Forget the sedan: I want my SUV

Beset by critics, SUV owners tire of apologizing

They're about as politically incorrect as someone wearing a mink coat to an animal-rights conference.

Environmentalists and vehicle-safety advocates portray them as driving on the outer limits of acceptability. The Internet is rife with campaigns and spoofs against them.

But increasingly, owners of sport utility vehicles - under assault for burning too much gas and intimidating other drivers with their sheer size - are tired of being badmouthed as the professional wrestlers of the road.

Their giant rigs may pose a threat to smaller cars on impact. But they're legal. And they make up nearly 50 percent of all new vehicle sales.

Their message to other drivers: Get used to us.

Yet it's precisely this attitude that has spawned such a backlash. Unlike the station-wagon craze of the 1960s, and the minivan proliferation of the 1980s, the SUV phenomenon brings with it a visceral clash within America's car culture. Their critics see them as symbols of excess, muscling other cars off the road. But their owners vigorously defend their safety and adaptability - not to mention their comfort.

And despite all the criticism, the fad isn't likely to go away anytime soon. SUV sales are stronger than ever, and expanding into newly designed hybrids. Even carmakers like Porsche are coming out with their own versions, leading industry analysts to predict their continuing reign as kings of the road.

"I feel like I get unnecessary flak when I shouldn't," says Amy Coffin of Riverside, Calif.

Ms. Coffin, who drives a 1998 Toyota 4-Runner, likes the convenience and room her SUV offers, not to mention the ease with which she can strap her child safely in the back seat.

"Believe me, I have been given a lot of grief for driving my big baby, but I don't care. I love this car," she wrote in an e-mail.

"I could care less" about the criticism, agrees Burt Fenton of Denver, who believes the intimidation drivers of smaller cars feel has been whipped up by anti-SUV activists.

But besides the danger to other cars, massive fuel consumption, and pollution created by SUVs, many critics are ruffled by what they see as a certain snootiness on the part of the owners.

Web sites like "The Sport Utility Anti-Fan Club," and "The Ultimate Poseur Sport Utility Page" spoof the vehicles' size and snob-appeal. One heralds a Kenworth 18-wheeler tractor-cab as the next SUV - "perfect," it proclaims, for the consumer whose "Suburban or Expedition has gotten too small," and sure to trump the "Joneses who've just one-upped you again with a new Hummer."

Ironically, the biggest SUVs can even draw the ire of other SUV drivers - particularly behemoths like the new Ford Excursion, which seats nine people comfortably and has a 44-gallon tank. "That thing is obnoxiously huge," Coffin says.

Although many SUVs are rarely used for purposes more strenuous than trips to the grocery store, they have their roots in more practical - and decidedly unglamorous - vehicles like light-duty pickup trucks and the General Motors Suburban.

"What happened was a combination and civilization of all of these vehicles," explains David Cole, an automobile-industry expert at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. The growing affluence of consumers with active lifestyles then fueled their popularity, he says.

Tim Hemmings, who works for a Kansas City-based company that makes large animal cages, bought his first SUV for work. But this year, he bought an even larger conversion van, which will allow him the option of a bed and a TV in the back for his kids.

The decision to go bigger was encouraged by his wife. "After having a Ford Explorer, she didn't like sitting low to the ground again," Mr. Hemmings says.

Not all new SUVs are increasing in size, however. They're also changing shape. And in a bid to defuse some of the criticism, automakers this month announced design changes to lower underbody steel rails, preventing SUVs from overriding smaller cars on impact.

"There will still be behemoths, but there will be a whole new set of vehicles" in between, Professor Cole predicts. Already, BMW's new X5, which it prefers to call a Sports Activity Vehicle - or 'SAV' - is smaller, less boxy, and not as intimidating.

"Virtually every carmaker now feels they can't be left out," explains Kenneth Orski, president of Urban Mobility Corp. in Washington. "Lexus, BMW, Cadillac. They are all making them."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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