Trimming Paul Bunyan down to size

Anyone who thinks American passenger vehicles can't possibly get any bigger than the giant SUVs now on the road hasn't reckoned with the oversized dreams of a company called Freightliner.

Normally a manufacturer of 18-wheelers, Freightliner, which is owned by DaimlerChrysler, is branching out. Its latest vehicle, called the Unimog, is modeled after a German military transport.

At 9 feet 7 inches tall, this Goliath on wheels towers three feet above the tallest SUV. The front seat, six feet off the ground, is accessible by a three-step ladder. Its 12,500 pounds make it heavier than four Toyota sedans. It stretches 20 feet long and is almost two feet wider than a typical car. No wonder federal regulations require truck-marker lights across the top.

A company spokesman has proudly described the behemoth, priced at a cool $84,000, as a "head-turning vehicle." Although businesses expect to buy most of the first year's production, Freightliner insists that the Unimog is "eminently civilized," suitable for city driving and trips to the grocery store.

The message is clear: Paul Bunyan lives. As he and Paula Bunyan commute to work and carpool all the little Bunyans in megasized vehicles like this, they symbolize the current love affair with bigness.

"Mega" may be the prefix that best describes the national mood of the moment.

Consider the Bunyans' megasized lifestyle. Their suburban megahouse, dubbed a McMansion, is filled with oversized possessions, bought at a megamall. It's all financed by loans from their local megabank, which was created by a series of mergers that swallowed up smaller banks.

For entertainment, the Bunyans watch a 60-inch, big-screen TV and go to the nearest 16-screen megaplex for the latest blockbuster movies. They shop for groceries - the giant economy size, of course - at warehouse-size superstores. And they wheel into the nearest fast-food outlets to wolf Big Macs or Whoppers and guzzle 16-ounce drinks.

They even buy Megabucks lottery tickets, although they consider jackpots of only $1 million mere peanuts.

If the Bunyans don't want a Unimog, they can buy a Hummer, a huge civilian spinoff of the Humvee used by the military. Sales may eventually reach 150,000 a year, according to General Motors.

"Small is beautiful" and "less is more" may be quaint ideals ill-suited to the 21st-century obsession with bigness. In an age of mergermania, how long will it be, for instance, before Americans are left with only two or three major airlines?

The danger goes beyond the possibility that such moves will stifle competition and eliminate jobs. Colossal size diminishes and threatens to destroy an essential human - and humane - scale.

Now a few voices in the wilderness are arguing for alternatives to the megamentality. One of them belongs to architect and author Sarah Susanka. Several years ago she wrote a book, "The Not-So-Big House," preaching the value of quality over quantity and showing the pleasures of living in smaller quarters.

To her surprise, the book sold over a quarter of a million copies. What better indicator of a hunger, however hidden, for a return to a more livable scale?

"It's as though there's a tide-turn going on, where even people who have subscribed to the bigger-is-better theory are saying, 'Is this it?' " Ms. Susanka said in a phone interview. "They're finding unrealized dreams. It's become clear that bigger and bigger and bigger doesn't fill the hole."

Many people, she continues, pursue a vision of bigness as a measure of accomplishment and success. "That's what we're all told is the way to make it in society. But a lot of people are coming up short and saying, 'Whoa. I'm working harder and I've got all these toys, but they're not fulfilling me.' "

In other promising signs of rebellion against bigness, the Volkswagen Beetle has made a successful comeback. And the voluntary simplicity movement, with its less-is-more philosophy, refuses to go away.

Still, the Paul Bunyan mentality continues to keep the rest of us humble. For now, check your rearview mirror. If a Unimog or a Hummer is bearing down, smile politely and get out of the way.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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