It could be the perfect SUV, getting a fuel-efficient 36 miles to the gallon and sporting enough safety devices to cut driving fatalities nationwide by 2,900 a year.
There's just one drawback to the Guardian XSE - it can't be found in showrooms anywhere.
The concept car design was unveiled yesterday by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Center for Auto Safety at press conferences in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Their engineers call the Guardian a blueprint to show auto manufacturers how to produce sport utility vehicles that are less dangerous and friendlier to the environment.
"This represents a comprehensive approach to an SUV that is safer and more fuel efficient," said David Friedman, the organization's clean vehicles program research director and co-designer of the Guardian. "Families deserve a better SUV, one that is safer, with improved fuel economy, but has the same size, same power and same performance as they have now."
Among the changes proposed to the typical SUV design: stronger roofs to protect during rollovers, better seatbelts and tires, a more efficient engine and six-speed automatic transmission, window-curtain air bags and lower bumpers.
Of course, such changes don't come without a higher price.
The basic model Guardian, which boosts gas mileage from 21 miles per gallon to almost 28, would add about $750 to the cost of a standard SUV, while the higher-end, 36-mile-per-gal- lon Guardian XSE would cost about $3,000 more. Designers of the vehicle said the price difference could be made up within just two or three years in fuel savings compared with the most popular SUV, the Ford Explorer XLT.
"The fact is that all of these features except one is available on at least one SUV or passenger car today," said Carl E. Nash, former head of the Accident Investigation Division of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and co-designer of the Guardian. "The public is basically not aware of what they could have in an SUV. We want to let the public know that they have a right to demand more than what their automakers are giving them today."
A spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers dismissed the Guardian design as unrealistic, saying the companies are already using the most up-to-date available technology for both safety and fuel efficiency.
"This is the most competitive industry in the world. Each auto company is constantly striving to steal their rivals' market share, and if Company A could make an SUV that got much better fuel economy than Company B, they would put it on the market as soon as they could," said Eron Shosteck, whose organization represents 10 of the largest domestic and foreign manufacturers.
Shosteck also said that not every SUV owners needs every possible safety option. "If you have an SUV that you use to haul a lot of things, but you don't have kids or passengers in the back seat, you don't need 12 air bags in your SUV," he said. "We believe that consumers are savvy enough to choose their own safety equipment."
The president of Sport Utility Owners of America also rejected the idea that the scientists and auto safety groups could come up with "the miracle vehicle."
"Don't you think that these rabidly competitive automakers, who just hate each other, if they had that silver bullet, would put these features in to put the other auto makers out of business?" asked Jason H. Vines, a former auto executive. "As an SUV owner, I want better fuel economy. We all do. I suggest they go out and build their vehicle, and let's see how it works."
But Friedman and Nash said it's unrealistic to expect that anyone but the auto manufacturers could actually transform blueprints into functional SUVs.
The Union of Concerned Scientists is a nonprofit group founded in 1969 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It aims to develop practical solutions to environmental problems, while the Center for Auto Safety was begun in 1970 with the goal of improving auto and truck safety.
"The auto manufacturers are the ones with the plants and the resources," Friedman said. "It's the auto manufacturers who need to step up and make the changes."
SUVs, which are classified as light trucks by the federal government, generate "40 percent more global warming pollution" - or carbon dioxide - than the average cars, according to a recent report by the scientists organization. Because SUVs are less fuel efficient, the average SUV owner pays more than $3,200 for gasoline over a vehicle's lifetime compared with the average car, assuming a price of $1.40 per gallon, according to the group.
Auto industry representatives acknowledge that SUVs use more fuel, but argue that the vehicles' fuel economy has improved by almost 60 percent over the past 30 years. Most manufacturers also are planning to start offering hybrid SUVs - relying on both gasoline and electrical power - within the next two years, Shosteck said.
In terms of safety, Nash said SUVs are five times more likely than cars to be in fatal crashes in which a rollover is the first major event. Industry representatives deny that SUVs are any more dangerous than cars.
One current SUV - the Volvo XC90 - offers most of the safety changes proposed for the Guardian, but not the fuel efficient alterations, Nash and Friedman said.
During the Baltimore news conference, Suzi Marceron of Harwood joined the researchers. With two young children, two large dogs and a niece whom she often watches, Marceron said she needs a large vehicle and owns a Chevrolet Suburban.