Monday, June 9, 2008

Week of 06/09/2008

The Twilight of the SUV?
– by David Matthews 2

Sport Utility Vehicles.


Urban Assault Vehicles.

Mormon Assault Vehicles.

Big Ugly Gas Chuggers.


Whatever you want to call them, they are the ugly cross between a pickup truck, a mini-van, and a jeep, and for the longest time they were the symbols of affluence, influence, excess, and arrogance in America.

SUVs replaced the mini-van as the preferred vehicle for American families. Moms loved it for the illusion of “safety”. Dads loved it because it gave them the POWER and the storage capacity of a TRUCK. Kids loved it because they had big seats and they could watch DVDs or play video games or listen to music instead of trying to invent stupid road-trip games and constantly asking “are we there yet”. Rap stars would talk about drinking Cristal in their Escalade, glamorizing these ugly motor monstrosities. They would be featured in TV shows and movies as the favored vehicle. SUVs replaced sports cars and even many luxury cars as the symbol of success.

Where once the limousine was the clear sign of wealth, the new trend is to ride in a custom-built SUV limo.

Unfortunately SUVs also are guilty of encouraging arrogance and promoting a misguided feeling of invulnerability. Because of their steel-reinforced frame, which is needed to hold the truck engine, the SUV is considered safer in an accident. That and all of the conveniences and safety features gave the drivers the false illusion that they could do whatever they wanted to behind the wheel and still be “safe”. So they can put on makeup, talk on the cellphone, tap in some text messages, read the newspaper, all while doing 80mph in a busy and congested highway and it would all be okay because if they ever get into an accident, they would be PROTECTED. Sure the other vehicle may not fare so well, especially if it’s a smaller vehicle, but that’s really not their concern! That was the attitude, and they went with it all the way.

That’s why the SUV EARNED the nickname of it being an “Urban Assault Vehicle”, because it really was an assault on society to drive one of those tanks.

But having that truck frame with a truck engine gave it one serious problem… it has super-poor gas mileage! These things chug gasoline like a frat boy with a keg of beer! They have to, because these urban assault vehicles have a much heavier frame, which means more power is needed for the engine to get it to move.

That’s okay though, because the big automakers know how to get around THAT kind of problem… they put in large gas tanks, add a backup gas tank, and then lobby Congress to give them exemptions from fuel-efficiency regulations. Oh, and to give tax breaks for people who buy these dickmobiles. Problem SOLVED!

That’s how it’s been for two decades now. The automakers have gotten filthy rich over these things and the masses would eagerly drive themselves into bankruptcy as long as they were doing it behind the wheel of these things.

There’s just one little problem…

The whole marketability of these overhyped, over-priced, overly-arrogant monstrosities was based on the premise of gasoline being affordable. That’s why these things were so popular in the 1990’s, because our government brokered deals with foreign nations so that prices would stay super-low and people could afford to spend a little more for a heavier vehicle.

Well guess what? Those days are pretty much deader than Nixon.

Gasoline is no longer super-low. Thanks in no small part to the hysteria of market speculators, some REALLY poor decisions by our government in crafting a failed energy policy, a little corporate greed, a little international greed, a few terrorists, the newfound wealth of a few second-world nations, and a vindictive Mother Nature, the price of oil has shot up exponentially to obscene levels. Even a year ago, nobody would have EVER believed that oil would be over $125 per barrel, much less have talk about it hitting $150.

With that obscene rise in oil, gasoline has been surging up on an annual basis for several years now. The price has gotten so high that old-fashioned gas pumps are not physically equipped to handle the change. They simply cannot register the price of gas above $3.99! Sign makers that were pressed to print up more “3” digits are now being pressed to produce more “4” and “5” digits as the price of gas breaks the $4 and even the $5 mark.

So that $40 fuel-up that was considered “worth” the hassle back in 1998 now costs those drivers twice or even three-times that much!

The SUV is no longer “affordable”!

SUVs are sitting on the car lots. Dealers can’t sell them. They’re almost on the verge of giving them away. They certainly don’t want to accept any SUV trade-ins.

And now the big US automakers are shutting down factories and laying of thousands of hard-working employees that used to make those expensive gas-chuggers. General Motors may even sell off its once-vaunted Hummer brand as they can’t sell the vehicles that originally got their moment of glory during the Gulf War.

And this commentator is OVERJOYED by the news! Seriously, this is something that is long overdue. I have spent years having to play high-speed freeway dodgeball with these urban assault vehicles and their mind-numbed arrogant drivers, and it is about time that life dealt them their comeuppance!

But of course there are plenty of other folks who got suckered into buying these tanks, and they’re hurting because of it. Not to mention the thousands of hard-working Americans who are looking for new jobs because of the plant closings. The plant closings are further hurting an economy that is already mortally wounded by the obscene price of oil and gasoline.

