Standing on the sidewalk in front of his house, a young boy watches his neighbor across the street back out of her driveway. Her moss green Expedition starts to roll backwards. Suddenly, a blue beach ball blows into the SUV’s path. She hits it with one of her rear tires, and the truck rises up on top of it for just a moment. The ball bursts with an enormous bang, and the truck crashes back to the pavement with an equally loud noise. The top-heavy rig sways back and forth as the boy laughs.
That young boy was me, sometime over a decade ago. The moss green Expedition was hardly the only SUV on the block. Our own family had two, at various points in time. The first was a second-gen two-door S-10 Jimmy that we assumed the lease on after my grandfather passed away suddenly. The second was another Jimmy, this time a four-door in dark green. The parents didn’t keep either of them for long. The two-door wasn’t very practical, and of course had to be returned at the end of the lease anyway. My mother hated the swinging rear spare configuration because it was difficult for her to lock securely; one time the latch came loose on a freeway exit ramp, and the tire swung out crazily on the swivel mount. The four-door was more practical, but a maddening front-end squeak that was never quite fixed led them to trade it in on a new Mustang. It was the last GM product my family owned.
For us Millennials, the SUV defined the automotive era in which we grew up. Consider that the first Ford Explorer, the most paradigmatic SUV of the entire boom, rolled into showrooms in 1990. The Explorer was mostly just a softer clone of the unibody XJ Cherokee, with fewer off-road chops and less sophisticated engineering. It didn’t matter- the Explorer went on to become one of the greatest sales successes of the 90s, despite the notorious rollover scandals. The Explorer inspired yet more imitators, and the passenger vehicle market has never been the same since. A multitude of causes have been cited to explain the SUV boom: historically low gas prices, a booming economy, a resurgence of interest in outdoor leisure activities, tax write-offs, and regulatory loopholes. In terms of the Millennials and their relationship to the automobile, arguments about what caused the SUV boom are less important than the mere fact of its existence. The rise, fall, and partial rebirth of the SUV made a powerful impression on the automotive consciousness of the Millennials. The negative externalities of the BOF Era (a period I’ll define as the years between the introduction of the Explorer in 1990 and the collapse of the world economy in 2007) are at least partly responsible for the ambivalent, occasionally hostile attitude of many Millennials towards the automobile.
SUVs became a ubiquitous sight on the roads as Millennials were growing up, but their conquest of America’s driveways and garages was never total. Low gas prices made it feasible for more middle-class people to operate them as regular-use vehicles, but they were never particularly cheap to buy. In 2000, the Explorer hit its all-time sales peak of 445,157 units, although Ford managed to shift more than 400,000 units in all but two years between 1995 and 2002. At that time, the very cheapest four door, two-wheel-drive model was still over $23,000- close to $32,000 in today’s money. In reality, most models were nudging thirty grand in year 2000 dollars by the time all the paperwork was signed. The bigger Expedition and Excursion were more expensive still.
In hindsight we now know that there was some pretty hair-raising over-leveraging of credit that went on in the first decade of the 2000s. Even so, not everyone could afford an SUV, and they became an unavoidable distinction between haves and have-nots. They introduced a classist element to the American roadways that differed from the old brand hierarchy. That made a deep impression on myself, as well as many of my friends. We were getting old enough to start understanding the basic tenets of American consumerism. Things cost money, and people made money by working. If you had more money, you could buy more things. In the context of our economic times, this had two important manifestations. Wealthy people drove SUVs and lived in large houses; poor people had sedans (or nothing at all) and lived in apartments or bungalows. The childish mind doesn’t understand that size isn’t always a virtue; nor, it turns out, did many adults.
The logic of the SUV boom was wildly simpler than in the supposed salad days of the Sloanist brand hierarchy in the 50s and 60s. It’s debatable to what extent that brand hierarchy ever penetrated the public consciousness in the manner imagined by automotive historians, anyway. The “buyers’ strike” of 1957, the failure of Edsel, the backlash of the nascent independent consumer press against the excesses of Detroit, the overwhelming dominance of “low cost” brands even during times of rising affluence, and the early success of the Volkswagen Beetle and its imitators are all challenges to the old story. The point remains that drivers who were uneducated about brands, or who didn’t care about cars in general, could easily fail to be impressed. The 1957 Chevrolet looked a lot like the 1957 Cadillac, and this was still true two decades later. If you didn’t pay attention to the brand, the conspicuous consumption aspect was lost on you. That’s how all pure, tiered branding works, right? You have to convince the consumer of his position in the brand hierarchy; but you also have to impress everyone else with the strength of the brand. The non-purchasers of your product are the ones that make the act of conspicuous consumption truly possible. They are the ones that provide the admiration (or envy) that makes the whole system turn.
