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White guys—and gals—have bonded firmly around the sport-utility vehicle.
They must be trying to tell us something.
To the driver of a normal-sized car, it seems as if sport-utility vehicles are taking over the country; they’re certainly taking over the roads. Recent automotive marketing statistics, while validating the perceived boom in SUV sales, show that the “brute utes” rank as the ride of choice with about 12 percent of vehicle “maintainers” (owners or leasers). The marketeers draw careful distinctions between SUVs and other road-going big guys, so that 12 percent figure represents rigorously defined SUVs, as opposed to cars, light trucks, minivans, and other soccer-mom assault vehicles. That’s a lot of stiff-framed road hogs. It’s their size that makes them seem ubiquitous; no wonder we drivers of humble four-doors have to honk when backing out of parking spaces.
Manufacturers generally commission and/or buy such market-research results as a way of gauging consumer profiles and desires—well, you know as much if you’ve received a complimentary packet of Downy or a copy of Parenting (excuse me?) magazine in your mailbox. A common complaint among those in the anti-SUV camp is that the vehicles aren’t being driven by folks who have any use for them; but, then, those of us who ride closer to the ground are actually the last group of people who still believe that something that calls itself a sport-utility vehicle should be able to act like one. SUV drivers and potential purchasers themselves don’t want sport or utility capabilities—the power to jump tall mesas in a single bound!—and the manufacturers don’t include them; their advantages are moot in the land of vehicle lust. Research statistics tell the same story as manufacturers’ and fans’ Web sites: The SUV denotes a lifestyle the driver doesn’t necessarily live; the concrete realities of SUV ownership prioritize luxury, comfort, size, and ostentation.
Ford’s Web site trumpets its Expedition, a steroid-pumped version of the popular Explorer, as having “lots of interior space, towing capacity, and, properly equipped, the capability of taking to the backwoods.” That “properly equipped” part is crucial; Chilton Research Services claims that if you sell a useless vehicle to a group with an annual mean income of $40,000, “you’ve got a prime market for aftermarket parts, chemicals, accessories and services”—sure, just to make an SUV act like an SUV. Ford understands that family values are being enshrined by all that modular seating; it goes on to sniff that “the only other entry with similar size and capabilities was the warlike [emphasis added] AM General Hummer.” Elsewhere, the automaker’s bland corporate language smooths over the negatives: “indifferent fuel economy” (read: gas guzzling that would put a ’57 Bel Air to shame); “garageability can be an issue” (expand the carport or move); “the overwhelming impression is one of size” (ooh, you’re so big!).
Current and potential owners of SUVs fixate on luxury to an astonishing degree; there isn’t a word about back-roads capability among their list of preferred features. They want CD players, sunroofs, leather upholstery, cell phones, power windows, cruise control, computerized map and positioning systems, airbags, and antilock brakes. They want their vehicles loaded by the factory and maintained by professionals—this class holds the lowest percentage of do-it-yourself owners. Four out of five prospects intend to buy their vehicles new or lease them; overwhelmingly, they negotiated their last vehicle purchase themselves and were overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the negotiations. Even for a youngish (25-34), middle-class crowd, they are insanely acquisitive—more than half of the SUV owners cited in one study already had three or more vehicles in their households. Despite their stated need for safety features like global positioning systems and collision detection (Thanks for the information, Gilligan!), which leave little to chance or driver’s choice but the music on the built-in CD player, SUV owners will gladly jettison safety for a poor approximation of entertainment: Behold the Oldsmobile Silhouette Premier, which, in addition to its “adjustable lumbar supports, individually reclining theater-style seats in 2nd and 3rd rows, and an available particle and odor filter,” comes equipped with an “on-board video system”—a tiny screen for movies and video games that drops down between the driver and passenger, approximately where the rearview mirror is supposed to be.
Given this consumer profile in the nuance-free language of statistics, we know who SUV drivers are, but what does that mean? When a culture bonds around a car style, it’s not about the cars but the culture that the cars express—we live in an age in which your appurtenances are supposed to precede you, like calling cards, to announce who you are. The most deeply ingrained and socially crippling automania can be found in Los Angeles, where it’s impossible to be unaware of the significance of one’s own ride vis-a-vis everyone else’s, and where responses to a vehicle—envy, shame, admiration—are unavoidable. Within that rabidly overdriven city, the most car-oriented individuals can be found in the lowriding Latino community, especially longtime residents, who see lowriding as sheer cultural expression. A spin through Lowrider magazine’s letters column proves that cars don’t define people—people who drive cars define people. The magazine provides a forum for the changing face of la raza: How do we preserve our culture when whites and Asians are tricking up classic rides? Does the occasional violence at lowrider shows damage our stability as a community? Con respeto, does the very definition of a lowrider assume he’s Latino (or “Brown”), male, and Catholic, and if a car club member is all those things, how do we, should we, separate the positive aspects of this hobby from its negative assumptions—gang affiliation, intrafighting, sexual disrespect? Lowrider will even publish your poetry.
