Thursday, August 17, 2006

SUV's Should Be Transparent

Guest-blogging over at Bitch, Orange has a lovely rant against SUV's. Among the charges leveled against the behemoths are:

- They get lousy mileage and deplete our dwindling oil supply.
- They pollute horribly.
- They contribute to global warming, both directly (emissions) and indirectly (gas mileage).
- They're tall and opaque, causing severe visibility problems for everyone else on the road.
- They're often driven by overentitled yuppie assholes.
- Minivans are better for carrying passengers and cargo, and they're safer.
- They don't help the safety of their drivers, and they endanger everyone else.

Other than the yuppie assholes part, I couldn't agree more. (I'm actually worried that as more used SUV's come on the market, we'll see them driven by 17 year olds. I'd prefer the yuppies.) In fact, I'll pile on some more.

- They cause severe visibility hazards in parking lots. I drive a compact car. When I come out of a store to find my car flanked by SUV's, I know that backing out of the parking space will be an adventure. Short of a periscope, there's no safe way to do it. I say, make the damn things transparent, or don't make them at all.

- They instill false confidence. Do you know how much 4WD helps with braking on snow or ice? None. Zero. Zip. 4WD helps with acceleration in mud. It does absolutely nothing to help you stop. That's why you see so many SUV's in ditches by the side of the road every time it snows. I have passed many a stranded Grand Cherokee in my little sedan over the years.

- As Keith Bradsher noted in his excellent High and Mighty, SUV's are generally the worst-built, least-reliable vehicles on the road. (This year's Consumer Reports auto issue reveals that this is still true.) They are the bastard children of regulatory loopholes and anthropologists gone bad.

- By becoming the Manly Alternative to minivans and station wagons, they've stigmatized minivans and station wagons. Now if you have more than two kids or you carry lots of stuff, you have to choose between an SUV and feeling like Pretty Polly Sunshine in her flowered dress.

One of the highlights of recent months occurred when I stopped for gas. When I pulled in, there was a Ford Excursion fueling up at the pump in front of mine. As I drove away, it was still fueling up. At three dollars a gallon, that has to hurt. Am I proud of chuckling “you dumb bastard” as I drove off? A little.

SUV's are textbook examples of what Thorstein Veblen called “honorific waste.” Their profligacy is precisely their appeal. Driving an Escalade sends the message that you're so ridiculously successful and important that you can afford to drive what amounts to a financial tapeworm. Frugality is for losers. Your vanity is far more important than, say, other people's ability to see. Let others worry about global warming and world peace and their fellow man; you're King of the Road, above such petty concerns. They're pop Nietzscheanism, which is almost the epitome of Bad Ideas.

I've never been much of a fan of pickup trucks, either, since I'm old enough to remember when they were the vanity vehicles of choice. But at least pickup trucks are easier to see around when you're pulling out of a parking space, and they're inarguably useful for certain applications (like hauling stuff).
If you live in a mostly-paved part of the country, I can't think of a single application (other than phallic symbol) for which SUV's are better suited than anything else.

Hummers are the expandio ad absurdum of SUV's. They're almost comical. I honestly worry about the psychological states of their drivers. If you aren't barreling over sand dunes with a howitzer, you have no business driving one of these. I call them Compensators. They scream to the world, “I have issues!” And they suck gas like it's going out of style, which, in a way, it is.

A very wise person once shared something with me. She said that houses appreciate, and cars depreciate. Therefore, it's okay to stretch when buying a house, but you don't want to spend too much on a car. (Exceptions exist at the extremes, but I'm talking about the middle class. This was also before the latest housing bubble, which is finally deflating.) The older I get, the more convinced I am that this is a good rule. When I see forty-thousand-dollar SUV's in apartment complex parking lots, I can't help but wonder.

Ford makes a hybrid SUV, which, to me, is like a lowfat twinkie. It's a gesture that says “if you really cared, you wouldn't buy this in the first place.” Honda makes a hybrid Civic. Ford is losing money and market share precipitously. Honda is gaining ground. It's almost as if 'cause' is somehow connected to 'effect.' I know that Detroit has never been great about connecting the dots, but sheesh.

Thanks, Orange, for the chance to second a fine rant.