SUV's Are A-OK

William C Montgomery
by William C Montgomery

When I was seventeen, a neighbor invited me to drive his metallic black 1982 Porsche 911 SC. I stalled the engine twice before leaving the driveway. Then the owner slid behind the wheel. Within seconds we were ripping through the Texas hill country at 140 mph. Since that fateful day, my tastes have broadened to include off-roading, mountain biking, backpacking and skiing. But I’m still a bonafied pistonhead, and I’m disgusted by the hypocritical anti-SUV remarks I’ve read in the automotive press and right here on TTAC.

Most automotive journalists have decided that the average American shouldn’t own a gas-guzzling SUV because they never drive it off-road. And yet these same scribes have no problem taking passenger cars onto a race track for high-speed evaluation. In fact, I’d wager that there are more SUV drivers who take their vehicles off-road than sports car owners who set rubber on a racetrack. Why, then, is it okay to buy a car based on its theoretical extreme performance, while purchasing a four wheel-drive SUV for its unused off-road abilities is considered a crime against nature?

Of course, many SUV drivers do go off-road. I recently packed my family and luggage into our Jeep Liberty for a two-week vacation in Colorado and Utah. The SUV was spacious and comfortable. Its 3.7-liter V6 engine hauled us up the frequent seven percent grades with ease. When we arrived, I used the Jeep's off-road capabilities to explore off-road and ATV trails. The little SUV took me to out-of-the way places to fish and view the deer, elk, moose and pronghorn. The weight of the Liberty’s frame and suspension components (derided by some for making the vehicle seem ponderous on road) gave it sure-footed control and provided protection while crawling over oil pan hungry rocks.

SUVs are frequently purchased for their off-road abilities– however infrequent. Nearly eighty percent of SUV owners told pollster R.L. Polk that they count on their SUVs for severe weather. The same survey showed that fifty percent regularly haul heavy or bulky items to their homes, while twenty-four percent pull boats or carry bicycles, and fifteen percent use them for off-road sport. I guess soccer moms are busier than some people thought.

Aside from their alleged "inappropriateness," SUV’s are usually vilified on safety grounds. Supposedly, their top heavy nature renders them prone to rolling over in certain types of accidents. While SUV’s certainly have a higher center of gravity than passenger cars, are they really more dangerous? As pointed out on this very website, the vast majority of rollover deaths and injuries are attributable to non-compliance with seat belt legislation. Besides, as simple common sense suggests, road safety is largely a reflection of a driver’s abilities– not the vehicle’s. Perhaps that’s why insuring a new Corvette costs roughly five times more than insuring a similarly priced Chevrolet Suburban SUV.

Car aficionados that criticize SUVs for poor gas mileage are also skating on thin rhetorical ice. Unless they bicycle everywhere (I give bicyclists a pass on chain oil and the methane they release when exerting themselves), they are like vegans that wear leather shoes. What are our favorite sports cars? Does reading any of these letters get your heart pumping: GTO, SS, HEMI, SC, RS, GT, S? As emotive as all these high performance tags sound, they’re all shorthand for “crappy MPG.”

Of course, the SUV is a far more practical conveyance than a dedicated sports car. The vast majority of pistonheads' dream machines seat two people, offer limited trunk space, are tail happy in the rain and can’t tow worth a damn. Obviously, sports cars aren't designed for extreme weather or as a U-Haul alternative. By the same token, an SUV wasn’t designed for high-speed cornering. Yes, you pay the price at the pump, but both genres are suited to their respective tasks.

According to environmentalists, the SUV is the root of all evil, belching filth into the air, destroying our air quality and warming the planet. In truth, all American cars and light trucks produce approximately two percent of all man-made greenhouse gasses worldwide. Emissions from a modern mid-sized SUV are cleaner than that of the average new car built three years ago. As of 2004, SUV’s produce 99% less pollutants per mile than cars manufactured in 1967 (prior to federal emissions standards). All ongoing emissions improvements split the remaining fraction of a percent.

There will always be poseurs that buy SUVs just to look outdoorsy and adventurous. And there will always be consumers who buy sports cars simply to pose and preen. Though distasteful to true enthusiasts, as long as we live in a free country, we can’t stop pathetic pretenders from buying the vehicles we love. As my wealthy neighbor demonstrated all those years ago, all we can do is drive our cars how they were meant to be driven. That includes SUV’s.

