By on August 16, 2002

 The SUV backlash starts here. So proclaims an American billboard advertising the new MINI. It's the company's low-cost attempt to entice Yanks out of cars so damn big they can strap a MINI into the rear seats and still have room for the in-laws. Sure the MINI is a great car. But if MINI's masters thinks their pocket rocket has what it takes to extract Americans from their beloved SUV's, I've got news: it ain't gonna happen.

Get real guys. If an SUV backlash will start anywhere, it will probably start in Iraq— if and when American military action provokes another oil crisis. Should the price of gas ascend like a cruise missile off a battleship, or availability falter like a British machine gun in the sands of Afghanistan, then and only then, will American consumers abandon their SUV's. Maybe.

It would take a major macroeconomic shock to sour America's love affair with the SUV. SUVs now account for over half of all new passenger vehicle sales in the US. Even a casual survey of a mall parking lot confirms the stats: small cars are literally lost in herds of Explorers, Expeditions, Avalanches, Navigators, Durangos and the like. Which is more than a little strange. The country with more paved roads than any other landmass on Earth has gone ape shit for vehicles designed to ford streams and climb mountains.

All of which raises an interesting question: why are SUV's so popular Americans will only surrender the keys when you prise them from their cold, dead fingers?

Pundits often claim that the SUV's elevated driving position is the key to their success. Specifically, they maintain that the extra ability to see what's ahead makes drivers—especially women—feel safer. Supposedly, this height also creates a sense of superiority (a feeling not unknown to pundits). While seeing is avoiding, and no one other than the husband of a supermodel would deny that height equals dominance, the SUV's core appeal lies elsewhere. It's a matter of size.

Soccer Moms and long haul truckers alike know the truth: there's something deeply, intrinsically satisfying about driving a vehicle big enough to straddle two states. Manoeuvring that much mass at even a walking pace gives SUV drivers a God-like feeling of power that Porsche drivers rarely experience away from a track. It's like steering from Daddy's lap, except better. Is that really so hard to understand? We admire a boat captain who can make a luxury liner kiss the dock, yet many are quick to deride drivers who can swing a Ford Explorer into a school parking lot without hitting a single child.

The SUV's other great advantage is, of course, space.

Americans are big. A recent study estimates that over 50% of Americans are clinically obese. You can take a moral position on that finding, but I wouldn't recommend taking it next to an average American sitting in the back of an average European runabout. Why not hop aboard a Cadillac Escalade, settle into your Club Class seat, pop open a cool drink from a nearby 'frig, adjust your personal climate control and discuss the subject in an environment more conducive to civilised (if strenuous) debate? In a nation where more people own guns than computers, any vehicle that can keep fat-saturated, sugar-crazed citizens calm and comfortable has got to be a good thing.

And don't forget the stuff. Americans don't. They use their SUVs to tow boats, jet skis, motorcycles, bicycles, cars, planes, horses and mobile homes. If Yanks abandoned their tanks, the US lifestyle and tourist industries would be in real danger of going belly up. Sure, you could use a "normal" car to haul all that clobber from here to there, but don't forget: "the pursuit of happiness" is enshrined in America's Declaration of Independence. The bigger the rig, the bigger the load. The more toys you can schlep, the greater the potential happiness. Simple.

Obviously, such common sense will have precious little impact on those who condemn SUVs. To be fair, there's a lot to hate about the breed. They guzzle gas like frat boys draining a keg of beer. They pour hydrocarbons into the atmosphere (although a single London bus emits more toxins than 50 SUVs). They're fully capable of squishing smaller vehicles like a bug. But environmentalism and safety consciousness are not enough to overcome the SUV's basic appeal. And as long as Americans live in a free society, they'll feel free to buy the vehicle that best suits their desire for fun and comfort.

Needless to say, BMW understands this. The same people who make the MINI are busy developing another model in their own SUV range. If you're the kind of person who takes a dim view of corporate hypocrisy, the MINI backlash starts here.

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