Two Tribes: When a Suburban Crossover Owner Butts Heads With Urban/Environmental Advocates, Who Wins?

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems

That headline is only the second 1980s musical reference of the day, which might point to a lack of sleep on the part of your author. Blame a raging sinus infection, or perhaps exposure to a heavy Twitter conversation that began yesterday and continues into today.

I’m a passive observer in all of this, as Twitter’s toxicity makes Love Canal look like a lush Koi pond. Engage at your peril. And yet an element of the back-and-forth that rages online in the center of the Canadian universe (Toronto) is something frequently mentioned in far calmer TTAC chatroom discussions.

How much car is too much car?

And, does it matter if you buy to cover all the bases?

It all started after Toronto-based journalist Matt Gurney, suburban owner of a Mazda CX-5 (an excellent choice for those going the crossover route, by the way) replied to a tweet by Angie Schmitt, a writer at Streetsblog USA (“Daily news about the fight for sustainable transportation and livable communities,” per its Facebook page).

See the initial interaction here:

This is true as far as it goes, but as someone who drives a (light) SUV — technically a “compact crossover” — and has two kids, the appeal of the SUV isn’t the passenger capacity, but the cargo capacity. My CX-5 has just less than double the cargo capacity of my last sedan.

— Matt Gurney (@mattgurney) May 6, 2019

Schmitt’s take on the current CUV/SUV trend is a familiar one. It’s something yours truly has espoused on numerous occasion, often while thinking of a large, conservative sedan.

“This whole idea that if you have kids you NEED an SUV is such garbage,” Schmitt tweeted. “The normal crossover type SUV doesn’t even seat more people than like a Prius or an Accord. Much larger average family sizes got by with regular cars and station wagons just fine in the past.”

Gurney’s tweet prompted responses from Schmitt and a legion of Twitter users on either side of the debate (and border).

Schmitt’s statement is essentially true. The crossover is a relative newcomer on the automotive scene, and the Suburbans, Broncos, Blazers, and Grand Wagoneers of my childhood were oddities, far outnumbered by Cutlass Cieras and Tempos. You can cram a lot of stuff into a compact or midsize car — even today, that statement holds true. The only caveat is that you must be willing to say “no” to your kids, and say it a lot.

Growing up, my family (two parents, two kids, sometimes a dog) made do with numerous vehicles, not one of them being a minivan or SUV. The Plymouth Reliant and Ford Escort wagons of my early years were adequate for two kids without much stuff and little involvement in team sports, but those compact wagons gave way to an ’83 Olds Cutlass Cruiser that served us for years.

Larger families had access to larger wagons, just like in earlier decades. Three-row wagons, almost all powered by a V8, riding atop full-size sedan architecture. Compared to the Caprices, Safaris, Colony Parks, and what have you, our two-row Cutlass (307 V8) wagon returned 20 mpg combined on the EPA’s generous early ’80s test cycle. My father would dispute that lofty figure. It’s no secret that older full-size sedans and wagons from the ’60s and ’70s guzzled fuel like Dean Martin on a Vegas bender.

One response to Gurney’s tweet thread came from Toronto Star columnist Shawn Micallef, co-founder of the Spacing magazine and blog network. Spacing, like Streetsblog USA, explores “public transit, urban design, public art, community planning, and sustainable development.”

How did we car pool to hockey in the neighbour’s K Car in the 80s? Did I imagine that?

— Shawn Micallef (@shawnmicallef) May 7, 2019

I’m unsure whether Micallef, like Gurney, has two kids and a spouse/partner, with both adults requiring a vehicle for different types of trips. I’m not sure how the two men’s incomes differ, though in Toronto the mantra of “just live downtown” carries with it a steep price tag. By North American standards, it’s a very expensive city in which to live.

As Gurney stated, it would take a lot of transit and bike use to recoup the roughly $600,000 difference between purchasing a family home downtown or one 30 or so miles distant, plus a compact crossover. Keep in mind we’re talking about a Mazda CX-5 here, not a Lincoln Navigator Black Label.

