Car makers no longer have much to fear from Ralph Nader since he's abandoned the automobile industry to devote his crusader's energy to denouncing 21st-century robber baron Bill Gates.
Yet Nader's legacy lives on. Nothing grabs the media like a good "unsafe at any speed" story.
Just the other night I saw a promo for one of those network news magazine shows, teasing its groundbreaking investigation into toppling sport utility vehicles. Its grabber sound bite featured a tearful matron recollecting in terror the fatal flipping of the family's sport utility vehicle. Tune in and see whether your life is in jeopardy, the promo urged viewers.
That SUVs tend to tip over is hardly news. Frankly, one need only look at these boxes perched on their big truck wheels to figure out what gravity's effect might be during a sudden or sharp turn. For those who require more evidence, there's plenty of that, too. Late last year, a National Highway Transportation Safety Administration study found that fatalities due to rollovers were three times higher for SUVs than other passenger cars.
If anything can dampen consumers' lust for SUVs, the image of one laying on its side like a felled rhinoceros would be it. But don't count on it. Nothing else-neither the gobs of gas sucked up by their V-8 engines nor the plumes of pollution these light trucks leave in their wake-has stemmed car buyers' enthusiasm.
Such objections are mere trifles next to the feeling of safety SUV drivers enjoy as they survey their fellow commuters from their heated leather perches, secure in the knowledge they can crush any slob in a family sedan who gets in their way.
Certainly no one in the car industry thinks customers will be discouraged from buying SUVs by a bunch of dry probability statistics. In 1997, light trucks and SUVs accounted for almost
45 percent of the sales volume of new U.S. cars sold. This year, sales of utility vehicles are expected to increase 25 percent to 2.5 million. Cadillac, Buick and BMW are among the car makers that will introduce an estimated 19 new sport utility models between 1999 and 2002. Plus, in a closely related trend, a clutch of pricey deluxe pickup trucks are being readied for introduction.
Yet one doesn't have to be Nostradamus to foretell the day we will look at these leather-lined commuter battleships the way we now look at tail-finned Cadillacs: monuments to the fatal partnership between smug prosperity and bad taste.
For my money, the SUV most likely to become '59 Caddy of the Future is the Lincoln Navigator. Yahoo's Autosite declares the Navigator "a far cry from old-fashioned American boats." True enough. It is a new-fashioned American boat, a full 17 feet of plush leather and shiny wood that defines vulgarity in our time.
Although not quite as bloated, the Mercedes M-Class, packing "German engineering" snob appeal, is another candidate for the '59 Caddy award. It may be one of the most hideous vehicles ever designed-a Suzuki on steroids. Its cat-eye headlights, combined with that pumped-up body, give the front of the car a sinister, walleyed air, while the angled line of the rear window and back window manages to make its 15-foot length appear stumpy.
It is a testament to the luster of the Mercedes brand that consumers, who have so many models to choose from in the M-Class price range, would actually stand in line to be seen driving one of these all-terrain blimps. Though Mercedes claims the M-Class' unusual shape makes the vehicle safer and more stable, it's still ugly as hell.
But what is taste before the mighty power of the zeitgeist?
A cigar is just a cigar, while SUVs capture the particular character of the '90s notion of upscale: an illusion of usefulness and practicality, a lust for the big-bigger-biggest and the transformation of luxury into a quotidian pleasure. Check out the Mrs. forging a stream in her fur in an ad for the Mercedes SUV.
Vehicle and fur are complementary accessories for a trip to the mall.
Where will it end? Ford is threatening a vast "crew wagon" whose massive bulk, from the sound of it, could probably flatten a two-door Blazer, let alone a Honda Civic. SUVs are testaments to the truism that you can never be too rich or have too many cup holders. In addition to its high-end entries, Ford is entering the burgeoning "value" segment of the market with a new all-terrain model priced around $20K. You can't blame consumers of more modest means from wanting what the well-heeled want-if only out of self-defense.
Yet history tells us that even if car makers ignore the possibility, a backlash is inevitable. The question is whether it will happen before the light truck has completely transformed the American road.