So should we blame big oil for this? Blame OPEC and Venezuela and the terrorists? Blame Mother Nature for this? Should we blame the government?

No, in truth, there are only two groups that are to blame for the demise of the SUV.

First, the automakers are to blame, because the continued rise in oil and gasoline prices is something that has been going on for about ten years now! They have had ample opportunity to come up with a way to get around the gas-chugging problem. They refused, and instead they came up with even LARGER urban assault vehicles with even MORE powerful engines which required even MORE gasoline. Plus they spent oodles of cash to lobbyist groups to make sure that the federal government kept fuel-efficiency levels obscenely low and to give tax breaks for SUV owners. This was money that SHOULD have been invested into more hybrid technology, or alternative fuel engines. They could have kept the SUV in business if they simply invested more time and money in ways to get around the gas-chugging problem and less time and money on Madison Avenue hype.

GM actually HAD an electric car out called the EV1, which got rave reviews on its effectiveness, but executives killed the program in 2003, claiming that it wouldn’t be “profitable” for them to mass-produce a $33,000 vehicle and instead continued churning out Hummers at $50,000 a pop. I would hope that many of those executives are now regretting that decision, since the Hummer is about to die and the demand for an all-electric vehicle is at an all-time high.

But let’s get brutally honest here… the bulk of the blame rests with the consumers. YOU! The people who actually made the decision to buy these overhyped and overpriced 4-wheeled money pits. Madison Avenue and the slick mechanics of the car dealers may have herded the masses towards the SUV, but it is YOUR name on the dotted line and YOUR name on the auto loans.

The consumers were the ones that bought into the hype that gas mileage didn’t matter anymore! YOU did that! Not Madison Avenue. Not the oil speculators. Not the government. It’s not like there was a shortage of alternatives. The automakers didn’t just pull every single other vehicle off the lot and put a gun to your head and said that YOU NEEDED to buy that gas-chugger! There were still plenty of fuel-efficient minivans on the market with all of the bells and whistles of the SUV. YOU simply put hype over gas mileage.

And it wasn’t the first time that happened either! Anyone who was born in America before 1970 can remember quite well the gas problems of 1973 and 1979 and what it did to America’s economy. Gas mileage MATTERED back then! In fact the American automakers were pushed to the brink of collapse because their bulky gas-chugging cars were not selling and people were buying the smaller and more fuel-efficient vehicles from Japan and Europe. That was Detroit’s comeuppance back then.

What was it that our simple-minded simpleton of a president George W. Bush can’t really say? “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Well this falls into the second “fool me” category.

Let me make this clear for those of you who still don’t get it: GAS MILEAGE MATTERS!

In fact, if people are looking for something to do about this, they can start by taking those three words and posting them on every gas pump in this country. Stick it in every gas station window and put it on a bumper sticker and start a viral campaign on the Internet. Get the message out there loud and clear that GAS MILEAGE MATTERS! Get that out there and counter the Madison Avenue spin that sold us down the failed path of the SUV.

Next… we need to do more than just say that gas mileage matters… we need to actually put it to practice! This was something that should have been done no later than 2005, after we found out that the energy policy that the Bush Imperium was hawking us was a fraud. We should have found ways to trade in those pickup trucks and those SUVs into minivans and other fuel-efficient vehicles at that point. That would have sent a clear message to both the automakers and the White House that we were serious about the energy problem. Instead, we let the White House spin machine work its magic and put on the dog-and-pony shows to make us THINK that they were doing something when really they weren’t. It wouldn’t have eliminated the current energy crunch, but it would have lessened the impact on us. It certainly would have encouraged a greater emphasis on alternative fuels earlier.

We also need to give up on this idea that this is all some kind of “phase” or some kind of “price bubble” and that at some point the market will correct itself and prices will just sink back down to whatever people would think was “normal”. It’s been ten years now, so it’s really safe to say that this isn’t a “phase”. The so-called “housing bubble” lasted only a couple of years, and even then the “correction” was a cut-off of sales, not a drop in prices. Even if we shut down Wall Street tomorrow and frog-marched every futures speculator to jail for price-fixing, the price of oil wouldn’t drop back down to $60 or $80 or even $100 a barrel. OPEC and the others would simply manipulate the market so that prices would stay obscenely high. They’re used to the power and the money that their situation has given them, and they’re not going to give it up without a fight.

The SUV isn’t going to go away anytime soon, though. Too many struggling Americans have been suckered into driving them. But its day as the “premiere” vehicle for America is certainly coming to an end, and that’s good. It’s time that consumers remembered what is important, namely gas mileage.

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