The popularity of the SUV fascinates me. The size of the average family is smaller today than at any other time in American history. Yet, our houses and our cars are bigger. A family with two kids barely needs a small hatchback, but a great many of them are driving around in massive SUVs that seat 5 or 7 adults, with enough storage space for a small army. A great many single persons I know drive SUVs. Many couples with grown children or no children have SUVs. They are more popular than simple reason would suggest.
Modern SUVs are very versatile passenger cars. They can tear down the freeway at 85 miles an hour, then turn and go off road and then back onto the freeway, all the while cradling its passengers in leather seated comfort. Over the last decade, I've driven a variety of SUVs, mostly company cars and a rental or two, ranging from a basic GMC SUV manufactured in the late 90s to a brand new top of the line Nissan Murano, a Mercedes G-class SUV (which I referred to as the "Invade Poland on the weekend" car) and a Land Rover that felt like it was going to tip over every time you turned a corner.
Although some SUVs are two wheel drive, most have four wheel or all wheel drive, which makes sense in locales that have snowy winters. But in the South and Southwest, which receive occasional snow storms? Not so much. Even in snowy winter cities, SUVs only make sense a limited number of days per year. And yet, look around you at a stoplight. Something more than simple safety and practicality is at work.
SUVs evolved from the army Jeep but the average SUV is far removed from its vehicular ancestor. Modern suspension and steering alone so far exceed the original as to render it little better than a cart pulled by a mule. The interior of even a low-end SUV is far more comfortable and equipped than people driving those army jeeps could have ever imagined. A small SUV - for example Nissan's Juke or Volkswagen's Tiguan - comes with an array of features and creature comforts that used to be associated with extremely high-end luxury models. Salespersons report that its not uncommon for buyers to step into a vehicle and check first for the cupholders before looking for anything else.
In the early 90s as a senior at Grinnell, I wrote a senior thesis on the impact of cars on eating habits in the US. At the time, I read an article in which a bemused car company executive reflected on the fact that car buyers expected their cars to have cup-holders and that engineering, quality parts and even safety features were considered so necessary that a cup-holder could make the difference between a sale and no sale. The article reflected on the fact that traditional expectations about cars were now the cost of entry. Reliability, good gas mileage, comfort, and practicality were simply expected and if a care maker didn't offer those, buyers wouldn't even slow down. Creature comforts were becoming the distinguishing features on cars. For this particular executive, cup-holders symbolized the change. Try finding a car without cupholders these days (I'm told SmartCars don't have them). Even my very basic 2002 Hyundai Elantra had four cup-holders (two in the front seat, two in the rear). It sounds trivial but a cup-holder symbolizes an attention to detail and a careful and intentional approach to passenger safety and comfort. More than that, it represents a recognition that we spend significant time in our cars and many of us eat and drink in them, many of us leave the house holding our travel mug of tea or coffee and it needs a place to rest in the car that doesn't become a distraction or a danger.
The SUV may have evolved from the Jeep, but it is essentially a grown up version of the classic station wagon.
At its most iconic, the station wagon era of American life was expressed in the absurdity of The Brady Bunch - two parents, six kids, and Alice cramming into a station wagon and heading off for various adventures. At least some station wagons of the era could hold nine passengers; the actual comfort of said passengers is up for some debate. (They were designed with two bench seats - front and middle, with a fold down seat or seats in the luggage compartment - three person per seat; some models had rear seats that faced backward and others had two seats in the rear that faced inward.) With its large cargo area in the back, the station wagon could hold a week's groceries for the family. Built on a basic car platform, station wagons were easy to drive and park. They were practical vehicles intended to haul kids from school to baseball practice to dance to the grocery store and to church and back and on family vacations. It was a single car intended to meet many needs.
A cousin of mine tells the story of going on a family vacation in the 70s. She recalls four kids jammed in the backseat while my aunt and uncle rode up front with the youngest child asleep between them. The back end was jammed with luggage and pillows and all the detritus required for a weeklong family escape. While my aunt recalls it as a wonderful idyll, my cousin remember being hot, cramped, uncomfortable and wearying. By contrast, today's family vacation requires four seats (one each for mom, dad, kid #1 and kid #2). Although the average car is more than spacious enough, today's family is in their SUV, their luggage safely beneath a net in the back. They ride in comfort to their destination, drinks nestled in their individual holders, each person seated comfortably in his or her personal bucket seat.
The SUV is the iconic vehicle of our era. Some full sized SUVs seat 9 passengers. The small SUV seats four comfortably while a mid-sized SUV seats 5 to 7 people. SUVs are distinct from station wagons in being built on truck platforms rather than car platforms, although the "crossover" SUV is built on a car platform. They range from stripped down to absurdly luxurious models. At this point, I think every car manufacturer offers some version of the SUV; Porsche offers the Cayenne for a modest seventy-five thousand dollars (Porsche, Audi and Volkswagen all offer an SUV using the same platform).
I'm basically a hippy. But for some reason, I love tooling down the road in a luxury SUV. I keep my house warm in the summer and cool in the winter, I minimize my carbon footprint, I save water in every way I can, I recycle, and yet, give me a giant SUV with leather seats and navigation system and multi-zone air conditioning and crappy fuel economy and I'm happy as a clam. I know it's a moral failing. And yet . . .
Well, there were a few nights last winter when I watched my coworkers drive home in their SUVs and I found myself wishing I had one. It was snowy and my little Beetle convertible isn't really a foul weather car. Sure it goes okay in the snow but it's lacks the SUVs sure footed all wheel drive security. A friend of mine commented that "I can't make my Murano slide." On snowy days, as people in SUVs drive past me in my little car, I find myself feeling a bit of envy.
The SUV is more than a car, a mode of transportation. It's practicality is a selling point but it offers a security, safety and all season usefulness. It's a psychological product as well as a material good. Buying an SUV is buying security and safety. I think that as much as anything else is the secret to its appeal. All the other accoutrements, leather seats, storage space, cupholders, reinforce that underlying notion. They're not selling us a car, they're selling us a feeling of safety.
Crosspoted at One Utah.