We all know the good and bad about Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs). Their large size and poor gas mileage makes them a target for criticism by environmentalists– and anyone who cannot see around them while trying to turn onto a busy urban or suburban street.
None of these criticisms initially slowed production of SUVs. Automakers made lots of money selling SUVs by appealing to the American appetite for vehicles touting rugged individualism and romantic adventure. American automakers successfully exploited these instincts to make SUVs one of the most popular styles of vehicles on the road.
Never mind that America’s addiction to oil was technically eating away at our national security by helping increase our dependence on foreign oil.
Instead, SUVs were rolling reminders that the United States could flip its collective middle finger at an energy-conscious world. A signficant chunk of the American populace was content to say “f-you” to anyone who dared question their right to drive gas-guzzling, road-hogging, waistline-accommodating, rug-rat-toting vehicles of their freakin’ choice. That’s how SUVs evolved into FUVs.
“No one is going to make us change our lifestyle” said George W. Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. A whole load of Americans seemed to take that advice at face value.
FUVs kept getting bigger and bigger. The Cadillac Escalade and Chevy Armada did not even pretend to become more fuel-efficient. These vehicles were literally designed to say, “F-U. I’m an American and I’ll drive whatever I want.” Yet even these FUVs paled in comparison to the Mother of All FUVs, the General Motors HUMMER. Based on a military truck design, the HUMMER sold like crazy in George W. Bush’s America. More than any other vehicle, the HUMMER said “F-U” to the rest of the world. It rolled through the deserts of Kuwait and then rolled onto the streets of America. It rolled back into Iraq at a time when America was feeling most vulnerable about its strength and valor. The HUMMERs popularity was not the product of mere coincidence. America’s nationalistic push to assert its wealth and military might made it seem like we wanted to run over the world in our FUVs.
But even HUMMERs were not enough for some people.
Around 2003 carmakers began releasing vehicles that looked like ghosts of the Roaring 20s. The Chrysler 300 featured Art Deco grills, glittering gold trim, and round, orblike headlights that were big enough to stare into the black night of the nation’s gathering economic gloom. The first time I saw a Chrysler 300 on the road my head snapped around and I literally exclaimed aloud: “Holy crap. We’re headed for another Great Depression!”
This new breed of FUVs mimicked the look and feel of cars the last time the nation had a giant economic crash. Everything about them seemed prophetic. Even the advertising for the Chrysler 300 spoke to the impending culture of “haves and have nots.” The marketing tagline for the 2009 Chrysler 300 says “Velvet Ropes Are Optional.”
The return of Roaring 20s FUV styling was an eerie omen that America had lost one of its crucial bearings, respect for the working class. Conservatives like to think it is the wealthiest Americans who drive our economy, but they are wrong. It is the middle class. The people who labor in this nation are the people who buy things of value and use them with respect for their neighbors. The middle class cannot afford to say “F-U” to one another for very long, because the middle class needs to get along. That’s why FUVs were a sign that something very wrong was going on in America. Now the richest Americans seemed to be saying a direct and pointed “F-U” to the middle class.
Then came the new gas crisis. Fuel costs soared to $4.00 a gallon the summer of 2008. It cost $60 to fill up many gas tanks and it wasn’t uncommon for gas pump bills to reach $100 in an FUV. Suddenly America was really hurting. Even a few FUV owners felt the pinch. Others were unrepentant. “I don’t care what gas costs,” said one man interviewed at the pump by a local television station. “I’ve got the money and I’ll drive what I want to drive.” In other words, “I’ve got mine. So F-U.”
But for many Americans, those FUV vehicles on dealer car lots suddenly did not look so good.
Sales of Toyota Prius and other fuel-efficient vehicles went up. America developed a conscience of temporary necessity.
But what did American automakers do in the face of these pressures? Rather than express contrition or some sort of commitment to progressive patriotism, most automakers simple attempted to reframe the American perspective on fuel-efficient vehicles by marketing the idea that 20 miles per gallon was good gas mileage! Anything that got 30 mpg was treated like a Rock Star.
Our family owns three cars. One is a 2000 Chevy Impala that gets about 23 miles to the gallon. We also own two Toyota Matrix vehicles that average 30 miles to the gallon in the city. Not bad, but not as good as the stick shift Subaru we drove in the 1980s. That car got 40 miles per gallon! We’ve been going backwards for too long, and without Toyota and Honda to force American carmakers to compete in sales, I doubt there would be any 30mpg cars on the road.
We should be just about done with the FUV era. Ford is making hybrids and Chevy has its Volt, but Chrysler does not yet have a clue. If American carmakers get their hands on federal bailout funds we should force them to produce cars that do not say FU to the idea of fuel conservation, lower emissions and a touch of practical humility. Then Americans need to figure out that these types of American-made vehicles are good for our economy. Perhaps we should even make cars with matte, rust-proofed finishes so there is less need to waste precious water making them shine.
These and other changes are long overdue. Otherwise we should say “F-U” to the Big Three and anyone else who refuses to think about the future when it comes to make vehicles. .
Here’s a list of the Top Ten FUVs. Can you think of others?
#1: The HUMMER
#2: Cadillac Escalade
#3: Chrysler 300
#4: Jeep Grand Cherokee (the original FUV)
#5: Chevrolet Armada
#5: Chevrolet Suburban
#6: Ford Expedition
#7: Dodge Magnum
#8: Isuzu / Mitsubishi anything
#9: Mercury Mountaineer
#10: Toyota Prius (the good way to say F-U)