Sport Utility Vehicles

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Sport Utility Vehicles

Sport utility vehicles (SUVs) are seen as safe, strong, and large enough to handle just about anything, from shopping trips to crossing the desert. SUVs have been an important part of the American car market since the end of World War II (1939–45), but the boom in SUV ownership really began in the 1980s, when baby boomers (see entry under 1940s—The Way We Lived in volume 3) with growing families chose the sportier look of these large vehicles over traditional family-carting minivans (see entry under 1980s—The Way We Lived in volume 5) and station wagons.

The first SUVs were military-surplus Willys-Overland Jeeps (see entry under 1940s—Commerce in volume 3). These crude four-wheel-drive vehicles were bought by farmers and outdoor types to carry everything from supplies to camping gear. Although the Jeep and International Harvester utility vehicles were popular with civilians since the 1940s, the first true SUV was the Ford Bronco, introduced in 1966. The success of the Bronco inspired other manufacturers to make big four-by-fours as well. Four-wheel-drive and large engines combine to make SUVs gas guzzlers, so it took the end of the 1970s oil crisis for SUV ownership to truly take hold. Because SUVs are classified as light trucks rather than passenger cars, they do not need to meet tough emissions standards. Consequently, they are not popular with environmentalists.

SUVs are valued for their towing capacity and power, but their safety is also important to buyers. The sheer size of vehicles makes them much safer than smaller passenger cars in collisions. In fact, they inflict so much damage on smaller vehicles that insurers have raised liability rates on SUVs. Although first marketed to farmers and outdoor adventurers, by 2001 most SUV drivers were suburban women who hauled children to and from sporting events and other activities.

Despite their off-road and towing abilities, in 2001 most SUVs are sold as luxury cars. Soft leather upholstery has replaced wipe-clean vinyl, and thick carpeting covers the floors. Yet the names of these monster off-roaders still evoke images of rugged cross-country travel. Imports such as Toyota's Landcruiser and the British Range Rover offer luxury in the wilderness. American-made SUVs include the Ford Bronco and Explorer, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, and the Chevy Blazer. Accounting for almost one in four cars sold in the United States at the end of the twentieth century, most never go further off-road than parking on the driveway.

—Chris Routledge

For More Information

Friends of the Earth SUV Information Page. (accessed April 4, 2002).

Jacobs, David H. Sport Utility Vehicles: The Off-Road Revolution. New York: Todtri Productions Ltd., 1998.

KII Automotive Group. SUV Online. (accessed April 4, 2002).