Today, I’m going to talk about SUVs. This will annoy some of you out there in readerland because I’ve talked about SUVs a lot lately. First, I posted a story about hybrid SUVs, which was largely ignored by the automotive community but caused me to chuckle several times as I wrote it. Then, I posted a story about the BMW X5, which was also largely ignored by the automotive community, with the exception of BMW X5 owners, who passionately defended their SUV’s honor in the face of lease jokes.
But listen up, because today’s topic is far more interesting than either of those. It’s about D-pillars.
A little background. The D-pillar is the fourth structural pillar on a modern automobile. You, being a car enthusiast, probably already know this. But when I put “d pillar” into Google, one of the suggested results was “d pillars of Islam.” So, just to be clear, this article is about cars. Or, more specifically, SUVs.
When I was a child, (this was approximately 15 years ago, or – if you ask my girlfriend – last month, when I spent $40 on a Cadillac beach towel) SUV D-pillars were tiny. And when I say tiny, I don’t mean “slightly smaller than they are now.” I mean: D-pillars were actually the size of one of those empty paper towel rolls elementary school art teachers always seem to be collecting.
These days, that isn’t the case, as modern D-pillars are absolutely enormous. I noticed this because I’m currently driving a Hyundai Santa Fe press car, which has gigantic D-pillars. It also plays a song when you turn it off, which is another major difference from old SUVs. Back in the 1980s, the only thing that happened when you turned off your SUV was that you were now able to hear your passenger.
To prove my point about D-pillars, I present to you this photo comparison:
On top is a 1980s Jeep. You’ll note the Jeep’s D-pillar is only about 13 pixels wide. Meanwhile, the bottom photo is of the all-new Hyundai Santa Fe. I took it this morning after I ambled out of bed, wrapped in my Cadillac beach towel. In this photo, the D-pillar is 367 pixels wide. Clearly, we have an epidemic.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Why the hell does this matter? or maybe: Hmm… that Jeep looks nice. I wonder what they’re going for on Craigslist. If you’re thinking that, we have something in common, because this article has been heavily delayed by Craigslist browsing with the search term “cherokee -grand.” But if you’re thinking the former thing, the answer is simple: visibility.
You see, some drivers – and I’m not going to name names, because I don’t want to point fingers, but it’s the baby boomers – believe a lane change cannot be properly executed without a) signaling, and b) removing your eyes from the road for as long as physically possible to look over both shoulders, and possibly behind the vehicle. These drivers spend about 20 minutes a day looking backwards. These drivers need small D-pillars.
Because of the immense safety concern presented by the enlarging D-pillars, I’m curious about precisely what is causing them to grow. I have two theories:
1. Style. It seems that automakers view the D-pillar as a growing source of stylistic expression. This may be because the rest of today’s crossovers look so similar that the D-pillar is the only opportunity for any distinction.
To prove this, I present two exhibits. One is the Lexus RX. The first-generation model, you see, had a D-pillar that was sized like the aforementioned paper towel roll. But the second-generation RX lost this feature in favor of an enormous D-pillar, possibly designed so that baby boomers would stop considering the RX, thereby lowering Lexus’s average buyer age.
Exhibit two is the Infiniti JX, which may also be living under the alias QX80, or possibly QX60 – no one’s really sure. The JX, which is largely bland, especially when you’re driving it, offers a kinked D-pillar, almost as if to say: Don’t forget about me!
2. Safety. Yes, that’s right. I believe that the growing D-pillars – themselves a very dangerous element of automotive design that could only be rectified with some crazy course of action, like mirror adjustment – are an element of safety.
You see, back when that Jeep was new, nobody was doing roof strength tests. These days, however, both the NHTSA and IIHS carries them out. In fact, doing well on roof strength tests is basically essential to receiving top marks from those agencies. The result is that everyone is beefing up their pillars to pass the tests, thereby earning great safety ratings.
Sadly, no one carries out visibility tests, which leaves our over-the-shoulder lane changers with a serious problem. Fortunately, I have a solution: a used Cherokee. Because in Craigslist photos, the D-pillars are even fewer pixels wide.
@DougDeMuro operates PlaysWithCars.com. He’s owned an E63 AMG wagon, road-tripped across the US in a Lotus without air conditioning, and posted a six-minute lap time on the Circuit de Monaco in a rented Ford Fiesta. One year after becoming Porsche Cars North America’s youngest manager, he quit to become a writer. His parents are very disappointed.