William C Montgomery
William C Montgomery

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  • Robert Farago Robert Farago on Aug 13, 2006

    As the former owner of a Porsche Cayenne, I couldn't agree more.

  • William C Montgomery William C Montgomery on Aug 14, 2006

    akatsuki: I’m not saying that all car enthusiasts should like SUVs, everyone is entitled to their preferences, and I certainly don’t think that everyone should own one. I do condemn the double standard used by many sports car elitists that attack SUVs for having some of the same problems that sports cars have: gas mileage, lack of practicality, underutilization by the driving public of the vehicle’s designed tasks, and safety. If Ralph Nader and his ilk ran the world no one would be enjoying sports cars or SUVs. Why encourage them. Perhaps you should be the one renting a sports car every time you feel the urge to drive a slalom course. Otherwise you should be condemned to drive a car that conforms to an idealized standard of fuel economy, safety, handling, comfort, and practicality. I agree with you in regard to the ridiculous SUV aberrations such as the Grand Cherokee HEMI, BMW X5, et al. SUVs make really bad street racers for the reasons you cite. To gut SUVs of their off-road sport prowess in an effort to make a street racer robs them of their raison d'être. Makes no sense to me.

  • Dartdude Having the queen of nothing as the head of Dodge is a recipe for disaster. She hasn't done anything with Chrysler for 4 years, May as well fold up Chrysler and Dodge.
  • Pau65792686 I think there is a need for more sedans. Some people would rather drive a car over SUV’s or CUV’s. If Honda and Toyota can do it why not American brands. We need more affordable sedans.
  • Tassos Obsolete relic is NOT a used car.It might have attracted some buyers in ITS DAY, 1985, 40 years ago, but NOT today, unless you are a damned fool.
  • Stan Reither Jr. Part throttle efficiency was mentioned earlier in a postThis type of reciprocating engine opens the door to achieve(slightly) variable stroke which would provide variable mechanical compression ratio adjustments for high vacuum (light load) or boost(power) conditions IMO
  • Joe65688619 Keep in mind some of these suppliers are not just supplying parts, but assembled components (easy example is transmissions). But there are far more, and the more they are electronically connected and integrated with rest of the platform the more complex to design, engineer, and manufacture. Most contract manufacturers don't make a lot of money in the design and engineering space because their customers to that. Commodity components can be sourced anywhere, but there are only a handful of contract manufacturers (usually diversified companies that build all kinds of stuff for other brands) can engineer and build the more complex components, especially with electronics. Every single new car I've purchased in the last few years has had some sort of electronic component issue: Infinti (battery drain caused by software bug and poorly grounded wires), Acura (radio hiss, pops, burps, dash and infotainment screens occasionally throw errors and the ignition must be killed to reboot them, voice nav, whether using the car's system or CarPlay can't seem to make up its mind as to which speakers to use and how loud, even using the same app on the same trip - I almost jumped in my seat once), GMC drivetrain EMF causing a whine in the speakers that even when "off" that phased with engine RPM), Nissan (didn't have issues until 120K miles, but occassionally blew fuses for interior components - likely not a manufacturing defect other than a short developed somewhere, but on a high-mileage car that was mechanically sound was too expensive to fix (a lot of trial and error and tracing connections = labor costs). What I suspect will happen is that only the largest commodity suppliers that can really leverage their supply chain will remain, and for the more complex components (think bumper assemblies or the electronics for them supporting all kinds of sensors) will likley consolidate to a handful of manufacturers who may eventually specialize in what they produce. This is part of the reason why seemingly minor crashes cost so much - an auto brand does nst have the parts on hand to replace an integrated sensor , nor the expertice as they never built them, but bought them). And their suppliers, in attempt to cut costs, build them in way that is cheap to manufacture (not necessarily poorly bulit) but difficult to replace without swapping entire assemblies or units).I've love to see an article on repair costs and how those are impacting insurance rates. You almost need gap insurance now because of how quickly cars depreciate yet remain expensive to fix (orders more to originally build, in some cases). No way I would buy a CyberTruck - don't want one, but if I did, this would stop me. And it's not just EVs.