Vehicular Decisions, A Rant on SUVs (whee)

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Yes friends, it is time for another tedious rant on the subject of sport utility vehicles. Those who are interested, read on. Everyone else will please step along smartly, thankyou.

One truism about 'blogging' (a term I use under protest, but frankly at this point only the next fad in terminology can save us) is that everyone who participates seems to feel a need to beat a dead horse on occasion. This is one such entry. We all know the arguments for and against SUVs. We all know that the vast majority of SUVs will probably never see a dirt road longer than a driveway, if that. But given that people like to drive them, what can we do about the situation? People like to be up higher, and they like to know that in a collision that they'll come out ahead of others (although if you roll the SUV, you're probably in much more trouble than if you roll almost anything else.) And, of course, the minivan is seen as emasculating to men and pigeonholing to women, although this may be more the result of deliberate marketing ploys on the part of automobile manufacturers than any other individual factor.

In spite of your probable familiarity with the major issues surrounding SUVs, let's just briefly enumerate the positive and negative points. Not all of these apply to all SUVs; there is a broad range of vehicles in this category, including the "Crossover SUV" based on a car platform, a category exemplified by the Honda CRV. On the up side, SUVs are up high, where you can see what's going on around you. Their high stance also affords them some additional ground clearance, and generally additional suspension travel, which helps with rough roads (potholes, speed bumps, et cetera.) It also means that they tend to come out on top (literally) in a collision, which helps keep you safe. A smaller vehicle coming in from the side strikes down by your legs, not at your body. Front and rear collisions exhibit this benefit to an even greater degree. They have more headroom, often (but not always) more legroom, and more cargo space than a car. And their additional weight helps keep them stable in inclement weather, which is a benefit in high winds.

But each of these benefits comes with some serious drawback, if not for the owner then for all those around them - or both. Having the vehicle up high where you can see is nice, but now there are so many SUVs on the road that in traffic, this benefit has been all but eliminated even for SUV owners. They typically have less ground clearance than some cars (primarily Subarus) because the majority of them still use a live axle suspension, though a few full-size and nearly all crossover SUVs feature fully independent suspension. The tendency to come out on top in a collision is also what causes them to roll over significantly more easily than cars. In a situation involving no other cars and no curbs, it is very difficult to roll almost any stock-equipped car on flat pavement1, but some SUVs can be rolled simply by making too sharp a turn2 Primary examples include the Suzuki Samurai and the Ford Bronco II. It also means that you are more dangerous to other drivers in a collision, as does the additional weight of the vehicle; when car meets SUV in collision, the occupants of the car are four times more likely to die than those in the SUV.3 The weight of the vehicle also increases the chance (and degree) of roof collapse in a rollover, and paradoxically SUVs frequently have less roof strength than other types of vehicles. This is a natural but unfortunate consequence of their shape, although it could be mitigated or in fact eliminated through engineering. It would involve some reduction of interior space, but it would likely have been worth it to those who are now deceased as the result of a rollover accident in an SUV.

Oh yes, one more little detail about SUVs; they are substantially less efficient than other vehicles. They are by intent larger and heavier than other vehicles, and the weight and wind resistance (drag) due to their design leads directly to poor fuel mileage. Dodge made a hybrid Durango for a year or two - they priced it at about $85,000 and then discontinued it due to "lack of interest". No kidding? Anyway, it got about the mileage of a full size sedan at best, I believe about 26 rated mpg on the old test (and probably less now) simply because it is so ridiculously massive even without the hybrid power system. This translates into higher emissions. It also puts more strain on roads, especially with fringe vehicles like the Hummer which is technically, legally over the weight limit for roads in certain urban centers where people who can afford and thus own them live, such as San Francisco. These statutes, which are in place to protect the public from unnecessary road damage and thus repair costs, are never enforced. The people who own the vehicles tend to be the ones with money, and we can all see where this sentence is going so there's really no point in finishing.

So what, if anything, would I have SUV owners do? The simplest answer is to buy a vehicle that, you know, actually suits their needs. In some cases, that is going to be a minivan. Get over it. Yes, most minivans are a can of crap and the best one, the Chevy Astro, is over and done. You can get them used, though; all but a couple of super-early models you don't want anyway have a very nice V6, and later models have a Vortech model of the same motor that absolutely smokes. Nissan made a few fairly ballsy models of minivan, and some of them even handle pretty well, as so some of the Toyotas. Just take a look at what's typically being used in taxicab fleets and you'll know what's worth buying - just be careful not to buy one that's actually been a taxi. Anyway, why a minivan? Because they have more headroom, more interior space, and get better mileage; because they typically have superior handling; and because you get the benefits of being up higher without the drawbacks. Barring that, you might actually think about buying an actual van. They are larger, which means you have to keep your head out of your ass and pay attention, but I've found that V6 half-ton vans seem to get as good as or better mileage than SUVs, they obviously have vastly more interior space, and they tend to not be jacked up so far. They also don't weigh as much.

If you must have an SUV, have a crossover SUV. They're smaller and lighter, and handle better than full-size models. They still put you up higher, but they're more aerodynamic. Everyone and their mother now makes a crossover SUV, so you can definitely find something in a style you like; there's offerings from everyone from Volkswagen to Porsche (which is a much greater distance these days than it used to be, I assure you.) There's also the oddball Scion xB (the B is reputed to stand for Box) which is incredibly dorky-looking in a new-urban-post-cool kind of way, and which makes the absolute best use of space for the amount of pavement it covers. It's not very efficient at high speeds, but if you spend a lot of time moving people around the city, it's probably your best bet.

For smaller crowds, the best vehicle is still the sedan. Four doors, a decent trunk, very hard to roll, and with a good balance between aerodynamics, weight, and mileage. There are numerous examples of very safe vehicles in this class; a lot of them are fairly dowdy or even downright ugly, but they get far superior mileage, are easier to park, and are not (especially) dangerous to those around you. Are you as safe as you are in an SUV? You're safer any time other than when someone hits you. Granted, this is something over which you have only limited control, but frankly, defensive driving begins with paying attention and that's what most people out there aren't doing. If you want to improve safety, turn the cellphone off while you're in the car, and pay attention to what the jackasses around you with the SUVs are up to. Chances are, they're on the damned phone.

With all that said, it's time for the obligatory disclaimer. Some people have real SUVs that can actually go off the road, and they do this. For those people, the SUV is a vehicle with a purpose. It's a jerkoff purpose, but at least they're using the thing. Some people live off-road, and for them it's a pretty reasonable purchase (although for most of them, a half-ton 4x4 van would be a better bet) and I don't mean to give them grief. As always, it's the assholes driving through the cappuccino stand on their way to their office job that will never drive over anything more dangerous than a pebble and the soccer moms (and these days, dads) who actually have to struggle to get themselves, their kids, and all their crap into the vehicle when a minivan would make it a breeze that need their SUVs shoved right up their arrogant asses. The world was not made for your convenience. Get over it.

  • 1. Please note that making sharp turns in cars can cause a rollover, and that in any case it can cause a loss of control that is hazardous to yourself and those around you. Don't go test this on the interstate. Or anywhere else but maybe the track.
  • 2. Or this, either.
  • 3. Traffic Safety Facts 1996: A Compilation of Motor Vehicle Crash Data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System and the General Estimates System. DOT HS 808 649, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; National Center for Statistics and Analysis, December, 1997. Chapter 3. page 64. table 37.

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