Once again, the networks were atwitter with accounts of
barrel-rolling SUVs -- but the reportage of the government's
latest crash test data may have set a new low for uninformed
Almost all the news accounts and commentary began with
something along the lines of what appeared in the Aug. 10
edition of the Washington Post: "The ground-hugging
Mazda RX-8 sports car ranked best..." and then went on to
luridly paint the SUV as tipsier than Boris Yeltsin with two
quarts of Stoli sloshing around in his gut.
But what's the point of comparing such dissimilar vehicles
-- a purpose-built high-performance sports coupe and a
truck-based utility vehicle?
It's the equivalent of criticizing an orange because it
doesn't taste like an apple.
Yes, it's true -- if you are dumb enough to drive an SUV as
if it were a sports car -- hitting freeway off-ramps at 20
over the recommended limit, making abrupt lane changes at
80-mph, etc. -- it will indeed be more apt to turn turtle
than something like an RX-8. But we would immediately (and
rightly) label anyone who took their sports car off-road and
got hung up on the first big rut an imbecile who got what he
deserved. Why doesn't the same impeccable logic apply to the
cattle-brains who expect their SUVs to do things they are
just as inherently unsuited for?
Isn't the whole point of owning an SUV (or a sports car) the
specialized capability each vehicle offers?
When you buy a sports car, you pretty much know (and are
fine with) the reality that it isn't going to do too well if
it snows -- and probably won't be very happy if you try and
make it pull a trailer. But you accept these tradeoffs in
return for the zippy handling and fun-to-drive experience
that is the sports car's forte.
Similarly, when you buy a truck-based SUV, you're accepting
a trade-off: superior traction in bad weather and even off
paved roads at the cost of "trucky" handling on road.
There are middle -of-the-road passenger cars for people who
want a more well-rounded vehicle.
The problem with SUVs is that many people who buy them
somehow don't grasp (or haven't had it explained to them)
that a heavy vehicle built on a truck-type chassis that
rides higher off the ground is not the hot ticket for
high-speed driving and aggressive cornering. Even though
there are mandatory warning labels pasted on the sun visor
(and additional cautions laid out in the owner's manual),
many people still think it's okay to drive an SUV just like
a car -- and expect it to behave like one. That's moonshine,
of course -- as the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire debacle of
two years ago should have amply demonstrated. Most of the
wrecks involved Explorers that had been driven at continuous
high speed in very high heat conditions on underinflated/worn-out
Mud and Snow-rated (M/S) tires that were never designed for
sustained high-speed operation in the first place. When a
tire gave out at 80 or 90 mph, the sudden weight shift
resulted in loss of control -- and in many cases, a rollover
But had the trucks been driven at a lower speed within the
safety envelope of their basic design (and that of their
off-road style tires) the tire failure probably would not
have happened -- and had it happened, the weight transfer
would not have been as dramatic and the SUV likely would
have remained controllable.
Part of the blame for the SUV debacle can certainly be laid
at the feet of the automakers -- who have marketed SUVs as
large cars, touting their roominess and comfort, downplaying
their handling deficits. But that doesn't (or shouldn't)
absolve SUV owners from exercising common sense.
And it doesn't excuse grossly unfair comparisons of
purpose-built SUVs and purpose-built sports cars.
Eric Peters is a Washington, D.C.-based automotive
columnist and author of the new book Automotive
Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books