The Long Island Expressway is the clogged main artery from New York to the Hamptons. When my family went on holiday in Britain in the 1970s, taking to the M1 in our M-reg Mini, car-spotting was something I did to pass the time. Now, when I drive my family along the LIE in our Volvo, I still keep an eye out for the unusual. I was pleased to score a Maybach, the $300,000-plus Mercedes saloon. If we’ve judged well and missed the worst of the traffic out of New York City, we will be doing 65 in the middle lane. Even so there’ll be a steady stream of vehicles passing us to left and right, many of them SUVs (sports utility vehicles), the truck-based four-wheel-drive giants that rule America’s roads. Other than the unironic Suburban, a name that has been in constant use since 1935, SUVs are named for mountains, wildernesses and the activities of the great outdoors: Durango, Denali, Yukon; Discovery, Mountaineer, TrailBlazer; Explorer, Expedition, Excursion. These are hints of a life off the road, fording creeks and driving into gulches; yet here they are, barrelling along the LIE, which is just an extension of Madison Avenue without the cabs and buses.
Some SUVs – the Escalades and Suburbans – are eye-catchingly massive, towering over ordinary cars. They are boxy, too, made of flat surfaces joined almost at right angles. Riding high, the massive SUV grilles and headlights are at a car-driver’s eye-level. Most have all-round tinted windows and look rather like Darth Vader’s helmet. An SUV can fill your rear-view mirror as effectively as an 18-wheel juggernaut. You’d be right to feel menaced: according to Keith Bradsher, SUVs are responsible for up to three thousand deaths each year in the United States.
Bradsher was Detroit Bureau Chief of the New York Times from 1996 to 2001 and in High and Mighty he itemises the hazards SUVs pose not only to other road-users but, for all their manufacturers’ claims about safety, to their own drivers, too. Bradsher divides the estimated fatalities into those hit by SUVs, SUV occupants whose vehicles roll over on them, and bystanders gradually asphyxiated by the extra smog produced by SUV engines. The modern American SUV is a descendant of the wartime Jeep. (Britain’s Range Rover, an SUV ahead of its time, has its own distinct genealogy.) During the oil crunch of the 1970s, fuel economy and safety standards were toughened for cars, but the restrictions weren’t applied to working trucks and off-road vehicles. American Motors, the financially strapped makers of the Jeep, argued in Washington that it would help their company if Jeeps, which had a truck chassis, were classed along with light trucks, even though many of them were bought as passenger vehicles. Washington agreed. Light trucks were exempted first from the Clean Air Act and subsequently from gas-guzzler laws, bumper-height, brake and stability regulations, and any number of crash-test strictures. SUV sales have also been buttressed by a tax on imported trucks that had its origins in a trade dispute over frozen chickens; by a tax loophole that allows many SUV owners to write off their entire cost against tax; and by insurance companies who, until recently, haven’t charged SUV drivers their share of the cost of premiums.
The number of passenger trucks driven through these loopholes was quite small until the mid-1980s, when the Jeep Cherokee, the first true SUV, was an instant hit with affluent city dwellers. Soon all Detroit was making a version. Ever larger trucks were converted into ever more luxurious passenger-carriers, and by 1996, half of all luxury vehicles sold were SUVs. They were still classed as light trucks: a suitable designation for a flatbed pick-up used to carry fence posts around a ranch in Wyoming, but not for a three-ton Escalade used to drop the kids off at school in the city. SUV advertising touts their off-road capability, but few are ever taken off the highway. Sales are proportionately higher in Palm Beach County, Florida than in Fairbanks, Alaska, where it snows and four-wheel drive might actually be useful.
The new class of SUV has resisted regulatory control largely thanks to the power of the two-headed auto lobby: the manufacturers and dealers on the one hand, and the United Auto Workers Union on the other, most of whose members are in states such as Michigan and Ohio – key electoral battlegrounds. Bradsher criticises the environmental movement for being late to address the issue and the existing regulatory bodies for letting themselves be outmanoeuvred, but the SUV, sometimes dangerous and always fuel-inefficient, has managed to drive clear of most of the rules that govern cars. You can put tinted glass in the rear window of your SUV but not your station wagon. You can’t look round an SUV at the traffic ahead, and it’s impossible to see through one.
The automotive industry is still a cornerstone of the US economy. Because the engineering of an SUV hasn’t changed much for decades, the profits on these tarted-up pick-ups can be huge. Indeed, for a while SUVs were the only class of vehicle Detroit made a profit on, and in the late 1990s Ford’s Michigan truck plant became the single most profitable factory in the world. In 1998, Ford made $2.4 billion after-tax profit from its Expeditions and Navigators alone, and amassed enough cash to buy Volvo and Land Rover and make a bid for BMW. This was followed, however, by the first major reverse in the progress of SUVs: Firestone tyres that had a tendency to shred were fitted to Ford Explorers, causing up to three hundred people to die in rollovers and leading to the recall of millions of tyres.
Despite such well-documented dangers, SUV owners say they feel more secure in their vehicles, mainly because they sit higher off the road than they would in a car. As Bradsher points out, this is like taking a phone book to sit on in the theatre. You get to see better only if no one else does the same. In one of a number of eye-popping passages, Bradsher writes about a consultant in Chrysler’s marketing department who wanted to license Mad Max to use in advertisements, superimposing Chrysler trucks on the movie’s post-Apocalyptic roadways. ‘My theory is the reptilian always wins,’ the ad man says. ‘The reptilian says: "If there is a crash, I want the other guy to die.” Of course, I can’t say that aloud.’ When an SUV with a rigid truck frame runs into a car clear of the car’s protective door sills, or hits it head on and rides over the bumpers, the other guy might well die and the SUV driver will walk away unharmed. On the other hand, taller vehicles with high ground clearance have a tendency to roll over if they hit a fixed object, such as a guard rail.
Market forces may cause industry to act where government has failed. Bradsher wrote last year that gas prices in the US would have to hit $2.50 a gallon and stay there for a while to have any negative impact on SUV sales. (A gallon of petrol in the UK costs $5.75, a figure that would signal the end of civilisation in the United States. Despite this, Jeep still managed to sell 4000 vehicles in the UK in the first six months of this year, and Land Rover 24,000.) In May, gas reached an average of $2 a gallon in the US, and SUV sales seem to have been affected. Some, like Governor Schwarzenegger’s favourite, the Hummer 2, were already losing sales. The new fad is for Toyota’s gas-electric hybrid, the Prius, as driven by Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm. The Prius does 60 mpg (a full-size SUV does about 13). According to Newsweek, Toyota expects sales of hybrids to multiply ninefold by 2006. But drivers will still want to sit up there above the crowd. Accommodatingly, Ford has just unveiled its Escape Hybrid, billed portentously as ‘Earth’s First Full Hybrid SUV’. General Motors is working on hybrid versions of its Suburban and Yukon for 2006, so SUV drivers can have their cake and eat it.