COMMITMENTS : THE HUMAN CONDITION : We're All Just Blazing New Trails in City Living

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The other day at Gelson's supermarket in Encino, I counted in the parking lot three Jeep Grand Cherokees, two Ford Explorers, a Nissan Pathfinder, a Chevy Blazer, an Isuzu Trooper and a Toyota Land Cruiser.

Excuse me, but just what land does everybody think they're cruising? The plains of the Serengeti? Since when do you need four-wheel drive and industrial steel brush guards to make it over a couple of speed bumps?

Apparently since America became infatuated with sport-utility vehicles (SUVs), those parking-space-hogging, gas-guzzling car-trucks that resemble giant toasters on wheels.

"It's a macho thing," says Ken Von Helmolt, executive editor of Four Wheeler, a Canoga Park-based magazine that has tracked the rapid rise of the SUV. It's not that Gelson's customers drive over boulders and haul around moose carcasses; they just want to look like they do.

By the way, that Isuzu Trooper at Gelson's . . . did I mention that it's mine?

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Alas, I, too, have succumbed. I traded in my blue Honda Accord for a moss-green four-wheel-drive Trooper that has 90.2 cubic feet of cargo space and the capacity to tow 5,000 pounds, should I ever buy a boat or go crazy at Nordstrom.

I even spent an extra $200 for some gizmo called "limited slip," so that if I happen to be roaming around a Tanzanian crater and get stuck in a ditch, the power from one wheel will get transferred to the other one and I won't break an axle. Or something like that. It all made sense to me back in the showroom.

Sport-utility vehicles, or sport-utes as they're called in the industry, now account for 10% of all vehicle sales--1.5 million were sold in 1994, up from 7% in 1990, the year Ford introduced the Explorer.

"It's a phenomenon that's gone on across the world," says John Rettie, editor of the California Report on automotive marketing for J.D. Power & Associates in Agoura. Ford expects to sell 450,000 Explorers in 1995, while Jeep has added a third work shift in Detroit to increase manufacturing capacity to 300,000.

Soon BMW, Mercedes, Lexus and Infiniti will be offering their own versions.

"The market is moving upscale," says Four Wheeler's Von Helmolt. "People are moving out of Mercedes into SUVs." But they're not giving up their car phones, CD players or leather seats. Instead, they want it all: the rugged image of the 4x4 and the amenities of a luxury car, but without the stigma.

"For some of these people, there's a prestige that does not carry the same onus of conspicuous consumption as a luxury vehicle," says Joel Pitcoff, Ford's market analysis manager. "It's a way to spend without being ostentatious."

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Like many SUV owners, I had a perfectly legitimate reason for my purchase: I wanted a car large enough to carry my bike. In that respect, my Trooper has lived up to the "utility" part of its name. But it has proven to be less useful for carrying my Grandma Ruth, who, at five feet tall, has to perform a bit of gymnastics to hoist herself up into the front seat. (I've offered to help; she refuses.)

I could have solved the bike issue and averted the grandma issue by buying a Ford Taurus station wagon or some such vehicle. But that was completely out of the question. Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks so--and that's a big reason SUVs have become so popular.

"Baby boomers have this horrifying memory of going to pick up their prom date in their parents' station wagon," says USC marketing professor David Stewart. "The older adult consumer doesn't want to be seen driving one because they're just not stylish."

The same goes for the minivan.

"No one gives you a second glance if you're driving down Wilshire in a minivan," Von Helmolt says. "If you have a sport-utility vehicle, you're hot. You're happening."

That's what West L.A. attorney Tamara Edwards figured when she bought her four-wheel-drive Toyota Land Cruiser.

"I didn't want to look housewifely--like the mom who takes kids to school and then goes home and cleans the house," says Edwards, 40, a mother of two. "Of course, on weekends, I do the same thing."

She and her husband could rationalize their Land Cruiser in other ways too. "We sort of had this theory that we might use it for backpacking vacations . . . of which we took zero."

The only time her car went into four-wheel drive was when she had a business meeting at a Santa Barbara ranch. "It was kind of hilly and we drove through the dirt," she says. "But no one else had four-wheel drive. We could have driven around without it."

Edwards did enjoy riding up high--"You have this sense of power, like if anyone comes near me, I'll mow 'em down." But after 16 months, she finally realized that the Land Cruiser just wasn't practical for her. She was stopping for gas every third day, and the car was too tall for some underground parking structures.

"When we'd go over a bump, my daughter, Zoe, who's 4, would go flying off her seat, even though she'd have her seat belt on, and she'd yell, 'Mommy, we're laaaaaaand cruising!' It kind of became the signal that we had the wrong car."

She finally broke down and bought a station wagon.

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Von Helmolt of Four Wheeler estimates that only 5% of four-wheel-drive vehicles ever go off-road.

"They're not necessarily a rational purchase," he says. "People are paying for stuff they're not using--but you never know. They might suddenly find themselves in front of a downed tree. The manufacturers understand this and they exploit it--like, 'Dad can take the family over a tree!' "

Plenty of people do use their four-wheel drive, however. Jason Perel, 26, a Brentwood caterer, takes his black Toyota 4Runner on frequent ski trips. Recently he came upon a blocked-off road but, feeling indestructible, ignored the sign, drove around the barrier and got stuck sideways in an ice patch. A tow-truck driver rescued him. "I got to use my tow hitch," Perel says. "It was great."

Upon returning from the mountains, Perel doesn't wash his car: "I leave it dirty for a week because it looks tough--like I use it a lot."

He's equipped his 4Runner with running boards, ski racks, bike mounts, a sunroof, a CD player and car phone. Next on his agenda is a brush guard (also known as a rhino guard), one of those $500 high tensile steel grille protectors that will minimize the damage to Perel's car should a rhinoceros find its way onto the streets of Brentwood.

"It'll make the car look beefier," Perel says. He denies that the idea is to make him look beefier. "I'm already beefy," he says.

Brush guards and taillight guards are hot items in L.A. these days, says Andy Cohen, owner of Beverly Hills Motoring Accessories. "It's all functional stuff--if you hit a tree, it protects your car--but no one buys it for functional reasons. It's fashion. They do it for the aggressive look: 'Leave me alone. I'm mean.' "

One customer added extra lights to his Jeep but told Cohen not to bother hooking them up. "He said, 'I just like the way they look,' " Cohen says. "People just want you to think that they need them."

My boyfriend, Alec, doesn't have brush guards on his Jeep, but he does have Nevada license plates, which basically offer the same thing: the implication that he's a rugged mountain man whose other vehicle is a horse. Actually, Alec lives in Berkeley, and his other vehicle is an Acura.

Not all SUVs have four-wheel drive. In fact, in L.A., 65% of the Ford Explorers sold have two-wheel drive, compared to 32% for the rest of the nation. "The vehicles look beefy and tough, so people can get away with spending less and still have the image of what the vehicle represents: You're an adventurer in life, you're willing to explore," says Anthony Soss, Ford's truck merchandising manager for the L.A. region.

As for me, I did go off-roading once, mostly so I could say that I did, and partly to see what the fuss was all about. Now I realize that I had no idea what I was doing. But after two hours navigating the rocky, muddy terrain of a northern Nevada trail, it's beyond me why someone would consider this fun. I nearly tipped over, almost gave myself whiplash, and clenched the steering wheel so stiffly that I believe rigor mortis was about to set in. I much prefer cruising the Ventura Freeway.

But I'd just as soon do it in my Trooper.

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