In Loving Memory of the Car

In my last two columns, I have come dangerously close to setting a trend in which I consistently attack the “hick” culture. Not wanting to make enemies among people I don’t hate, this time I’m turning the microscope on a general suburban blight of conspicuous consumption: the SUV.

I suppose I’m particularly qualified to speak against this social evil because I live in Denver, Colorado. Why would that make me an expert, you ask? Two reasons: the U.S. Census Bureau has officially declared Colorado to be the nation’s No. 1 state in terms of SUV ownership, (One in seven Colorado vehicles is an SUV, compared to one in 13 nationally.) and because I drive a Geo Metro.

There are various reasons to despise, or at least seriously dislike, the average SUV. First, they raise the bar for accident deaths among drivers of cars. If my Geo were to be in an accident with an SUV on any given roadway, at any given speed, the odds are great that the SUV’s driver will be bitching about ruining the chrome finish on his or her bumper while I’m being hauled off to the hospital. Secondly, SUVs are inefficient fuel burners that contribute to the high rate of pollution attributed to automobiles. Denver, for example, consistently rates among the top 10 cities nationwide for air pollution each year. Third, some studies indicate that the high number of SUVs on the road contributes to the increasing rates of insurance for all cars, from the smallest compact to the largest trucks.

But more than that, SUVs represent an American obsession with status symbols that has grown out of control. Here in Denver, the primary reasons given by drivers for owning an SUV are snow conditions and safety. Both lead to fairly ridiculous conclusions. Granted, if it were between being stuck in a snow bank in an SUV or my Geo, the SUV would be my choice. But the reason that snow conditions are dangerous is not snow itself, but ice! No amount of size, weight, or number of wheels used in driving will help you if you slide over a patch of ice. In fact, the size and weight of an SUV makes them even more dangerous than a regular sedan once they lose control in icy conditions.

The safety issue is a moot point, due in part to its misrepresentation. A great number of SUVs on the market failed the National Transportation Safety Board’s front-end collision test. Not only that, but the issue of “size-equals-safety” sets up a growing spiral of oversized, inefficient, destructive vehicles being required for safety. The Hummer remains a luxury item, but for how long? How long will it take before we need an SUV to be safe, and then need something bigger, like a Hummer, to be safe from other SUVs?

The truth of the matter is that SUVs are designed to be cool. They are designed to appeal to a cultural aesthetic, precisely marketed, and made a class distinction symbol. And an as American consumer, I can readily see why it’s working. They’re shiny, they’re shapely, they’re comfortable, they’re spacious, they’re tough, they’re capable of hauling, they’re capable of climbing, and most of all, they give a megalomaniacal, Gods-eye view of the road only rivaled by semis and garbage trucks.

They are the American cowboy revisited. They are advertised on television as often as cowboy shows were in the early ’50s, marketed carefully during sporting events, ESPN, and during prime-time network programming. Commercials often feature huge, powerful, trucks bursting through off-road scenery. Or they feature sleek examples in the now-famous soft-white, tonal background now attributed to luxury-car advertising.

SUV ads also appeal to everyone. Mothers who want to protect children. Men who might need to haul lumber someday, or at least move to a new apartment. Those of us who want to be bold and burst through some trees in pursuit of nature. And rich yuppies everywhere who want their important friends and colleagues to know that they can afford the ride.

Yet none of these people need them. Mothers used to be able to safely haul their kids around in a station-wagon, even a mini-van, which dads could use to stock up and go camping or get supplies for the new bathroom addition. Most mini-vans come with more safety features than SUVs. It’s just cooler to have a truck, a 4×4, a sleek chrome and gun metal car that a tough guy would have. A cowboy, maybe.

And in defense of some of those same “hicks” I might have picked on before, these suburbanites are no more cowboy than Paulie Shore in Son in Law. The guys in the John Deere caps with the beat up pick-ups, who really do work on a ranch, or at least visit one on weekends to tend their horses are the last real cowboys in America. The suburban side of the scene are merely the poseurs they have always been, back when they were Generation X and not over-paid computer programmers. The American machismo still stands proud and free.

So I think about my car, and how my dream cars are Saabs and Volkswagens, and I pray that my marketing team can beat their marketing team in the big game. I hope that some day soon, I’ll be able to see more than shiny grills in my rearview mirror, that I can drive with room on both sides down urban residential neighborhoods, and that my insurance payment might actually go down for once.

But I’m not holding my breath.