The infinitely diffuse Anglo society never before bonded around specific car styles to the extent it has circled its SUVs lately. But now, it finds itself under as much perceived threat as the lowriders—from women, minorities (a term the lowriders snicker at, knowing that they’re about to turn the population tables, if not the privilege tables), career insecurity, and old age. The angry white male revolution of the mid-’90s may have petered out politically, but the fear, suspicion, and rage it engendered among dispossessed Anglos have been feeding off multiculturalism and gender-neutralizing ever since. As a mass-produced, relatively accessible luxury signifier, the SUV has pulled together these strains of middle-class white discontent and summarily defied them.
The SUV responds to a whole truckload of white-guy unease—it provides macho reclamation for sexually anxious times. It may be outfitted with “soft-touch switch coverings” and those all-important particle filters, but to the passing stranger, its very size poses a statement and a threat. For the stranger who gets too close, the threat becomes a genuine danger—the weighty SUV can do massive damage to smaller cars while sustaining nearly none itself. Play with a pissed-off corporate drone 8 feet off the ground with 240 horsepower and Showgirls on the video system, and you will lose. Utility justification aside—the vehicle’s only “utility” being the ability to run little cars off the road—the size, heft, and look of an SUV spells “badass,” albeit if only for the sake of being badass. In that way, it’s emblematic of the general badassification of American culture, expressed among every level of rides, with all those “pissing Calvin” and “No Fear” decals, and belligerent bumper stickers.
Increasingly, SUV manufacturers are responding to white-gal unease, as well. SUV sales are skewing female like crazy, although, as the media researchers at the Dohring Co. serenely note, “many of these females likely intend to use the sport-utility vehicle as a family transport vehicle.” (The Chevy Suburban is almost 23 feet long, but its name makes no bones about its use.) Feminist backlash unraveled the “superwoman” ideal of the ’80s female coffee achiever without ever addressing the inherent misogyny in expecting women to simultaneously inhabit mom, wife, and wage-earner roles without complaint. So the long-discredited stay-at-home mom can now stake her claim in the driveway with a miniature perfect home—plush, safe, comfortable—for her own needs and those of the kids.
But the loudest statement SUV ownership makes is its wastefulness, which isn’t a desired quality; it’s a reaction. The SUV has enchanted the modern middle class because it is sublimely, stubbornly, indiscriminately defiant, the true product of anti-right- and left-wing fed-upness. (Is there a better vehicle for a Perot voter?) Most people can be talked into buying more car than they need, but an SUV is more car than virtually everybody needs. It’s too big. (Even the Brady Bunch got by with a station wagon.) Its gas-thirst defies environmentalism. (Screw the spotted owl; I’m going to Cost Plus.) Its aggressiveness is squarely post-Robert Bly, mocking the call for male sensitivity. Its size spurns egalitarianism. (It’s bigger than everything else for the sake of being bigger.) Paradoxically, its ubiquity flouts elitism. (This is the vehicle for us normal Americans with family values and such.)
Perhaps it was inevitable that our democratic society displaced financial competition (a class-based, European notion) with social competition in which nearly anyone can play and win. The traditional luxury autos like Mercedeses and Porsches look vulgar and dated next to the populist SUVs, like Diamond Jim Brady in a Bill Gates world. (But get ready for the as-yet-unnamed Porsche SUV; Mercedes already makes one.) Cars still speak, but the messages have gotten more complicated. Go for a spin any weekend night during prom seasons and ask yourself: When’s the last time seeing a limo really meant something? And who else would drive a 15-year-old thrifty American four-door cruiser in some barfy shade of beige besides an exquisitely patrician old-money WASP? No vehicle model has ever embodied populism and extravagance as brazenly as the SUV. In a country in which none believe they’re getting what they deserve, the SUV assures consumers that all can have it all. Even if they don’t need it.—Arion Berger