Not a Ride, But a Daily Expedition

Suv Backlash

Attention all signatories of the Kyoto Protocol. Attention members of the California Air Resources Board. Attention insurance companies and drivers of passenger cars. Evelyn Burke of Chicago has a message for you: Keep your hands off my Ford Explorer.

Ms. Burke, like millions of Americans who drive sport- utility vehicles, knows that her choice of conveyance guzzles gasoline, spews out noxious fumes, and is seen as a threat by motorists in smaller machines. But she's also certain that this two-ton truck can navigate blizzards safely, accommodate a month's groceries, and ferry her family to almost any mountain campsite.

"I don't drive it to make a statement," she says. "It's the only vehicle that serves all my needs."

Despite mounting pollution and safety concerns, America's love affair with the sport-utility vehicle (SUV) shows no sign of subsiding. Two million new SUVs are driven off car lots each year. For the first time, sales of light trucks in the United States are outstripping sales of traditional passenger cars.

It's a trend driven by changing lifestyles, but it's not just a phenomenon born of practicality. To students of American culture, the enormous popularity of sport utilities is a testament to the enduring power of the nation's frontier idyll.

"The history of this nation is one of taming wilderness, of trying to contain forces that exist in nature," says Michael Marsden, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. "As wilderness becomes an increasingly rare experience, Americans value it all the more. They like the idea of being able to weather the elements and make roads where there are none. They're buying the concept of absolute mobility, and they're willing to pay a lot for it."

Although the blistering rate of growth in SUV sales is expected to slow to a mere gallop this year (up 13 percent over last year), manufacturers are still flocking to the market. Chrysler and Mercedes rolled out new models this year, and Cadillac, Buick, and BMW are moving forward on their own versions. Auto-market researchers say 19 new sport-utility models will be introduced between 1999 and 2002.

SUVs have gained favor with the auto industry because companies can clear as much as $12,000 on each high-end model they sell - a figure experts say is nearly three times higher than the profit margin on passenger cars. It's a gold mine that's helped fuel the recent boom in Detroit's automotive economy and steeled manufacturers against a mounting barrage of criticism.

A recent study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that fatalities due to rollovers are nearly three times higher for SUVs than for other passenger vehicles. Earlier this year, another NHTSA study revealed that 5,447 Americans died in collisions involving a light truck and a car in 1996. Of those killed, 80 percent were riding in cars. Several automobile insurance companies are now planning to ratchet up SUV premiums.

Just this month, California air-quality officials unveiled a proposal that would subject most pickup trucks, SUVs, and minivans to the strict smog controls now applied to passenger cars. In addition, the global-warming treaty signed earlier this month in Kyoto, Japan, would force the United States to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels over the next decade. If approved, these measures would force manufacturers to install expensive new smog-control systems, or limit SUV production altogether.

Yet manufacturers have shown no sign of changing their ways. "We're still trying to make all the trucks, SUVs, and minivans we can," Chrysler president Thomas Stallkamp told reporters this week. "The issue becomes, will these sort of agreements start to force consumers to change what they're telling us they want right now?"

AT present, the answer seems to be a resounding "no." Recent surveys suggest that pollution concerns have not been strong enough to dissuade most would-be SUV buyers and that the popularity of these vehicles is growing steadily among women.

Indeed, manufacturers of SUVs seem to have established a strong emotional connection with the American consumer. Advertising slogans promise that these rugged vehicles will put drivers "comfortably in command" and offer them "a bit of security in an insecure world." One SUV manufacturer says the only danger buyers face is that they might "run out of planet" to explore.

Although surveys show that fewer than 10 percent of all SUV owners ever take their vehicles off-road, names like "Navigator," "Expedition," "Pathfinder," "Blazer," and "Yukon" promise to turn a driver's daily commute into a mythic adventure.

John Knott, a University of Michigan English professor who teaches a course on wilderness in American literature, opens each semester by passing around a stack of SUV advertisements he's collected.

The pictures, he says, help demonstrate the enduring appeal of the wilderness ideal in American society and the extent to which the perception of nature has changed over time. Where the earliest American settlers once viewed the frontier as a beast to be conquered, he says, "most people these days seem to view nature as a restorative force."

To Professor Marsden, the sport-utility craze is partly fueled by the legends that have formed the American character. Americans are buying more SUVs at a time when the nation is becoming more suburban- and computer-centric. It's an attempt, he argues, to connect with a fading pioneering past. "The frontier will never be closed, because Americans in their own minds have to keep it open," Marsden says. "If we close it, the story would be finished. We would have to come to terms with the end of the wilderness, and the tragedy of what we gave up."

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