Shades of gray in SUV debate

As debates go, this one has been cast in the media as being increasingly polarized.

Full-size sport utility vehicles now either represent the apex of automotive evolution or stand as symbols of wasteful self-indulgence.

A controversial set of television commercials suggests that owning one of the gas-gulping all-wheel-drive über-wagons makes you complicit in Middle East terrorism.

SUV loyalists often counter by citing a real need - the old stormy-weather imperative - for owning such vehicles. That argument holds up nicely after a two-foot snowfall.

So are rank-and-file consumers really hardening their stances and allowing themselves to be labeled as staunchly pro- or anti-SUV?

Maybe not. In a January poll of several hundred active new-car hunters by Kelley Blue Book, the auto-information provider, 6 in 10 said they "feel positively" about SUVs. The negative press around the trucks, they said, was "hype."

That doesn't necessarily mean that they live to burn fuel, just that they have their reasons for liking the big lugs. So do they care about saving gas or the environment?

Maybe. Other surveys, including one by J.D. Power and Associates, hint that Americans are slowly warming to gas-electric hybrids, currently the most practical route to fuel-efficient motoring. Many - taking a long view past these days of relatively cheap gas - may even be willing to pay for some of the added cost of the technology.

Automakers say they will answer with more choices in the next few years. GM, for one, promises seven hybrids by 2007, including versions of such SUVs as the Chevy Tahoe, now among the top polluters.

Someday, what car buyers want may be good for them, too.

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