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Do SUVs Make You Stupid?
Pointless, dangerous and vain as ever, land tanks still sell millions. Only one explanation possible
By Mark Morford, SF Gate Columnist
Maybe stupid is too strong a word.
Maybe it's more like willful ignorance. More like intentional blindness. More like a calm and conscious denial in the face of a staggering stack of overwhelming facts that if you looked at for even one minute would prove that land tanks are some of the most overrated and silly and harmful and utterly pointless vehicles on the planet.
OK, maybe stupid is the right word.
Because there really is no other explanation for the still-roaring success of the land tank. Still no other explanation for their bizarre popularity, for the fact that, according to the Census Bureau and despite California's legendary rep for organics and environmentalism and concerns of health and body and air, our fine and heavily Schwarzeneggered state leads the nation in new registrations for SUVs.
Sad but true. Registrations for the huge lumps of bulbous steel jumped 39 percent between 1997 and 1992, from 1.9 million to 2.75 million, and overall there's been a whopping 56 percent jump in sales of the beasts in a mere eight years across the country, totaling nearly 25 million of the ugly tanks now lumbering across the American landscape and hogging all the parking and burning up most of the oil and sneering in the face of air quality and all rational thought and flipping over and bursting into flame after hitting a pinecone at 80 mph.
You can see it in the eyes of most every new SUV buyer as they stare, wide eyed and overwhelmed, at the massive vehicles in the showroom: some sort of veil drops over their eyes, some sort of weird opiate pumps into their brains and they lose all sense of reason or intelligence or common sense or environmental concern and their ego balloons and their testosterone kicks up three notches and they go into some sort of spasm of denial about how purchasing one of these things will, in fact, contribute quite heartily to the overall ill health of their own bodies and the planet as a whole, not to mention the very reason we are so desperately, violently at war.
And the salesman sees that look and just smiles and licks his chops and points out how this 4-ton hunk of environmental devastation can seat nine and tow a large tractor or maybe 15 head of cattle, plus it has 27 cup holders and three DVD players and a built-in sense of false superiority, and the vaguely depressed regularly emasculated suburban dad or the gum-snapping Marina girl with way too much of her parents' money and way too little self-defined taste takes one look and goes, oooh.
What, too harsh? Not really. Most people know these facts to be true, but buy the tanks anyway in a mad collusion of wishful thinking and raw denial and false advertising, absolutely convinced the beasts are somehow safer and sturdier (they're neither) and that they absolutely must have 37 cubic feet of cargo space to haul their grocery bags and 4-wheel-drive traction to get over those little concrete barriers in the mall parking lot and just ignore the fact that the thing rides like a brick and handles like a block of lead and is about as attractive and beautifully designed as a jar of rocks.
Irony? The SUV drips with it. Fact is, most Americans consider themselves environmentally conscious and claim to care deeply about protecting natural resources and don't really want war and suffering or the insane BushCo-brand oil dependence that causes both.
But the truth is, if Americans really cared about energy and pollution and reducing reliance on foreign oil and getting us out from under the massive hypocritical terrorist-supportin' Saudi thumb, they'd buy smaller or more efficient vehicles. Period. But they don't.
Waiting for that hybrid SUV to make it all better? Good for you. Step in the right direction, truly, though of course improved gas mileage and reduced emissions do nothing to allay the fact that SUVs still roll and still can't maneuver to avoid accidents and still hog parking and still assault the eye and tread as lightly on the planet as Arnold Schwarzenegger in ski boots. But hey. It's a start.
Another big fallacy? SUV roominess. Hell, ugly ol' minivans have far more storage and headroom, as do most sport wagons, PT Cruisers -- even large hatchbacks have more than enough overall storage (and often better headroom) for any but the largest of families and oh my God even this is a moot point because you well know that 97 percent of all SUVs on the road are single occupant and the only "cargo" is their purse or their gym bag, while the other 36 square feet is taken up by, well, ego and attitude and air.
Machismo? Well, yes. There's that. Big feeling of invincibility in an SUV, of a high and mighty driving position that gives you that commanding sensation, so strong and so powerful that you are willing to overlook that it's just an illusion, deceptive and harmful given how SUVs actually have more accidents, actually cause more accidents than passenger cars because they can't maneuver in emergency situations and can't stop in rain or snow and tend to flip over easier than Paris Hilton after a dozen Bacardi shooters.
And then you hear that, according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, minivans are 10 times safer than SUVs in a crash. Whoops.
Truth is, small, nimble passenger cars may not survive a head-on collision with a Freightliner quite as well as your bigass Navigator, dude, but they do a hell of a lot better avoiding it in the first place. Which is why rates of serious accidents and incidents of death are actually lower for smaller cars than almost any lurching monster truck on the road. Period.
And sure you can be cheered slightly at the news that SUV sales are slightly sluggish lately, down 2 percent, and that Hummer sales are way off and Prius sales are way up and there's still a three-month waiting list for Mini Coopers.
Until you realize that 2 percent ain't much of nuthin' and until you read how the U.S. consumes 20 million barrels of oil each day, with passenger vehicles burning up three quarters of the total -- and SUVs alone burn half the total for all passenger cars, far more than their fair share and more petroleum than our entire country produces in a year.
And then you learn how that little pip-squeak tyrant Saddam was sitting on 10 percent of the world's oil reserves and that he might have once thought about threatening the nearby 60 percent owned by our buddies the terrorist-lovin', women-slappin' Saudis, and you realize that anyone who thinks we're in Iraq for democracy or humanity's sake is absolutely full of Rumsfeld.
Look. I know many people who own SUVs. Good people. Lovely people. Friends. Family. I know their arguments for owning them. I know that they know, deep down, that most of those arguments hold little sway and most are rather hollow and the result of slick marketing and just a little bit of fear.
And I know there is no accounting for taste and that a big part of the sad American ideology is a willful separation of cause and effect, and that there are worse atrocities in the world than owning a shiny black knobby-tired 5-ton Ford Expedition that never sees anything more rugged than a pothole in the Krispy Kreme drive-thru.
But, really, we have to just admit it: the SUV is hypocrisy incarnate. It is the perfect emblem for the American view, for our position in the world: gluttonous, vain, mostly useless (over 85 percent of SUVs never see a dirt road, much less need 4-wheel drive), ugly as hell and as graceful or practical as a school bus on an ice-skating rink.
Just admit it. Maybe it will help. Maybe a tiny confession of guilt will put us back on the right track. After all, admission of the problem is the first step toward recovery, right? That, and placing your order now for the badass new VW GTI.