What we want, what we need

Much of my childhood could have been an ad for an SUV.

It was the mid-'70s. Nobody had yet coined the acronym. But without a high-riding four-wheel-drive – the one I remember was a boxy, beige Jeep Wagoneer – there were plenty of winter days when our gravel driveway could not have been conquered.

The road was a hillside half-mile stretch deep in the snow bowl that is central New York State. Even after we plowed out after a storm it was slick, with tall, unbroken snow banks all along the sides. Winter was about six months long. Some years the driveway hardened into a colossal bobsled run.

Today, living in coastal Massachusetts, I still see snow. Armies of plows rush out at dawn to deal with each dusting.

For that I'm grateful. My family ride is a Honda minivan, just sure-footed enough to do what it needs to do. I haven't seen a half-mile, six-foot snowbank in years.

What I do see are a lot of SUVs. Giant ones – GMC Denalis, Ford Excursions, Cadillac Escalades – the kind that draw a fair amount of ire from the waste-watcher crowd, especially since the heaviest duty many of them appear to tackle is dropping kids off at the mall.

It's not impossible to grasp their appeal: Size can equal security.

Yes, they project a certain image. True, in the past couple of decades it has perhaps become harder to discern the difference between want and need. Gas, for now, is cheap.

Still, when auto writer Eric Evarts sized up carmakers' offerings for 2003, he found a continued evolution of SUVs, often into scaled-down, fuel-efficent vehicles. They can handle a range of modern tasks, even climbing icy driveways.

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