The Lure of the SUV

By Brendan Moore

08.25.2008

I recently (last month) had a new Chevrolet Suburban full-size SUV in my driveway for a week, and in that week, I had a chance to reflect on just what made the SUV so appealing to Americans in the last fifteen years. The SUV has been somewhat demonized in the United States this year as the price of oil (and the price of gasoline right behind it) has spiked up, but there must have been something good about these vehicles to start with, because otherwise, how did so many millions and millions of them get sold?

The temptation is to line up the usual suspects when answering that question; the confluence of great marketing, ridiculously cheap gasoline, irresistible peer acceptance, tax benefits of ownership, etc. But, still, there must be more to it than these factors; there must have been a great deal of initial attraction and subsequent loyalty by their owners to SUVs for the market segment to thrive for so long. What endears the SUV to Americans?

Let me give it a shot.

Okay, I know some people/businesses actually needed one. SUVs have been around for decades and people have been buying them for decades because they need them. If you’re one of those people, no need to write in detailing all the ways you actually use your SUV on a regular, sustained basis.

I’m focused on the “personal-transportation” owner.

First, of all, there is no denying that we’re talking about a big vehicle here. It’s massive. Its heavy (around 6000 pounds), its tall and its long. It has presence, to say the least. And it’s really quite attractive. Americans like big; they have big houses, big lawns, big refrigerators, big washers and dryers, big motorcycles, etc. The two most popular professional sports in the United States are football and basketball, sports played by very big men. Except for electronics, Americans tend to purchase things by the pound or by the foot, or both. Big means you’ve made it, big is something to be respected, big is good. By that standard, the full-size SUV is positively infused with goodness. I had a new 2008 GMC Acadia crossover on loan from GM parked next to it for a couple of days, and it looked small, maybe even petite, next to the big boy. And, the Acadia is not a small vehicle – it still seats seven people.

Inside the Suburban, it’s also big. But not only is it big, it’s very well put together. The interior is very luxurious, filled with lots of nice touches, has lots of convenience options, and has obviously been engineered, designed and assembled by people who care a great deal about their product. You cannot help but think where GM would be with their lineup of cars if the same sort of obvious care had been put towards their passenger cars, starting, say, 10 years ago, as opposed to a few years ago.

Out on the road, you are lord of all you survey. You sit up high, looking down on the plebes in their Toyota Camrys and Ford Fusions. You can’t help but feel good driving around in something this big and powerful. It’s very easy to see why someone who is a nervous driver would love driving something like this, and it’s easy to see why an average driver would at least like something like this. Despite its massive girth, the SUV handles and brakes fairly well. Certainly not like a car, but well enough so that you’re not anxious piloting it. And there is the added security of having all that iron around you – you simply cannot imagine that you will be hurt if an accident should occur. One of those unfortunate plebes may die, but you’ve thought ahead and prepared for the worst, thereby protecting yourself and your passengers.

Did I mention that you could tow a horse trailer? That is, if you wanted to? You can also ford a stream, cross deserts, blast though snowdrifts, camp out in the wilderness, carry a load of lumber or bricks, etc. You could do all of those things in a full-size SUV. Curiously, that makes you feel inexplicably good, even if you never actually do any of those things with your SUV. I don’t know why, it just does. Its sort of like buying that expensive diver’s watch that’s good down to 400 feet. You don’t go diving, and you never have. But it’s good to know you have the right equipment. Am I right? The SUV is that premise increased by a factor of 10.

To the callous and cynical among you, you might think that this piece is a just a thinly-veiled attempt to denigrate the SUV some more. Not so – I am not immune to the charms of the SUV. I’d like to have one myself. Not as a daily driver, certainly, but as perhaps a third vehicle to be used when a specific need presents itself. I’d also love to have a pickup truck, in fact, I’d like to have a full-size pickup even more than an SUV. I like the big iron. And with the values of used SUVs and used pickup trucks crashing in the last few months, I may be able to buy that truck at a very reasonable price shortly. But I’m getting distracted here, let me get back to the subject at hand.

My point is that Americans bought so many SUVs because they liked the way those SUVs looked, the way owning and driving one made them feel, etc. Cheap gasoline certainly helped, and so did the relentless marketing, but the fact remains that the SUV appeals to American drivers on several basic levels. The current reality that exists, the one that finds Americans deserting the SUV in droves, is not happening because Americans stopped liking the things about SUVs that they were so enamored of before; it’s occurring because Americans are acting in their economic self-interests and buying a vehicle that uses less (more expensive) gasoline.

Will the current emphasis on economic self-interests create a new set of preferences for the American buyer, i.e. small, sophisticated and thrifty? Or will the same preferences that drove the SUV fad always lurk beneath the surface of the collective American psyche, just waiting for cheap fuel to make big SUVs ubiquitous once again?

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved.

Author: Brendan Moore

Brendan Moore is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting , a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area. He also manages Autosavant Consulting, a separate practice within Cedar Point Consulting. where he advises businesses connected to the auto industry. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

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5 Comments

  1. I wonder if some other factors might played a role of the SUV popularity like the absence of an affordable mid-size/or full-size RWD sedan offering from GM and Chrysler? (Ford get the old Crown Victoria/Mercury Grand Marquis who still soldier) Since the departure of the B-body Caprice/Buick Roadmaster and the M-body Diplomat/Fifth Avenue/Gran Fury until the arrival of the Chrysler 300/Dodge Charger and recently the Pontiac G8, some RWD fans had few “affordable” choices besides the BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, Infiniti. Then there also the CAFE (to quote former French president Charles DeGaulle, CAFE is “le machin”(the thing)) standards was less stricts for trucks/SUV then cars.

    And let’s not forget insurance rates, SUV was less costly to insure then some 2-door models.

    Maybe, with cheap fuel coming possibly, something else might became more ubiquitous then the SUV or even CUV/crossovers like the resurgence of the pony-car market for example.

  2. I sat in the second row “captain chairs” of a Surburban for a short trip last week. The thing was more comfortable than my leather lounge chair at home. I also love the styling. Although I’m excited about the future of the industry, it will be hard to see the mammoths leave the main stage and become a side show, or “niche” vehicle.

  3. I must admit the guilty pleasure of buying products that have performance capabilities way beyond whatever I need. I have one of those expensive watches that will go way, way under the water and still work. I take it off when I go to the pool (maximum depth 12 feet) because it’s worth a lot of money. I thnk it’s a guy thing, this compulsion to buy something with tons of performance.

  4. “thnk it’s a guy thing, this compulsion to buy something with tons of performance.”

    Its more like…the rich may be getting richer and my income can barely allow me to continue my current life style but I’m special because I have an iPhone, a big SUV, a 50 inch plasma…etc.

    The opiate of the masses is not religion, its cheap consumer goods.

    Mark

  5. I think it’s human nature to get more than you need if you have a choice. If you have it and you don’t need it, fine. If you don’t have it and you need it, then you’re caught out at that moment, right?

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