The marketing genius of the SUV was that it radically simplified the display of wealth. You didn’t need to know anything about brands, drivetrains, or interior fabrics to guess that an Expedition was more expensive than an Explorer, and an Excursion more still. Pure size turned out to be an incredibly effective substitute for the delicate logic of branding. Unlike the carefully cultivated advertising of yore, SUVs didn’t need an abundance of consumer knowledge to be effective in their message. Bigger meant more expensive, and thus more exclusive. Every kid of the 90s understood this, as did their parents. It was consumption reduced to its crassest, most vulgar form. Even the most ostentatious land yachts of the 50s, 60s, and 70s were rarely much larger than the more pedestrian sedans on which they were often based, and they utilized most of the same styling cues. The SUV was an unavoidable sensory assault that based its appeal not on some form of enlightened coexistence, but on physical dominance of the road. It was literally impossible to ignore.
SUVs trampled the notion of an enlightened, “real” luxury. They put paid to the idea that a luxury vehicle must somehow provide the owner with a superior driving experience, even if that only meant a plusher ride or easier steering. No, the remorseless logic of SUV ownership proclaimed. It must only be expensive and readily identifiable as such. Sure, there was an avalanche of phony “lifestyle” marketing associated with SUVs- they were “sport utility vehicles,” after all. We all know, though, that most SUV purchasers had no interest in the supposed rugged capabilities of their vehicles. They were minivan and wagon replacements with more swagger. As the Germans and Japanese joined in on the SUV orgy, this logic was carried to completion. The hopes of the David E. Davises of the world that the late Seventies had marked some kind of turning point in America’s love affair with the automobile were crushed. Those yuppies didn’t buy their Porsches, BMWs, Mercedes, and various other upscale European and Japanese hardware because they offered superior driving experiences or quality; they bought them because they were the latest trend in loudly advertised wealth. Those cars might have been excellent driving machines, but that isn’t why most people bought them. Toyota learned this lesson and hit a home run with Lexus. Nissan and Honda didn’t, and their luxury ventures floundered.
In the BOF era, the crude size contest undermined the traditional logic of branding to an unprecedented degree. It proved that customers could be receptive to expensive pleasure vehicles without the benefit of a premium brand image. A Land Rover Discovery with leather, a V8, and four wheel drive retailed for $36,100 in 2000; an Eddie Bauer Explorer with the same set of options was only about two grand less. BMW, Mercedes, Cadillac, and Lexus maintained their pricing premiums at the top end of the market, but their advantage was slim and their overall share of the market small. The reality is that nobody struggled to sell SUVs at huge margins in the late 90s and early 2000s, regardless of the strength of their brand. Honda was so desperate to get in this game that it agreed to stick its badges on a GM product. There were plenty of weak brands that got a new lease on life because of the SUV gold rush. When the SUV market entered a sharp decline around 2003, Oldsmobile imploded, Isuzu and Mitsubishi ceased to be relevant entities, and Saab and Mercury were fatally weakened. Sales were more a function of capacity and availability than anything else; “brand” was a secondary consideration. The incessant drive downmarket by virtually all of today’s luxury automakers, and their subsequent erosion of pricing power, is at least partially a legacy of what happened in the SUV market.
In this atmosphere of radical consumption, my contemporaries and I played out our formative years. I didn’t get as much seat time in SUVs as many of my friends, but I had a favorable impression of them. SUVs and trucks were cool. Bill Paxton drove a Ram in Twister. The kids drove an Explorer in Hocus Pocus, and people got eaten out of them in Jurassic Park. I had a die-cast Explorer that I played with constantly. I didn’t have any deep ideas about resource depletion, or climate change, or driving a car that actually put you in touch with the road. I just thought they looked awesome, and that cool people drove them- the main criteria of any adolescent boy. If nothing had changed in the American political and economic picture, I’d probably be driving one today.
