It’s Not “Which SUV?”—It’s “Why SUV?”
Buyers looking for a family hauler are asking themselves the wrong question.
Sport-utility vehicles, the high-riding machines that have captivated American hearts and pocketbooks for a quarter of a century and more, have been a source of eternal bedevilment to me. Especially since I wrote the world's first anti-SUV op-ed for the New York Times, back in 1994.
Not unlike today, the concept of dissing or despairing runaway SUV sales was not well received by the industry or its friends in the media it largely supported back in the day. For a while, pretty much everybody was happy to pretend that the SUVs suddenly proliferating were suited for purpose, and their owners vital outdoors people who might put the vehicles' rugged capabilities to good use, living off the beaten path and traversing challenging terrain.
Of course, this ignored the fact that, by employing just such appealing imagery, marketers had long since convinced a nation to imagine that freshly paved cul de sacs and driveways alongside tract homes in suburban subdivisions were also ideal locales for Jeeps, Blazers, Broncos, and other vehicles meant to connote the healthful virtues of sportiness, adventure, love of the outdoors and concern for the environment. Even if you never went off-road, as most owners never did, or never attempted anything more outdoorsy or environmentally aware than weekend mall excursions and late-night beer runs. Even if SUVs burned more gasoline and so were necessarily bigger polluters than their passenger-car and minivan relations.
An additional fantasy purveyed to prospective owners lay in the thinly veiled suggestion that the high and mighty vehicle offered not just passage through inclement weather and rough conditions, but an increased measure of safety. The latter was particularly not true back then, during the early SUV days of pickup-truck frames, high centers of gravity, and limited or nonexistent stability controls. But all of it paled next to a larger point. SUVs made big money for the industry. People would pay more for what was in essence less in the way of engineering, design, and manufacturing costs. A magic combination the carmakers had going and one of their most cherished hands, they obviously had to play it, so why couldn't I shut up?
Well, because, as you know, I can't help myself. I continued and continue to point this stuff out. Then, as now, as a matter of policy, the benefits of using less gasoline were obvious. But fortunately for the automobile and oil industries no one listened to me and other likeminded critics. They still don't.
Instead I get, "What's the best SUV to buy right now?" It's a question I've been asked far too often over the last 25 years, first when that Times piece came out and they booked me on a bunch of radio shows. Irate listeners calling in to dress me down for unAmericanism was one thing, but this question? Overbroad in its contours, you might say, though, something a car tester ought reasonably expect to be asked. Except one who has just written a piece decrying SUVs and the SUVs they rode in on.
When confronted off camera with this "What SUV should I buy?" query through the years, I learned to politely hem and haw and ask people what their new vehicle's intended use might be, gently trying to steer them elsewhere, genre-wise, if that's what was indicated, or if not drilling down into which type of SUV they really needed—XL, XXL, or XXXL. "What can I do, I've got two kids?" is a rhetorical question put to me more than a few times by persons on the verge of buying an Expedition or something else too big, but who called for my advice, which they already knew and had no intention of taking, anyway.
It's different when you're on TV. There's no time for anything, much less complexity, nuance, or any sign of grey ambiguity. Which is vexing in the extreme, as it also means there is never any time for the question in my view better discussed, which is not "Which SUV?" but rather "Why SUV?"
Earlier this century, I can't remember the year, I was invited to appear on a New York City morning talk show with host Donna Hanover, an admired TV journalist and actress, and the former Mrs. Rudolph Giuliani, only recently divorced. I'd worked for Mr. Giuliani in 1984 as a summer law clerk in the United States Attorney's office for the Southern District of New York. Not directly, though I had lunch with him and another clerk once. While waiting to go live with Hanover, I explained the point of my appearance, that while I was there in a consumer-service role, I wasn't there to recommend SUVs by name, was in fact not on board with the whole idea of them, and I hoped to suggest alternatives. She smiled and nodded assent. Looking to fill the time, I mentioned that I'd worked for her husband, I mean ex-husband, some years earlier.
Somewhere about half of the way through the recitation of this coincidental fun fact it occurred to me that it had probably not been a good idea to have brought up her only recently ended marriage to America's lothario mayor at this moment. What can I say? I was nervous. The director indicated we were about to go live, Ms. Hanover stared into my eyes and then into my soul, declaring "We don't talk about him around here," with a blank stare so intense and unadmiring that I was reminded of the moment in Men in Black when the baddie splits open his chest to reveal a huge and grotesque insect inside.
And then, before I could apologize, as if that were possible, the cameras were on and she said something to the effect of, "So what is the best SUV to buy?" I was already looking like someone who'd just seen a huge insect and it took what seemed like forever to choke out a reply. What I said that day, I can't say now because I've blocked it from memory. But I'm pretty sure it wasn't destination television.
One continues to hope automotive fashion will change, and the sooner the better, but it would be disingenuous to close without noting that SUVs today are much better than they ever were, many having become car-based, more efficient, and safe. They sell better than ever, too.
Some might think because of electrification, this historical critique of the SUV paradigm will go away. But actually, no. All of it remains in play so long as SUVs are in play. For they will always suffer in comparison to lighter, more aerodynamic vehicles and this will continue to be an issue even in the electric future we are said to be approaching, as the SUV consumes more electricity than more humbly proportioned, lower cars, limiting range and increasing operating cost in service of height and size that are rarely used. Big SUVs take up more space in our cities, too, where so many of them seem to wind up.
Electric cars are more efficient if they're not so big and bluff. Basic physics, folks. And with the storms kicking up and water rising all around us, the question of efficiency really shouldn't be treated as sole the purview of nerds, leftists, and Puritans.