Consumer Republic

In the face of financial advice that encouraged investors to think long-term, John Maynard Keynes once made the famously mordant observation that “in the long run, we’ll all be dead.” There should be a version of this maxim for people who predict social and consumer trends: In the long run, we’ll all be right. As the Cassandras who predicted an imminent bear market back in 1996 can attest, nothing does more for a wrong headed prognostication than the passage of time.

Recently I wondered whether my long-awaited vindication on the subject of sport utility vehicles had arrived when I caught a headline in The New York Times that read, “An S.U.V.? Oh, That’s So Over!” Why, I had pretty much said the same thing once to a skeptical audience of automotive marketers. I warned of the day, soon to come, when consumers would reject the vehicles as “your father’s SUV.” It was time, I declared, to think about what people will want to drive once the SUV is passé. I suggested they look out for the return of the station wagon.

Alas, I said all this in 1997. And I wasn’t the only one. An archival search on the Internet pulls up lots of predictions circa 1998 of the waning of the SUV craze and the imminent return of the station wagon to consumer favor.

Of course, there’s been plenty of imported oil under the bridge since then, and much of it has gone to fuel bigger, badder and ever more leather-laden SUVs. Sales of such vehicles have not only persisted but grown, despite roll-over exposés, the Ford/Firestone safety scandal and price spikes at the gas pump. In fact, between 1998 and 2001 the number of SUVs sold in the U.S. increased from 2.8 million per year to 3.8 million. And a 2000 survey done by automotive consultant Auto Pacific showed the greatest demand for SUVs coming from consumers under 30, the very segment that seems likely to lead an SUV backlash, should there be such a thing. In the meantime, fewer than 300,000 station wagons were sold in 2000. That’s about 2 percent of the total car market, compared with the 50 percent-plus that now belongs to SUVs and light trucks. Oops.

So you can imagine my delight as I read the reasons that buyers of station-wagons-by-another-name—the Subaru Impreza WRX, the Pontiac Vibe, etc.—gave for rejecting SUVs. Freedom from “sociological baggage,” said a 35-year-old graphic designer. Desire for an “anti-SUV,” said a 29-year-old Sony executive. After years of peevish complaints from journalists like yours truly—criticisms that climaxed this year with the book High and Mighty: SUVs—The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way, by Times reporter and ex-Detroit bureau chief Keith Bradsher—could the messages of environmental hazard and compromised safety have finally broken through?

Maybe. But if the SUV craze has peaked—and, believe me, I’m not sticking my neck out on this one again—I doubt it is because the vehicles’ critics are finally being heeded. After all these years it is fair to say that for all the lip service they pay to environmental issues, Americans care not a whit for reducing fuel consumption. Clearly, the risk of a high center of gravity pale next to the thrills of sitting way up high, too. If the SUV is about to go the way of the minivan, it no doubt has less to do with social consciousness than with the merciless circularity of fashion. As a customer in the Times piece who was shopping for a Mazda Protégé5 put it, “It does not look like my father’s or my grandfather’s car.”

See? I knew it would happen. Eventually. Where virtue fails, boredom ultimately triumphs. But then, you don’t have to be much of a trend maven to know that.

Fortunately, back in 1997, car makers actually were beginning to think about what kind of cars would succeed the SUV. We began seeing the results in the last several years: car-based SUVs, hybrid vehicles that borrow from station wagons, as well as many new wagons outright, mostly from European car makers. In the meantime, the huge Ford Excursion has bitten the dust, and Ford is seeking solutions to its many woes in the upcoming Five Hundred and Freestyle, post-SUVs with certain station-wagon-like qualities.

Does this mean it is finally safe to predict the return of the station wagon? (I still drive one, by the way.) Consider that in this age of hybrid vehicles, the original station wagon was itself a hybrid: a Model T altered to provide more hauling capacity. You might even say “hybridism” is in the station wagon’s DNA. Someone might be emboldened to predict that wagons are the cars of the future. But it won’t be me.