Everywhere you go it seems to be that light trucks are taking over.
In the Detroit area where I live, the roads are clogged with pickup trucks, minivans and sport-utility vehicles (SUVs). It's the minority who still drives sedans and coups. Why is that?
It used to be that pickup trucks were driven only by tradesmen and hillbillies who accessorize their vehicles with the proverbial gun rack and beer cooler. Now nattily attired businessmen and women drive these as company cars.
The first sport-utility vehicles showed up in the mid-1960s and early 1970s when the International Scout, Ford Bronco, Jeep Cherokee and Chevy Blazer were introduced. Chrysler gave birth to its evil love child, the minivan in 1984 and traffic hasn't been the same since. Sales of light trucks have grown exponentially each year, from 1.7 million in 1980 to more than 7.5 million in 2000-which actually eclipsed automobile sales of 6.8 million.
Need more cup holders
How could this happen? you ask. Well, in the 1980s I think the Chrysler minivan was proof that consumers valued cup holders more than horsepower. These vehicles of choice for every ``soccer mom'' were more stylish than station wagons, had high seating, lot of seats, lots of room, easy entry with sliding doors, not to mention lots of cup holders. They were price competitive and fuel-efficient. And they became so popular that 23 different models were available in 1990.
However, the great outdoors and the lure of off-road adventure called to somebody in Detroit who came up with the brilliant idea of the SUV. This vehicle was not the 1976 Chevy Blazer tank of old but instead provided four-wheel drive, the ability to go off road and be surrounded by luxury at the same time regardless of the fact that their biggest excursion was probably to the mall.
In 1995, SUV sales passed minivan sales and haven't slowed down since. In 2000 the SUV segment replaced the mid-size car as the largest selling vehicle segment, with 21 percent market share.
So who drives these vehicles? According to Automotive Marketing Research, most SUV drivers are fairly affluent married couples in their 40s with children. The principal driver is male, but only by a few percentage points. The personality attributes of these drivers were found to be:
* More restless, more sybaritic (fond of self-indulgence and luxury), less social, self-oriented, with strong conscious or subconscious fear of crime.
* Still want to feel ``sexy,'' could use their vehicle to start dating again.
* Want control over the people around them via high-mounted seats.
* Much more concerned with vehicle's external appearance.
* Buy image first, then functionality.
* Least likely of all automotive owners to attend religious services or do volunteer work.
* More likely to dine at fine restaurants, go to nightclubs, and work out.
* Place lower value on showing courtesy on the road.
I did not make this up! But it's obvious to me as well as to anyone who has ever gotten cut off on his or her way to work by an SUV that all of these things are true!
From a safety stand point, SUVs certainly have a poorer record than standard automobiles. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), SUVs roll over more than twice as often as cars do. They are more than three times more likely to roll over in a crash than normal passenger cars.
SUVs are heavier and ride higher than regular cars-characteristics that contribute to the propensity of SUVs to roll over.
However, rolling over isn't the only safety concern. Last year Consumer Reports also criticized limited load capacity in some SUVs, pointing out that while cargo areas may be large, the load capacity is low enough that it can easily be exceeded. Some SUVs hit capacity with five 180-pound adults in them, not counting any groceries or gear. (No wonder SUV drivers have to work out!)
SUVs also are increasing the danger on our roads for drivers and passengers in other cars. According to NHTSA, although one-third of all registered vehicles are light trucks, traffic crashes between a light truck and any other vehicle now account for the majority of fatalities in vehicle-to-vehicle collisions.
Of the 5,259 fatalities caused when light trucks struck cars in 1996, 81 percent of the fatally injured were occupants of the car. It is natural to think that SUVs would cause more damage in accidents, because they tend to be heavier than other cars. However, the increased damage results in large part from the design of these vehicles. On average, SUVs are designed to ride eight inches higher than a car.
They also have a more rigid frame, usually consisting of two steel rails. Most cars only use one rail. These two design factors greatly increase the damage caused in a crash with a passenger car.
Here's a better ride
Because of the notorious driving habits of SUV owners and the SUV crash record, people have come up with new monikers for these vehicles, like the Lincoln ``Aggravator,'' the Toyota ``MallRunner'' and the Chevy ``Subhuman,'' just to name a few.
And due to safety concerns, consumer advocacy groups have recently begun calling for a ban on the production of SUVs. I don't like bans-especially when called for by we-don't-like-it-and-we-know-better-than-anyone-else consumer advocacy groups. They just tick me off.
Instead, I recommend that the auto industry adopt the design of the original sport-utility vehicle-and the best (and only) one that I've ever owned: a 1968 Cadillac hearse.
Yes, you read right. A 1968 Cadillac hearse. This baby oozes great styling and luxury. It is 211/2-feet long, dark gray with a black landau roof that sits what appears to be 3 feet above the hood. Talk about your headroom!
It has a 472 cubic inch engine and can't pass a gas station, but it can cruise at 75 mph with no problem and has excellent pickup. It gets all kinds of attention on the road, although that may also be due to the arm and leg that sticks out the back door. I haven't used this car to get dates, but my significant other hasn't left me yet either.
From a safety standpoint, this vehicle is all steel, no plastic, and weighs in at something over 6,000 pounds. If an SUV hits this sucker, it's going to be too bad for the SUV.
But the thing is that even SUV drivers get courteous around a hearse. They don't pull out in front of you when you're turning right or cut you off on the highway. It is probably the ominous appearance of the high windshield, the sharp teeth look of the grill and the ``Fear This'' plate that adorns the front bumper that makes them think twice.
It can change lanes in a flash but rolling over is not in its capability since it is built low to the ground and has a wide wheelbase. The only thing rolling over is maybe the passenger in the rear compartment!
And no light truck on the market has a comparable cargo compartment. Besides carrying caskets, you can load 4- by 8-foot sheets of plywood as well as 14-foot lengths of lumber in it and close the door! It has a six-leaf suspension that's built like a truck and can carry 80 bags of mulch if you really hate yourself. In addition, it has rollers in the floor so you can easily roll your stuff in and out and has stops to keep it from moving around while you drive.
I have to laugh at SUV owners at Home Depot who take hours to tie their lumber on their roofs or in the back and overload their vehicles. I just slide mine in in a flash and wave at them as I go by.
For those who crave outdoor, off-road adventure, a hearse makes a remarkable camping vehicle. The lady who owned it before me used it to take her Girl Scout troop camping. It's great for this. You've no doubt heard the old adage, ``If the hearse is a-rockin', don't come knockin.'''
Why, you ask, would I have a hearse?
The answer is simple. When I purchased my sport coupe that has four cubic feet of trunk space, I realized I had no ability to load up at the local home improvement store that I visit on a regular basis and decided that I would no longer haul stuff on my roof either. Therefore, I needed a truck.
But not being the light truck type, I needed an ``alternative'' type of vehicle that would suit my needs better. Since Halloween is a major production around my house-I turn my humble abode into a Haunted House every year, complete with about 35 ghouls who scare the 400 or so trick-or-treaters that visit-a hearse just fit the bill.
Somehow, having an SUV screech to a stop in front of the house on Halloween and having a gorilla and Satan jump out, grab a person, slash him up and throw him into a coffin in the back, just does not work as well as it does with a hearse.
Peggy Fisher is president of Fleet Tire Consulting, based in Rochester Hills, Mich.