Do Americans want the mother of all SUVs?

March 06, 2001|By Edward Flattau

WASHINGTON -- Just as the American auto industry disclosed it would no longer oppose a freeze on raising fuel economy standards, DaimlerChrysler Co. announced it would introduce the mother of all gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles (SUVs), a 12,500-pound monstrosity called the Unimog.

What was DaimlerChrysler thinking?

The company seemed insensitive to our current national energy dilemma that has intensified demands for more efficient daily use of fuel. The ill-timed unveiling of this nearly 10-foot-tall, 20-foot-long SUV with the worst gas mileage ever can only be explained by the split personality the automobile industry has manifested for years.

While paying lip service to environmental considerations and engaging -- under political pressure -- in unhurried research to make "greener" cars, automobile manufacturers have continued to produce large energy-profligate vehicles. The higher profit margins of the SUVs have proven irresistible.

Perhaps DaimlerChrysler's myopic reading of energy trends explains in part why the company has struggled for profitability. In promoting the Unimog, the vehicle's chief marketing manager says the $84,000 SUV will be targeted at suburban households. His aspirations are that, among other things, affluent soccer moms will want to turn heads as they drive to the supermarket.

Underlying the Unimog is the company's evident conviction that American consumers are a bunch of crass, indulgent individuals who know no limits. But are we all that different from the prosperous citizens of Germany, where sales of an earlier, smaller version of the Unimog were largely a bust and essentially confined to a few wealthy eccentrics?

DaimlerChrysler obviously thinks we are. The company expects that, budget permitting, we shall flock to snap up the vehicle, despite our uncertain energy future and the fact that we already use one-third of the world's transportation energy although making up just 5 percent of the global population.

I hope DaimlerChrysler's reading of the American marketplace is terribly wrong. The Unimog gets 10 miles to the gallon, lower than even the current line of SUVs. Were a driver of a conventional car to switch to a Unimog, the motorist would waste in one year an amount of energy equivalent to keeping a color television set running continuously for 30 years.

The Unimog's imminent introduction also highlights the deficiencies in our regulatory system. The vehicle's enormous weight classifies it as a medium-duty truck for regulatory purposes and thus qualifies it for more lenient fuel economy and air pollution standards than those imposed on conventional cars. These exemptions to trucks, vans and other large vehicles need to be dramatically modified if we are to attain meaningful improvements in air quality and energy conservation.

Another regulatory loophole that has to be closed is the $20,000 tax deduction allowed on the purchase of vehicles 6,000 pounds or more used solely for business. It's a provision that is widely abused. People claim the tax benefit when buying such models and then turn around and use the vehicles for general purposes. Their success in exploiting this provision has had the effect of increasing the sale of mammoth gas-guzzling, air-polluting SUVs.

Some day, perhaps, a combination of inevitable substantial gasoline price increases and removal of SUVs' exemption from a federal gas-guzzler tax will give the oft-maligned critics of the highway behemoths the last laugh.

Edward Flattau writes about environmental issues.

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