Lovely book review on the Politics of the SUV. Reproduced in entirety as link expires soon. Personally, I hesitate to demonize the SUV since I have twice ripped the muffler system off my Eurovan using unimproved roads and the kids run and hide in terror when I suggest a trip to the Pine Barrens or up some mountain trails. But this is a real nice synopsis.
November 26, 2002
When Is a Car a Truck? If Uncle Sam Says So
By JAY ROSEN
This is one of the best books on American politics I have read recently, although it's supposed to be about cars. Actually it's about "light trucks," one of the many twists in the story of the sport utility vehicle and its dubious rise on the streets.
Pass, say, a Ford Explorer on the roadway, and you might say, "Wow, that's a big car," but you won't say, "That's a neat truck." According to the federal government, however, the Explorer is a truck. It's a truck for purposes of the Clean Air Act of 1990, passed by Congress to update the laws limiting smog-causing emissions. The act has less-stringent limits for trucks (local contractors need them for work, you see), so getting S.U.V.'s classified as trucks is a political feat worth quite a bit to the auto industry. It's also a tricky class maneuver, since the exemption's benefits are passing from working class to more affluent Americans.
Thus the Explorer's pricier cousin, the Lincoln Navigator, is considered a truck for purposes of calculating the 10 percent luxury tax the 1990 Congress slapped on cars with price tags of $30,000 or more. That law, like many others, exempted "light trucks," in this case those with a gross weight over 6,000 pounds. The Navigator grew to that size as Ford added luxury features but included in the price no luxury tax because it's not a car, stupid, it's a kind of luxury truck. Thus does politics make for strange markets, even though it's true that a market is definitely there among ordinary American car buyers, a huge portion of whom have found S.U.V.'s to their liking.
That liking and the way it was coaxed forward, manipulated by the auto industry, is a further theme in Keith Bradsher's marvelously told book. Mr. Bradsher, a correspondent for The New York Times, was the paper's Detroit bureau chief from 1996 to 2001. "High and Mighty" is his study in Washington politics and the ways of Detroit, but also the politics of our roadways and the social psychology of Americans as drivers.
The S.U.V., it turns out, is a vehicle of aggression, a machine to menace other people with. It was understood and marketed that way by an auto industry that itself behaved cynically and aggressively in securing loopholes and exemptions that made the S.U.V. so fantastically profitable.
The key product line in the industry during the 1990's, S.U.V.'s helped revive the economy of the upper Midwest, including two states — Michigan and Ohio — that are heavily contested in presidential elections. Mr. Bradsher describes how a single Ford factory in Michigan produced $11 billion in annual S.U.V. sales (equal to the size of McDonald's global sales) and $3.7 billion in pretax profits from one factory.
This would all make for a routine story of sky-high success were it not that S.U.V.'s are more dangerous in some collisions than other cars, tend to roll over more, pollute the air more, get worse gas mileage and effectively undo much of the legislation Congress passed to force innovation on these things. Mr. Bradsher calls S.U.V.'s the world's most dangerous vehicles (and cites data to prove it), but it would be equally accurate to say it's the most antisocial.
One of the attractions, after all, is the driver gets perched above other cars. Looking down on passing traffic gives some illusion of highway command. The machines are actually "tippy monstrosities with mediocre brakes that block other drivers' view of the road and inflict massive damage during collisions."
Consider four-wheel drive, a defining feature of S.U.V.'s and their advertisements. It's superfluous, a fake attraction. "All of the S.U.V. market was psychological, there was no actual customer need for four-wheel drive," says William R. Chapin, former American Motors Company executive who was a senior marketer of Jeep, the brand from which all S.U.V.'s descend.
Jeep, now owned by Chrysler, dates from America's industrial ramp up before World War II. It was the cheap, boxy, utilitarian vehicle the Army needed then. The Jeep's descendant, the S.U.V., appeals to affluent baby boomers who like the idea of going off road even though they will probably never do it. S.U.V. drivers are anxious about safety, but Detroit has conned them into thinking that a bigger, heavier, taller vehicle is safe because it feels strong and intimidating and looks "likely to demolish other people's cars in collisions," as Mr. Bradsher writes.
This is mostly the result of theatricality in front-end design and vehicle bulk. The Dodge Durango is supposed to look like a savage jungle cat, says a Chrysler marketing whiz, Clotaire Rapaille. "A strong animal has a big jaw, that's why we put big fenders," he says. Another Chrysler executive, David Bostwick, says the S.U.V. is "aggressive on the outside and it's the Ritz-Carlton on the inside." Menacing but comfy is the mood struck.
Mr. Bradsher makes a crucial point when he notes that the auto industry generates very sophisticated data about Americans and their social mood, with sample sizes of 10,000 compared with 400 for many public opinion polls. He is right to zero in on the social psychology of the S.U.V. because a serious journalist has to explain how this inferior, dangerous and antisocial product surged in market share during the 1990's. Are we getting dumber? During an information revolution?
Part of the answer is politics, and not just the lobbying might of the auto industry or its unions. Mr. Bradsher openly jeers at the record of the environmental movement in sounding the alarm about S.U.V.'s and the hidden import of the light truck exemption. That watchdog failed, he says. He criticizes the press for showing up at the industry's showcase events and losing the bigger story: power politics in Washington and Detroit that delegislated the work of Congress. It was a misdirection play. The real news about cars was being written in the language of trucks, and a confluence of interests wanted it that way.
"Perhaps the saddest part of the S.U.V. boom is that it has been so unnecessary," Mr. Bradsher writes in a final chapter. The auto companies had become smarter. They had learned how to make roomy and comfortable cars with fuel-efficient, low-polluting engines. The philosopher John Dewey would have called this an intelligent state of affairs. How it came undone is Keith Bradsher's menacing story, and I think he has it cold.
Jay Rosen is chairman of the journalism department at New York University and the author of "What Are Journalists For?"