The Changing Face of SUVs

By The Car Family

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The king is dead. Long live the queen. Large SUVs with their horrible safety records and undignified gas gulping habits are being offered at fire sale prices. Trying to fill this gap consumer are looking for a vehicle that improves their family’s chance for survival in a crash as well as getting acceptable fuel mileage and offering a decent amount of cargo space. The answer has become the crossover SUVs and the continuation of the hybridization of the remaining dinosaurs for those that still believe that they need to 6000 pounds of expensive matter in their driveway for whatever rationalized reason they can make themselves believe.

The sad news is that all of those large Hummer H2 type vehicles are going to be on the road for many years as they are passed down to those even less financially able to pay for their maintenance. The result is going to be a fleet of battleship sized vehicles that even when new take much longer to stop than cars and that with reduced maintenance will pose even more of a danger to innocents.

Thankfully, nearly all the major manufacturers except Land Rover have noticed this trend and produced much more efficient vehicles. Land Rover, with a record of quality control that has not been seen since the Yugo, continues on its merry way with little acknowledgement of the changing public needs as they experience improving sales figures to those who could care less about the environment, quality challenged vehicles, ergonomic disputes, and anemic fuel mileage and in order to be seen in an expensive box that can go off road in comfort.

For those who can’t write off their vehicle costs because they don’t own a business the choice is clear; think. What do you really need a SUV for? Is it to tow a boat five times a year? Perhaps renting a vehicle for those times would be more cost efficient. Is it to get around better in the snow? Most every type of smaller SUV and even sedans can do that with ease if you live this side of the Rocky Mountains. Do you need a SUV for space? Minivans are safer, have more interior room, are easier to load, and get better fuel mileage. Don’t create a myth for yourself that SUVs are cool. That time has long passed, just as the need for larger aftermarket rims and tires that can put extra stress on wheel bearings, increase stopping distances, hydroplane easier, are more difficult to gain traction when driven in snow, are prone to heavy damage from curbs, and can reduce fuel mileage.

Clear thinking individuals are dropping the Ford Explorer and Chevrolet Trail Blazer and Dodge Durango and Toyota Sequoia because they aren’t efficient or practical. Meanwhile the new crossover SUVs such as the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, the Mazda CX-7 and even the old Ford Escape are doing well. The reason is simple; they do the job well and more efficiently.

One of the silliest decisions in memory is the selection of the Chevrolet Tahoe as the Green Car of the Year from a committee that includes talk show host Jay Leno. I realize that Leon is a car enthusiast and gets pretty much whatever he wants from vehicle manufacturers, especially General Motors, but where was the family input on this matter? The Tahoe was selected because the hybrid version gets a stated 21-mpg in town driving. Good grief, 21 mpg is the best they could do? Yes, it is much better than the non-hybrid version, but why are these members of the Ron Cogan old boy’s network so determined to push for weighty SUVs and not impressed by such vehicles as the Altima hybrid? The answer is that Cogan and his hand picked group of judges believes that not everyone is interested in fuel-efficient smaller vehicles. Hard to argue, except to note that it is difficult to accept the fact that by giving the Tahoe hybrid this award anything outside of more advertising dollars will be created. Next time this group should consider a family viewpoint and create an evaluation rubric that takes into consideration the cost of a vehicle. The Tahoe hybrid lists for over $50,000, $15,000 more than a base model Tahoe. That certainly sounds like a lot of extra profit for General Motors.

In order to skirt the law vehicle manufactures of large SUVs makes them heavy enough to avoid having to meet fuel economy and tailpipe emissions and safety standards set for passenger cars. Some of the heaviest vehicles are classified as Class 2B and these SUVs and truck are built heavier to avoid having to adding to the corporate fuel economy numbers. Not that this is a problem. BMW and other manufacturers of performance vehicles spend millions of dollars yearly in fines for not meeting this standard. It is a cost of doing business. It might also be a tax write-off meaning that the rest of us are paying for the privilege of letting others drive less efficient cars.

Since many SUV buyers are looking for more usable room a new classification of vehicle has emerged. These are the Chevrolet HHR, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Volvo XC 70, Kia Rondo, and Mazda 5. All of these get good fuel mileage, have exceptional utility, and are easy to maneuver and park. We especially like them as they are well priced. Indeed, most of them start under $20,000 and the most expensive, the Volvo, costing in the mid $30,000 range with tons of safety equipment and room.

