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The 4x4 Equation

What Makes Four-Wheel and All-Wheel Drive Vehicles So Popular?
Joshua Shapiro
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95

Drive into any suburban mall parking lot today and take a look around. Instead of row after row of sleek sedans with virtually the same sloping roof lines, there are bulbous tops sticking up everywhere. The protrusions range from tall and square to steroidal bulging at the sides. But the impression is the same: Something new and unusual has taken over the mind-set of American drivers.

The answer is simple. Sport utility vehicles--trucks that look like a Volvo station wagon squeezed in a vice--are the fastest-growing segment of the car market today. For many upscale buyers, especially suburban pioneer types, these quasi-trucks are competing with Jaguar, Lexus and Infinity for their automotive dollar.

No longer outback transportation with a harsh bouncing ride, four-wheel drive (4WD) sport utility vehicles (SUVs) have evolved far beyond their military, off-the-road roots, becoming mobile status symbols and anti-aging antidotes for graying baby boomers. A million and a half units are sold in the United States each year, many with every option and accessory available on the most deluxe of import sedans.

Yet few purchasers understand what they are getting, and manufacturers have done little to educate the public as to the nature, differences and relative advantages of their designs. Most new buyers don't understand how 4WD works, nor do they realize that they now legally own a light truck, not even a car.

SUVs derived from Willys-Overland's military jeep, developed in 1940 for U.S. Army use in the Second World War. After the war, consumer demand for a civilian jeep was minimal. Utilitarian and cumbersome, with amenities such as windshield wipers considered lavish, the spartan jeep lacked mass appeal. A few were used for recreational off-roading or by the U.S. Park Service. International Harvester and Land Rover developed 4WD vehicles suitable for agricultural use, while Toyota came up with models designed for police and forestry use in Japan. But overall, SUV sales languished for decades. As recently as 1982, SUVs accounted for less than 2 percent of total vehicle sales in the United States.

But in the early 1990s, something happened. Chrysler introduced its upscale Jeep Grand Cherokee, the first four-door SUV, while Ford presented its Explorer--sleek, stylish cousins to the workhorses of earlier decades. Sales jumped to more than 5 percent in one year. Today, one in every 10 new vehicles sold in the United States is an SUV.

Why have SUVs become so popular? From the consumer's perspective, some of the success is due to a larger trend--America has become a nation of truck drivers. Forty percent of new vehicle sales in the United States are light trucks, which include minivans, pickups and SUVs. Now SUVs are the chic practical alternative to mundane minivans or stodgy station wagons for domesticated chores, turning erstwhile domesticated housewives into urban road warriors. Being in such demand, they carry a prestige beyond their price tag, so they make comparatively inexpensive substitutes for luxury cars. In a crowded society with more and more limits, SUVs have broad appeal, from Yuppies turning 50 to hip Generation Xers. The image is about youth, rugged individuality and time for outdoor activities like hunting, fishing or skiing. It is the "I can do anything," conquering the wilderness, crossing obstacles feeling. And these powerful images sell.

SUVs are a manufacturer's dream, a profit bonanza, and their last great wild growth frontier. The government-mandated fuel economy manufacturers must achieve is substantially lower for light trucks (20 mpg versus 27 mpg for cars). And the U.S. Treasury doesn't collect a 10 percent luxury tax on trucks as it does on cars selling for over $32,000. Best of all, it is the largest single automobile market where foreign manufacturers are comparatively weak.

Without SUV sales, most manufacturers' profits would be substantially lower. Sport utility vehicles have a median purchase price $3,000 higher than cars, and manufacturers are literally selling all they can make. With that kind of demand, they don't need to overspend on marketing promotions or dealer incentives. The 10 percent of the vehicle market that SUVs occupy contribute a whopping 40 percent of industry earnings!

Compared to cars, SUVs and other light trucks are relatively unregulated. Most of the safety equipment that is mandatory in cars is not yet required for trucks. But SUV safety is a complicated issue. Eighty percent of SUVs have 4WD for better traction: People can drive them in snow, ice, mud and sand where ordinary passenger cars would become stranded. They have higher ground clearance and seating than cars, giving drivers increased visibility. But this elevation also raises the center of gravity, making SUVs more top-heavy and harder to handle around turns and in crosswinds, and therefore, more susceptible to rollover. SUVs have a rollover fatality rate two to three times that of cars.

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