Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs)

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Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs)

Short for sport utility vehicle, the SUV earned its name by its ability to transport people and their gear to outdoor recreation areas. While the SUV has been available to drivers in the United States since the end of World War II, its immense popularity arose only in the 1980s and 1990s, when baby boomers discovered that the more luxurious models were a sporty and practical alternative to the family sedan, minivan, or station wagon. Even though the majority of SUVs rarely go off road, many owners appreciate the rugged potential of SUV, while safety-conscious drivers value its handling on snow and ice.

The first SUVs in the United States were much more spartan than the Mercedes, Lexus, and Cadillac versions of the 1990s. Surplus military Jeeps converted to meet the needs of the civilian market at the end of World War II, the first SUVs met the recreational demands of consumers who sought escape from the deprivation of the Great Depression and war-time rationing.

The supply of surplus military Jeeps did not last long, however, and the Willys-Overland Company began to produce models specifically for the civilian market. Ranchers, farmers, hunters, and campers appreciated their affordability and the fact that they were four-wheel drive. These early models did not compete with passenger automobiles because they lacked space for both people and luggage and because they handled like the trucks on which they were based. Although International Harvester manufactured the Travelall and the Scout, and Jeep brought out the Jeep Wagoneer, the first dedicated sport utility from a major manufacturer was the Ford Bronco, introduced in 1966 and followed in 1969 by the Chevy Blazer and GMC Jimmy. These relatively compact SUVs were joined in 1973 by the Suburban, which was marketed by both Chevrolet and GMC and came in a choice of two-or four-wheel drive versions. (An earlier version of the Suburban, which appeared in the 1930s, was a delivery truck, not a true SUV.) Still the largest SUV in the 1990s, the Suburban offered interior spaciousness and towing capacity unknown to earlier models.

The gas shortage of the 1970s created numerous changes in U.S. driving habits. Gasoline shortages, long lines at the pumps, and the encouragement of public figures, including President Jimmy Carter, caused many Americans to abandon their gas-guzzling muscle cars for a more socially responsible alternative. Although many drivers chose either small European or Japanese cars, others discovered the versatility of imported trucks. Still others found that they needed a vehicle that could tow a boat or trailer. In 1983, both General Motors and Ford offered alternatives to the imports, a smaller version of the Blazer and the Jimmy and the Bronco II. Although SUVs in the early 1980s counted for only two percent of all vehicle sales in the United States, drivers were very different from those who had purchased converted military jeeps. Instead of wanting a vehicle for off-road use, the new generation of SUV owners included a high percentage of women who wanted an alternative to the station wagon and later to the minivan.

Attempting to appeal to these diverse drivers, manufacturers offered more amenities, including more horsepower, sophisticated sound systems, better handling, and the ability to "shift on the fly" from two-wheel drive to four-wheel drive. In addition, manufacturers began offering a variety of sizes from the tiny sub-compact Suzuki Sidekick (which weighed under 3,000 pounds and towed a modest 1,500 pounds) to the behemoths of the SUV set, the Chevrolet and GMC Suburbans, weighing over two tons and able to tow 10,000 pounds. In 1998, about one in every eight vehicles sold in the United States was a SUV, and that trend shows no signs of diminishing as the children of baby boomers leave the nest while their still-youthful parents have time and energy for recreational activities.

Enthusiasm for SUVs was dampened briefly in 1997 when Consumers Union, publishers of Consumer Reports, petitioned the National Highway Traffic Administration to investigate the Isuzu Trooper (1995/96) and the Acura SLX (1996) for placing occupants at a higher risk for rollovers. Other studies, including those by NHTSA, reported different conclusions, including the fact that the additional size and weight of SUVs made them safer than passenger automobiles. Nonetheless, many manufacturers aggressively addressed the perceived threat by warning consumers to drive SUVs a bit differently.

While SUVs have gained popularity with consumers, they are not popular with everyone. In fact, groups like the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth criticize SUVs for their impact on the environment. Classified as light trucks under federal rules, SUVs must meet less stringent fuel and emission standards than are required of passenger automobiles; and because they can also go off road, they can inflict greater damage on the environment. In addition, their higher ground clearance means that they can inflict costly damage on smaller cars. As a result, some insurance companies have raised their liability rates on SUVs.

Sales of SUVs continue to be strong at the end of the 1990s because they provide both a sporty feel and the ability to transport everything from boats and trailers to Labrador Retrievers to a gaggle of school children and their gear. More fun than the sedans and station wagons that baby boomers remember from their childhoods and more versatile than their chief competitor, the minivan, SUVs (many with designer labels, such as the Orvis Edition Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Eddie Bauer Ford Explorer) offer American drivers both more practicality and panache than their ancestors, the Jeep and Land Rover of the post World War II years.

—Carol A. Senf

Further Reading:

Delong, Brad. 4-Wheel Freedom: The Art of Off-Road Driving. Boulder, Colorado, Paladin Press, 1996.

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

Ramsey, James L. "Birth of a Phenomenon." June 1999.