Escalade: ballet or SUV with dignity?

Luxury carmaker Cadillac has finally broken its promise never to build a sport-utility vehicle. Cadillac's new contribution to the coveted SUV category makes me think it's high time for a populist mutiny. In good sportsmanship, those of us who are true utilitarians must defend our sport-utility territory from luxury limos parading as trucks.

Cadillac's new SUV - called the Escalade - is appropriately named. It is an escalation, if not a resort to futility, in the sport-utility marketing war. Plush and palatial, it joins the Lincoln Navigator in the ranks of off-roaders that rough it with sumptuous seats and lustrous trim.

English leather notwithstanding, these conveyances are quintessentially American - magnificent testament to Detroit's ongoing love affair with size and comfort.

And if that is what the owners of these vehicles want, it's a free country.

However, these luxurious craft must stop claiming to be sport-utility vehicles. They navigate like ships, so they're not sporty. And they're too fancy and inefficient to be utilitarian. Even transporting a bicycle or a boogie board risks ripping that pleasing upholstery.

As the owner of a tiny, 10-year-old sport-utility vehicle myself, I think it is high time we made, well, a class distinction.

To really be a SUV, a truck must have both sport and utility. There is plenty of sport in my little truck: Just try getting in and out of the back seat. And it's full of utility: The four-wheel drive can get me into the woods behind my grandmother's house to collect firewood - though it isn't always able to get me back out of the woods, making for more sport.

But lately my long-suffering sport-ute has been losing the ego-war to Lincoln's grand sport-brute gladiator, the Navigator. Now, Cadillac's Escalade has escalated the battle. So I call for a populist protest: Americans, stand up and reclaim the sport-utility vehicle. Those of you who feel that you must drive a pick-up truck to preserve your identity, you deserve protection from wind and rain for your cargo and kids.

If this means a new conservative trend to automotive politics, so be it. One Cadillac ad I saw captioned a photo of the onrushing Escalade with the pompous injunction: "Please move immediately to the right." We just might.

Yet I fear that even if we reclaim the category of SUV, we will no longer be able to afford one. Am I wrong that these machines now seem reserved for the well-off? Or that they're designed to provide the illusion of protection from America's impoverished urban landscapes, as if SUV drivers were traversing a wilderness as treacherous and inhospitable as the jungles and deserts for which off-road machines were once reserved? We should be investing in cities, not suburban assault vehicles.

Sure, constructing these craft provide jobs for a few working Americans, but not as many as if we devoted the same assembly lines to making more sensible cars that people around the world would want to drive. To capture the implications for autoworkers, perhaps we should even call them: export-futility vehicles.

But maybe I should give up on my movement to reclaim the SUV. Later this year, when Ford introduces the biggest one yet - the three-and-a-half-ton, 19-foot-long Excursion - the term "sport utility" will reapply. This one will be so big that you can actually play sports inside it, and it will get such terrible gas mileage that a new power-generating public utility will be required just to compensate for the fossil fuels it burns. Come to think of it, maybe my next car will even be - a car.

*Trevor Corson is a contributing editor at Transition magazine, in Cambridge, Mass.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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