Carmakers take the high road

First off, if you're a car-buyer who's eagerly anticipating the showroom debut of GM's plush "civilian Hummer," 2002 is your year, not 2001.

And this week's Work & Money section is probably not for you.

The biggest of the sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) have a loyal fan base. A media-relations woman I met last week - from an energy consultancy in Dallas - describes the highways around "Big D" as racetracks for the hairy-chested fuel-burners.

And up here in the Northeast, titanic SUVs still line up at preschools in affluent suburbs where "off roading" means turning onto a crushed-gravel driveway.

But big SUVs have vocal critics. There's the core of earthlings who recall from time to time that fossil fuels are finite, and dirty to burn. (Pricey, too, though pump prices have yet to raise real ire.)

And there are those small-car drivers who are just frustrated because they can't see the road ahead without a periscope.

What's behind their continued sales? Reasons that supporters would call legitimate: visibility, a sense of security (Firestone/Ford debacle notwithstanding). And reasons that SUV critics deplore: elevated social status, a craving for "bigness" for its own sake.

A New York Times story in July sifted through studies comparing "typical" buyers of SUVs and minivans. It found very different behavior. Minivan drivers came off as being more socially active, more literate, less aggressive.

An over-generalization, no doubt. But SUV-makers are now broadening their appeal with smaller models that project a friendlier image - and that may ultimately be more eco-friendly. The "SUV we can all live with" is the automotive story for 2001.

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