It’s a collision of values and reality. Living green usually means downsizing and making do with limited (or at least different) transportation options, and, depending on locale, doing it at a cost. Many of the most vocal proponents of an ultra-urban lifestyle live comfortably on high salaries, with their income erasing any hardship associated with the car-free downtown life. That, or they’re single. Good for them, but perhaps not so good for a family type, or someone making significantly less.

As for that K-car story, let’s assume the Aries sedan of Micallef’s youth was a 1986 model with the base 2.2-liter engine. A common sight, once upon a time. Let’s also assume that Gurney is three years into paying off his CX-5. So, a 2016 model.

The EPA rated the 1986 Aires sedan (with three-speed automatic and 2.2L) at up to 23 mpg combined. The uplevel 2.5-liter engine (100 raging horses!) brought the combined figure down to 21 mpg, max. An all-wheel drive CX-5, with 2.5-liter four-cylinder under hood, returns 26 mpg on the combined cycle. 29 mpg for FWD models.

But crossovers are big, obnoxious vehicles, taking up space everywhere they go, right? Some are, but the 2016 CX-5 measures 179.3 inches from stem to stern, including the front license plate holder. The 1986 Aries sedan? 178.6 inches. A difference in length of seven-tenths of an inch.

What the CX-5 is, at its core, is a different way of packaging a vehicle into nearly the same footprint as the economy sedan of decades past. And it burns less fuel to boot, despite weighing significantly more and carrying an engine at least the same size as that earlier K-car. The CX-5’s rear cargo volume is also more than double that of the Aries’ trunk.

Yes, hockey-playing kids were able to cram into an Aries, but does that mean a present-day family of four is foolish for getting into a four-cylinder compact crossover and not a compact sedan? If fuel economy is your topmost concern, then I guess yes. The crossover that gets significantly better fuel economy than the “normal” sedans and wagons of yesteryear could be replaced by a smaller vehicle that gets even better fuel economy.

And in a world where the most ardent of urbanists, with the backing of the government, strictly defines what a private citizen can spend his or her money on, those crossovers would disappear in favor of a “just right” Goldilocks model produced by a nationalized company kept afloat by tax dollars and draconian regulations. Assuming, of course, that cars of any type are even allowed to exist in this future utopia. It’s a dreamworld envisioned quite often on Twitter, including certain corners of Car Twitter.

Efficiency and green living are not bad things. But only a top-down, scorched-earth reorganization of society and all buildings, residences, and transportation routes can accomplish the dream of an ecologically pure society. In place of the (inevitably damaging) revolution craved by so many, we have incremental advancements. More fuel efficient vehicles. Better transit. All of which takes time to accomplish and can still lead to people doing what works best for them.

It seems that, for some Twitter users, the fact Gurney chooses to own a vehicle at all is the real problem here. Never mind the fuel economy. In this type of argument, there can be no winner — just a lone person shouting a moral victory into an online void, confident in their sin-free status by virtue of place of residence and lack of vehicle ownership … and little else.

Our polarization problem continues apace.

[Images: Mazda, Chris Tonn/TTAC, Steph Willems/TTAC]

Steph Willems
Steph Willems

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2 of 79 comments
  • Jeff S Jeff S on May 08, 2019

    Not really a topic that interest me. A lot of people on twitter will say anything just to get attention. Most of us could do with a lot less twitter including our Prez.

  • Jeff S Jeff S on May 08, 2019

    Not really a topic that interest me. A lot of people on twitter will say anything just to get attention. Most of us could do with a lot less twitter including our Prez.

  • Lynchenstein @EBFlex - All ICEs are zero-emission until you start them up. Except my mom's old 95 Accord, that used to emit oil onto the ground quite a lot.
  • Charles The UAW makes me the opposite of patriotic
  • El scotto Wranglers are like good work boots, you can't make them any better. Rugged four wheel drive vehicles which ironically make great urban vehicles. Wagoneers were like handbags desired by affluent women. They've gone out of vogue. I can a Belgian company selling Jeep and Ram Trucks to a Chinese company.
  • El scotto So now would be a good time to buy an EV as a commuter car?
  • ToolGuy $1 billion / 333.3 million = $3 per U.S. person ¶ And what do I get for my 3 bucks -- cleaner air and lower fuel prices? I might be ok with this 🙂🙂