Clearly even with the goodness of these vehicles people want that SUV seating position and feeling of safety regardless of the statistics. However, they are obviously getting tired of the high fuel prices that are only going to get dearer. You can count on fuel prices in the $5 range should there be any problems with OPEC either real or imagined. All of the oil that resides in the Alaska Wildlife Refuge would provide less than five percent of the country’s needs for less than five years.

The vehicle manufacturers know there is a growing backlash against such gas-guzzlers as the Toyota Sequoia. And thus crossovers, a SUV body set on a sedan chassis, has emerged and is doing well. There is an estimate 80 crossovers now available to the customer all of them superior to a SUV in terms of fuel mileage because they don’t ride on a truck chassis. Yes, large SUVs are simply trucks with a square body.

People who care about the quality of life are realizing that the large SUVs not only produce over 50 percent more carbon dioxides than a more environmental friendly vehicle, but that this SUV is going to be producing this waste for over a decade. And, as the price of the big rigs drop people who are less able to afford their expensive repairs are going to own them and thus more pollution will result. If you drive a Hummer H2 you are going to pollute the atmosphere nearly as much as two fuel-efficient vehicles.

Crossovers are becoming more exciting to potential buyers as they abandon their large SUVs for the more civility of the more efficient models. The Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX are superior in every way except towing to the Ford Explorer. And General Motors’ Acadia, Outlook, new Vue, and Enclave make ownership of other products such as the Tahoe and Suburban silly unless you tow a great deal. GM has recorded tremendous increases in its crossovers and we think they are underrated. Even the inexpensive Equinox is handy.

What cars not to buy.

There is no question that for those vehicle tested by the government the Porsche Cayenne GTS Mercedes-Benz G 55 AMG and Mercedes-Benz G 500, and the Jeep Cherokee V8 with four wheel drive are fuel fendish and don’t offer impressive utility. These expensive playthings have a carbon footprint that is twice that of the hybrids from Toyota, Lexus, Ford, and General Motors.

But remember that the Hummer and Hummer H2 as well as Lincoln Navigator and Ford Excursion are so heavy they don’t have to be evaluated by the government. Otherwise they would be on this list. So here is the list from the Green Book, which we edited to just, show large SUVs. The Bentley Arnage, Ferrari, Maybach, and Lamborghini are just not sold in enough numbers to be significant. The edited list goes from the best of the worst to the worst of the worst. We also excluded pick-up trucks. Here are more of the worst SUVs for the environment and several, such as the Hummer, lack much interior room as well.

1. Dodge Durango

2. Hummer H2

3. GMC Yukon XL K2500

4. Volkswagen Touareg

5. Chevrolet Suburban K2500

What crossovers to buy?

All of the hybrids, except the Tahoe, do well. Also any four-cylinder powered SUV is easier on the environment and pocketbook. In fact, the non-hybrid Saturn Vue is much more efficient than the Tahoe hybrid and if you really need all wheel drive, the Subaru Forester is terrific. In the wings are a variety of diesel engines that are going to revolutionize gas mileage and towing performances. However, in order to meet the California standards, called the Tier 2 bin 5 emissions standard, Mercedes Benz, Volkswagen, and even Honda are producing exceptional vehicles. These are going to be 50 state certified, even though the current Environmental Protection Agency believes that they should judge what the standard for vehicle emissions should be regardless of the needs of the state. These diesels still pollute, but not as much as previous models and they can provide up to 60 mpg. Even the two-ton Mercedes E Bluetec diesel easily gets 35 mpg. Hopefully a crossover will soon be available with diesel power, but the reality is that regardless of which four cylinder powered crossover vehicle you select it will be an improvement in terms of the environment and the pocketbook.

Here is our highly recommended list of crossover SUVs based on fuel mileage only. The best all wheel drive version is the Subaru Forester, but if you don’t need that feature there are a lot that can provide great economy.

The most fuel-efficient crossovers are equipped with front wheel drive and either have a four cyclinder engine and/or a hybrid version. The best in order of fuel mileage are:

  1. Ford Escape/ Mazda Tribute hybrid
  2. Toyota Highland hybrid
  3. Lexus 400 hybrid
  4. Saturn Vue hybrid
  5. Jeep Compass/Patriot
  6. Chevrolet HHR
  7. Nissan Rogue
  8. Toyota RAV4
  9. PT Cruiser
  10. Honda CR-V
  11. Subaru Forester (all wheel drive)
  12. Honda Element