopping for a subcompact.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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