updated 3/15/2004 1:51:28 PM ET 2004-03-15T18:51:28

Thank goodness for sport utility vehicles. They give do-gooders something to hate besides George Bush and the Constitutional amendment against gay marriage. In one day I read a newspaper article, an editorial and a magazine editorial (in the New York Times and BusinessWeek) against those terrors of the earth, the SUVs.

We've been here before. Fifty years ago there were no SUVs, but there sure were big cars--with tailfins, vinyl roofs and oversize V-8s. The intellectuals ranted against these large sedans and station wagons, calling them gas guzzlers. There were books, like "The Insolent Chariots." Psychologists would explain that cars were symbolic extensions of the penis, so longer cars were part of male fantasy.

Funny thing, today many of those insolent chariots are considered classics.

Some of Detroit's enemies just couldn't stand all the freedom those cars gave to people. They were big, they were brassy, and they didn't fit the utopian model of a society with lots of mass transit. Now we've got the SUVs. They make you even freer. You can get off the road.

The BusinessWeek piece was the best: "But it wouldn't be all that tough to make vehicles that drink less gasoline while improving safety."

Right! Doesn't everyone know about the little engine pill you take to get 100 miles per gallon? The only reason car executives don't improve mileage is that they are just mean-spirited guys who laugh hysterically at their customers' $34 fill-ups.

Another line in the same piece urged the President to "ask Congress to raise federal fuel taxes by, say, 50 cents a gallon." Terrific. Maybe we could get John Kerry to campaign on that tax increase. Since just about everybody except New Yorkers drives to work, that would be taxing us for the privilege of working.

Of course, the New York Times editorialized that "good intentions and a few fuel-efficient SUVs will not make a real dent in oil consumption or in the greenhouse gases ..." They note that John Kerry once proposed legislation to raise mileage standards to 45 miles per gallon and sort of hoped he won't forget it.

People actually buy SUVs for good reasons, and the government contributes to this. With the oil crisis decades ago came fuel economy standards (the 27.5-miles-per-gallon rule for cars and 20.7 for trucks). Cars got smaller. Station wagons disappeared. Front-wheel drive replaced rear drive in most cars.

What happened is that people didn't like the lack of space in the smaller cars, and front drives are weak on towing. Those sport utilities were really the rebirth of the station wagon — roomy and with a rear drive that could tow a horse trailer or a boat. Four-wheel drive is a necessity in the winter if you have an icy driveway, and the bigger vehicles are safer if you run into another car. For lots of folks they make sense.

I believe in fuel economy. I even believe that Detroit should work harder at it because fuel prices are going up and one day there might be another crisis. But I know a few things about buyer psychology, too.

It is very difficult to make customers care about saving the world's oil. For that matter, how much do the SUV haters care about the world's energy consumption? How many turn down the heat to 65 and wear sweaters? Any sign that Congress will knock off those wasteful subsidies for ethanol? No, they make corn farmers feel good.

I remember that in 1953, when the rest of the car industry was engaged in a horsepower war, Chrysler decided to bet on a new round of small cars. The singing commercial:

"Higher on the inside ... lower on the outside ... bigger on the inside ... shorter on the outside."

"We used every argument known to man to impress on the American public they needed a smaller car rather than a bigger car," a Chrysler chief executive said later. No use. The cars were the company's biggest flop.

So when will the SUV boom end? Maybe when gasoline becomes scarce, or maybe when everyone wants a convertible instead. We will get better fuel economy bit by bit, but not entirely by switching to compacts. Chrysler is putting cylinder cutoffs in its newest cars; GM will install some later. Ford will sell a hybrid SUV with better mileage and is looking at a diesel for its light trucks. And someday the government will raise fuel standards a little, but not enough to nail down Detroit's coffin.

© 2012


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