Of course, things did change. 9/11 was the first major world political event that Millennials experienced in a meaningful way. The long-term implications of that are enormous and wide-ranging in scope, but for the purposes of the current discussion it’s sufficient to say that the attack and the wars that followed were fodder for a critical look at the American transportation complex. Nobody who was an adolescent in the mid-2000s could avoid the acrimonious debates about American energy policy that accompanied the wars. They couldn’t ignore the mounting crisis that was beginning to thin the SUV herd either. After the Iraq invasion, gas prices began to rocket upwards. Suddenly, middle class budgets were squeezed. Expenditures had to be cut in order to feed ravenous 14 MPG gas hogs. Family trips were curtailed. Parents carpooled. Young teenagers spent long hours in boring dealership waiting rooms as Mom and Dad desperately tried to get out from under their mountain of debt and into something that didn’t cost $150 to fill up.
Meanwhile, there were other problems that combined to make driving a gas guzzler deeply unfashionable and out-of-touch. Casualty lists were ever-present in newspapers and on television. Weapons of mass destruction weren’t found where they were supposed to be; nor was the zealot who had caused us all this pain in the first place. Despots in oil-rich nations laughed at us. The public debt ballooned. Climate change science became harder and harder to deny. Deindustrialization was a mounting problem. Corporate fraud cases exposed shocking levels of institutionalized avarice. Political discourse was ever frothier. In the grim atmosphere of national suffering and sacrifice, people began to question the wisdom of consumption for consumption’s sake. SUVs were beginning to decline in a major way after the gas price spike, but others doubled down- the H2 was introduced in 2002, you might recall. Even so, the long term projections weren’t good. The political Left embraced the SUV as a bogeyman and a symbol for a wide variety of ills.
Just as those kids born the same year the Explorer debuted were about to start their senior year of high school, the bottom fell out. Of everything. The BOF Era had really died that summer, when gas crested $4 a gallon nationwide. The financial crisis was just the nail in the coffin. Now we got to see just how over-leveraged our “boom economy” really was. It was a swift, brutal lesson about the value of living within your means. More than anything, it taught us that luxury and consumption were two different things. You can get by without fancy clothes, eating out, and expensive vacations. Those can be easily set aside when times are tough. It’s much harder to get out from under a car payment for a vehicle that is now too expensive to drive and which no dealer wants to take in trade; to heat a house full of empty rooms you never use; or to pay the mortgage on that same house when the fixed-rate term is suddenly up. I was lucky in that I had a family which understood these things, so our pain was minimal. Lots of people in our community weren’t so fortunate, as was the case all across America.
So what did observant Millennials learn from the BOF Era, when the dust had settled? Mostly, that overspending on commodities isn’t a smart or fulfilling substitute for luxury. You can’t go without a place to live or a way to get around. If you’ve over-leveraged yourself into buying more housing or vehicle than you really need, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to jettison those commitments when times are tough. This doesn’t mean that luxury cars or expensive houses are going to disappear. What it does mean is that the mindless “more is more” mentality of full-size SUVs with two passengers and poorly-constructed McMansions with no furniture in bland suburbs is dead. Energy and space are basic goods that everyone needs. They aren’t meant to be burned up in an endless quest for inefficiency. Neither is inexhaustible, or totally predictable in value. Better to indulge in something with a fixed cost whose long-term obligation isn’t dependent on the vagaries of global financial and commodities markets. Keep your money tight to your chest. Only take out debt that enriches your personal equity: student loans or perhaps a fixed-rate mortgage on a right-sized house in an established neighborhood. Of course, I can’t speak for everybody. There will always be people who make bad decisions as long as money exists. If we start to experience the same level of prosperity our parents enjoyed, we might regress. But we’ve seen the inevitable end to irrational exuberance, and the conspicuous waste that follows. The shameful discarding of SUVs, many with lots of life still left in them, is the final and most sordid legacy of the era.
Like the car-critical Baby Boomers of the 60s and 70s, Generation Y is looking for alternatives. The Boomers looked to fuel-efficient imports as an antidote to Detroit behemoths. The CUV is one of Gen Y’s alternatives to the excesses of the BOF Era. The CUV offers the efficiency of a car with the headroom, seating position, and interior space that were the most redeeming qualities of SUVs. Mid-size pickup trucks are dead, so they say- but new materials and engineering techniques are already making full-sizes more efficient. Hybrids and alternative energy vehicles are only going to grow in demand. The Millennials have been castigated as a generation that doesn’t care about driving or mobility in general, but that isn’t true. We just don’t want the millstone of vehicles that are too cumbersome, too inflexible, and too inefficient to be an effective hedge against the future. The Millennials will go on to buy plenty of cars, but not by the pound.