I wipe the cynical smirk from my face before I enter the Bay Street dealership. It's time to get into character."I want an SUV," I tell myself. I am, after all, here on a serious mission, to hear a full-fledged sports utility sales pitch - one that will hopefully elucidate why over a quarter-million Canadians a year are lured into buying the gas guzzlers without even a guilty glance at the fuel gauge or accident stats. And then it comes. I've barely said hello and I'm already dizzy from the barrage of must-have features. Before I know it, I'm sitting in a full-sized luxury SUV oohing and ahhing at the top-of-the-line stereo, the handy laptop holder (so what if I have no laptop?) and the lounge-like super-sized interior. Then I spot myself in the rearview mirror and decide it's time to step away from the vehicle.
But walking away from an SUV lot empty-handed is something fewer and fewer Canadians are doing. With nearly every automaker crashing the SUV party, sales were up as much as 30 per cent last year from 1998. And while there were 22 per cent fewer buyers of top passenger cars like Sunfires and Proteges , sales of smaller SUVs like the Ford Escape climbed 16 per cent.
But what of SUVs' troubled safety record, overinflated prices and environmental hazards? Has it just slipped from the country's consciousness, or are those soft, heated seats, laptop holders and oversized tires enough to cloud our better judgment?
Identifying where and how car buyers went off course means dipping into history, at the cusp of the SUV explosion. The truck-based automobiles were the working man's wheels until the early to mid-90s, when, according to Keith Bradsher, author of High And Mighty: SUVs - The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles And How They Got That Way, SUV designers started taking cues from women who were wearing outdoorsy gear in high-end malls.
"The auto industry executives look at styles like people wearing hiking boots in downtown Manhattan or buying parkas that are good for 30 below zero in Atlanta, and from that they infer that many Americans and Canadians want products that are over-engineered for what they are used for." Bradsher calls it "preparedness chic."
Like hiking boots and parkas, SUVs are "bought by people who want to be ready for absolutely any scenario, including one in which they might need off-road driving capabilities, though they're very unlikely to use it."
And while North Americans lapped up the great outdoors aesthetic, Bradsher says auto execs clued into SUVs' potential to be the industry's next cash cow. Thanks to more lenient regs on light trucks, SUVs could offer much higher profit margins than cars. Slap in some leather seats and a fancy stereo and the price tag doubles. Cue the ad in which your product glides effortlessly through rugged terrain and you've sparked the start of a craze.
Plus, as Sandra Kinsler, editor-in- chief of California-based Woman Motorist magazine, explains, "In the mid-90s, automakers realized they'd pigeonholed the minivan. (They'd) portrayed it as something people with small children attached to their hips drive." Marketers positioned the SUV as ideal for "independent, strong-willed, individualists" - parents included. A new family vehicle was born.
And somewhere amidst all the ads shot on snow-capped mountains and mud-clogged roads, more and more people decided that, family or not, they couldn't get through snow, rain or sleet without an SUV. Both sexes bought into the safety messaging, but some say women, who now buy nearly half the SUVs on the market, have really been suckers. Ironic, really, considering that safety is higher on women's shopping lists than men's, and according to Mike Speranzini, GM's marketing manager of crossover (car-based) SUVs, "Women are a little more likely to pay for (crash protection and crash avoidance) features."
But automotive writer Jil McIntosh says, "A lot of women buy (SUVs) to overcompensate for their driving. They also think that because (SUVs) are bigger and they can see over everything (they) can win in an accident."
What most don't realize, says McIntosh, is that four-wheel drive actually takes longer to brake in the snow. And until last year, SUVs didn't even have to meet the same safety standards for brakes as regular cars. When it comes to the feeling that bigger and taller is safer (giving drivers what industry insiders call that "commanding view of the road"), well, that's just a feeling. Is it possible that SUV owners have had their heads in the sand dunes and missed all those news bulletins on SUV rollovers?
Bradsher says drivers just think it won't happen to them. "People assume that rollovers only happen to people who drive like idiots, which is a mistake." According to U.S. stats, 95 per cent of rollovers are of the "tripped" variety - the kind where you hit a curb or a guard rail. "Most guard rails in North America are not designed for SUVs - they're designed for cars, and they can absolutely trip SUVs."
Still, the "emotional pull of SUVs comes from a feeling of power, safety and strength," says Speranzini. Funny that even auto execs refer to safety as a feeling - a feeling that French-born cultural anthropologist and auto industry advisor G. Clotaire Rapaille says has been carefully cultivated by Big Auto on two design fronts. The interior must be womb-like: rounded, well padded, and warm, with boundless supplies of liquids. "I told (automakers) to put more cupholders, even ones that warm the coffee," says Rapaille. "And if they could make the coffee, that would be even better."
The exterior should be just the opposite. "You want to be square, you want big shoulders, you want Schwarzenegger on the outside." He says it's all part of a very Darwinian message that people try to project through their cars. "The message of the SUV is 'Don't mess with me. '"
It's that instinctual drive for survival, fuelled by fear of crime and other drivers, that he says keeps boosting SUV sales and pushes aside more intellectual long-term considerations like the erosion of the environment.
"If you tell them to think about the environment," explains Rapaille, "They say, 'Who cares? I'd rather make sure my kids aren't killed (in a crash). '"