The suburban beast that ate the minivan?

These days SUV stands for Suburban Assault Vehicle.

The suburbs are full of them. That 90 percent never go off road is urban legend.

"All my friends have kids we drive around, and none of us have minivans. We all drive these sport-utility vehicles," says Becky Freiberg, a mother in Phoenix.

A new study by CarSmart.com, an auto-buying referral service, confirms that sales of SUVs and other large vehicles are still growing fastest in metropolitan areas, primarily suburban.

CarSmart dealers report that sales of trucks (which include SUVs) increased an average of 42 percent between September 1999 and March 2000, versus a 20 percent jump for cars. Three quarters of those dealers are in urban areas. The large increases reflect a booming auto market, good economic times, and the fact that the good economy is buoying cities more than rural areas.

That's raised a backlash from environmentalists and small-car drivers who feel threatened by the prospect of running into one of the towering brutes, says Jeff Schuster, an analyst at J.D. Power and Associates in Detroit.

"They're just Stupid Ugly Vehicles to me," says Kevin Cox, a technical writer, who drives his aging Mercury Tracer around Portland, Ore.

"We've reached the phase in the life of the SUV where it's become the mainstream vehicle," says Mr. Schuster. "It really meets the need for a lot of people."

Csaba Csere, the editor of Car and Driver magazine agrees. "People like the cargo space, the all-wheel-drive for bad weather, the power. And the high seating position pays off on ever-more-congested roads," he says.

But market conditions haven't really changed since the 1970s, he adds. "Americans have always liked large vehicles. Modern fuel-economy regulations have made large cars of the kind Americans used to buy illegal."

Today the SUV is just like "the Country Squire wagon with wood trim in every other driveway in the neighborhood where I grew up," Mr. Csere adds. Most Americans live near cities, so most SUVs park there, too.

Carbuyers are buying trucks, because trucks have a loophole: Government regulations require that they only have to average 20.7 miles per gallon, versus 27.5 for cars.

Increasing truck sales have dragged average gas-mileage figures downward since 1996. The average mileage for all vehicles sold in the US last year was 23.1 miles per gallon, down from a peak of 25.9 m.p.g. in 1988. Either way that's a lot better than the 15 m.p.g. average posted in 1975.

Even rising gas prices have done nothing to sway buyers from big trucks.

"When you have kids, gas prices are secondary" to all the other costs of school and extracurricular activities, says Jennifer Reed-Fiorentino, a working mother from Uxbridge, Mass., who bought an Isuzu Rodeo SUV last year.

To be sure, not all large family vehicles are SUVs, though they're responsible for most of the sales growth in light trucks.

More families are buying four-door pickups that come with roomy back seats for the kids. In the CarSmart survey, sales of the compact Dodge Durango pickup has soared 131 percent since the four-door model hit the market last fall.

SUVs and pickups are the trucks that raise the hackles of small-car drivers and environmentalists for being too heavy, thirsty, and generally overkill for the tasks they usually perform - namely commuting, shopping, and dropping off one or two children at school.

These critics often point to the minivan as a better alternative.

But minivan sales are stagnant. "Young families are saying they aren't going to drive a minivan," says Schuster.

While the redesigned Honda Odyssey minivan posted the biggest gains in the CarSmart survey, with 136 percent, and won a similar popularity contest with InvoiceDealers.com in March, those sales came at the expense of other minivans.

When Ms. Reed-Fiorentino went shopping last year, she didn't even look at minivans. "I don't like what they represent," she says. "It's all about image, which is sad." And her new SUV is more fun to drive, she adds.

Since they're considered trucks, minivans benefit from the same fuel-economy loophole that SUVs do. Minivans can't meet car fuel-economy standards, says a minivan executive at DaimlerChrysler who didn't want to be named.

If the arguments of SUV critics swayed the government to tighten fuel-economy standards, minivans would suffer as much as SUVs.

The problem with current federal fuel-economy standards is that they regulate what automakers can build, but they don't govern what buyers demand, says Csere. As an environmental measure, he says higher gas taxes would have a more immediate impact. Instead of limiting the choices available to new-car buyers, Csere says it would steer them toward smaller cars. It would also encourage people to drive less, and to drive their more fuel-efficient cars.

In the meantime, the SUV trend promises to soften as it continues. Many sport-utilities have already strayed from their off-road roots. They're either smaller, based on soft-riding car chassis, or come equipped with every luxury feature available.

Shoppers pay a big premium for an SUV's versatility. Many carry profit margins of $10,000, versus only a few hundred dollars for mid-size cars and minivans. Demand keeps prices high -over $30,000 for most mid-size SUVs.

As one of the masses driving the trend, Reed-Fiorentino sums it up best. "If you're going to spend that kind of money, you want what you want."

* Comment to: evarts@csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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