Features & Articles : Car Culture
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Three Little Letters...
Enter the SUV.
Twelve yards long, two lanes wide, sixty five tons
of American pride, Canyonero, Canyonero! Top of the line in Utility
Sports, unexplained fires are a matter for the Courts, Canyonero,
Canyonero! She blinds everybody with her super-high beams, she's
a squirrel squashin' deer smackin', drivin' machine, Canyonero,
The Simpsons Episode AABF10:
"Marge Simpson in: 'Screaming
Much maligned and much admired- depending on which side of the walnut
accented-dash and plush, leather-trimmed seats you're sitting- the
sports utility vehicle or SUV is the most ostentatious popular product
of car culture. Jokes and critics abound. The parody site, poseur.org
for instance "created" their own SUV line. Among the features of the
"Dominator" are eight rear wheels "for handling those trips to Sam's
Club," and a seating capacity of 20. And, the site is quick to point
out, the Dominator fits under MOST bridge underpasses. (If you choose
to upgrade to the Grand Dominator, you'll enjoy cathedral ceilings,
full lavatory, four cell-phones, TV/VCR/Nintendo 64, Sony DSS satellite,
and a permanent cellular link to the internet.)
Although real-life SUVs haven't yet caught up with the Dominator,
they're certainly ambitious. Writing for the New York Times Magazine
last year, Jeffrey Goldberg invited an utterly disgusted Ralph Nader
to ride along as he took the Mercedes Gelandewagen for a spin. Goldberg
described the vehicle as being "built like a tank," weighing nearly
three tons, and going "from 0 to 1,000 in about two seconds." Nader
simply dubbed it the "Stupidwagen." Originally designed for the German
military, at $135,000 the "G-wagen" is the most expensive SUV on the
At that price tag, the average SUV-buying American is highly unlikely
to purchase a G-wagen; when Nader and Goldberg test drove the vehicle
last fall, its 150 owners were concentrated mainly in wealthy sections
of Southern California and New York City suburbs. But for the less
affluent, the Ford Motor company offers a bigger (I didn't say better)
option: the Excursion. Although it weighs in at nearly four tons,
at $35,000-50,000, the Excursion costs only a fraction of the G-wagen.
When the Sierra Club found out the Excursion gets 10-18 miles per
gallon, they ran a contest to give it a new slogan. The winner? "The
Ford Valdez. Have you driven a tanker lately?" When it became public
that the Excursion boasts an optional V10 engine, has six doors and
seats nine passengers comfortably, prospective buyers rang up Ford
dealerships to get the exact dimensions (it's 19 feet long) of the
thing: they wanted to know if it would fit in their garages.
A Love-Hate Relationship
"How can you rough it with a leather interior?" the Dominator's "makers"
beg to know.
The truth is, most SUV owners don't. Admittedly the percentage of
persons who use the SUV in the true sense of its name "for offroading
more than once a year (gravel roads don't count: cars and trucks have
been handling them just fine for years), hauling rock climbing and
camping gear, etc., is disproportionate to the number of owners.
"No, I've never taken my Explorer off-road," admits one SUV-owning
man in Greensboro, N.C. "I guess the point is, I could if I wanted
to. And I've had more fun driving this car than anything other I've
owned." The majority of SUVs are driven to do the same old everyday
errands as a Honda Accord: truth be told, you're more likely to spot
an SUV in a stadium parking lot, or waiting outside a super store
than you are hurtling up the side of a mountain.
In fact, while taking a lunch break during the writing of this story,
I happened to witness a freshly dealer-tagged Cadillac Escalade solidly
ram into the side of a gourmet grocery store. Fortunately no one was
injured. The motorist was an experienced driver, but obviously not
yet accustomed to manuevering the mammoth mobile: quite simply, the
hood was too large to see over. In the process of trying to secure
a space in the busy parking lot, the Escalade destroyed two newspaper
boxes, each the height of a small child.
Even Ford Motor Company president William Clay Ford, Jr. has publicly
admitted that "SUVs are generally worse for the environment than passenger
cars." Despite their overwhelming popularity, with their environmental
damage, safety reputation, and practicality in question, SUVs have
received more widespread criticism than any model in recent years.
But is overgrown car culture really the SUV's fault? Or is the SUV
merely a warning symptom of our automotive psychosis? After all, the
SUV is by no means a recent phenomenon. As Hayes Reed pointed out
in "I Want My SUV" in the Sacramento News and Review, "In fact,
the longest continuously manufactured model in the country is, believe
it or not, the Chevrolet Suburban. That particular four-door heavy-duty
truck was introduced in 1935, and GM's been cranking them out every
most of us, giving up our cars entirely is not a realistic option,
at least not yet. But as most happy couples know, the key to a successful
long-term relationship is giving each other space...