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I love my SUV despite its MPG

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About this time last year, I wrote a column blasting suburban owners of gas-guzzling SUVs. I scorned those who couldn’t get more than 15 miles per gallon but who whined as a gallon of gas vaulted above $2. Earlier this year, I found myself in the market for a new vehicle, and … well …. err … how can I say this?

Yes, it's true. A few months ago I traded in my 2-wheel drive, moderately fuel-efficient vehicle for a 4,630 pound sport utility vehicle. Headlines of “$3 gas coming” just glossed over me as I happily handed over the keys to my car and drove off in what I had once described as something with marginally better fuel efficiency than a Sherman tank.

Now, before you flood my e-mail inbox with a diet of expletives, I can explain.

Guzzling Gas
For the last 3 or 4 years, I had a relatively fuel-efficient BMW M3. It averaged between 18 and 28 miles per gallon, depending on where my travels took me. Granted, it was a so-called “performance” vehicle and I was prone to accelerating very quickly and going quite fast.

Then I moved from the East Coast to Seattle, the second-most traffic-congested city in the United States. Gone were the days of averaging a steady 55 miles per hour and, no surprise, gone were the days of my BMW averaging anything better than 19 mpg.

But that was not enough to convince me to get a new set of wheels — after all, while my M3 was getting more thirsty, it still was the “ultimate driving machine.”

The real issue was the economics.

In the shop ... again
After a reasonable run of only few problems, my BMW seemed to develop a need to not only visit the gas station more often, but also the service department. Electrical problems, iffy wheel alignment, brakes, more electrical problems - and, surprise, no longer under warranty.

Now, I must admit: I’m no mechanic — if some little red light comes on, I’m inclined to call someone at the shop. After many visits in under 12 months I decided that was enough — the Beamer had to go.

Choice, what choice? 

Having decided to part ways with my M3, I started looking around for a new set of wheels. I studied cars (not SUVs) on the Web, read through the stats, the reviews, read discussion board postings from car owners, and quickly came to a conclusion — most of the cars on the market are pretty much the same.

The allure of a 90 mpg mini car

A new BMW 3-series isn’t much different from an Audi A4, which isn’t much different from a Mercedes C-class.

Unimpressed, I went for a drive in my BMW. Did I really want to sell it? Were the repair problems just a bad run? Is there any car that’s different from the rest?

Turning the corner 

As I turned a corner (feeling my M3 stick to the road even though I was going too fast for the turn) there they were in front of me — new, shiny Land Rovers.

“I wonder what it would be like to drive one of ….” I thought to myself. “No, can’t do it … it’s an SUV. I hate SUVs!”

But in front of my computer that evening, I was watching surround videos of SUVs, reading the reviews and slowly but surely being drawn into the idea of getting a Yuppie truck.

As I plugged in various options to “build my own” SUV on the Web, I found that all those gizmos I liked in my BMW I could have in my SUV. Sure, the miles per gallon sucked, but was 14 or 15 mpg really that far away from the 19 mpg my BMW was getting?

The more I researched possible SUVs, the more I turned toward them. And so the next day I did it … I turned that corner again and went into the Land Rover dealership.

Done deal

Hesitantly, I walked onto the showroom floor. And there it was — a big, black Land Rover Discovery II. Right there and then I knew I was going to own this vehicle. Some may call it impulse, but I’d like to call it a gut feeling.

After 20 minutes of climbing in and out of what was going to be my SUV, I approached a saleswoman. She was very casual yet very helpful — no heavy sales pitch, no “if you drive it off the lot today” deals, just pleasant, professional advice.

The next day at work, I asked a colleague who owns a Land Rover for his experiences. He gladly handed me his keys and out we went for a spin. Now I was really hooked. This was great! It wasn’t slow off the mark, it zipped up hills and was very roomy inside and very plush. And yes, I loved being high up and peering down on other drivers — well, the handful of drivers who weren’t in SUVs.

That evening I was back at the dealership, taking a “formal” test drive and loving every minute of it.

After some number crunching, I took my notes home to “think on it” — I mean, you don’t want to appear too eager do you?

The next morning I was on the phone with the dealership, putting a deposit down and making an appointment to do “the deal” that evening.

Ridin' high
A few days later, it was official: I was a proud owner of an SUV. I’ve still got all the perks the BMW had — the 6-changer CD, the sunroof (actually, now I have two sunroofs), the dual climate control, the heated seats, etc. — plus a few more, though this isn’t surprising, given that BMW owned Land Rover for a while.

Granted, it doesn’t get to 55 mph (and beyond) as quickly as the BMW did, but my Land Rover cruises very nicely. It is actually more comfortable to ride in than the M3 ever was. I can transport almost anything in it, and contrary to my initial fears, it corners just fine.

I admit the first time I had to fill it up with gas I nearly passed out in front of the gas pump — how much more gas did this thing take?

But after a few weeks it turned out that the mpg of the Land Rover wasn’t that far short of what the M3 got, so my worries faded.

Now, I know a BMW M3 is not a fuel-efficient car relative to a Ford Taurus and so the comparison with a Land Rover Discovery is an unfair one. However, the Land Rover is just as luxurious, runs better, is more versatile, and feels safer than the BMW … and is under warranty!

I’m sure if gas hits $3 a gallon this summer, I may think “Was this wise?” But to be honest, I doubt it. Just like all of you long-time SUV owners out there, I choose to pay to fill up my gas-guzzling SUV because I like it and enjoy driving it. And at the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to — choice.