Whither the SUV?

Patrick J. Kiger is co-author of "POPLORICA: A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions, and Lore That Shaped Modern America" (HarperCollins).

At Lexus Santa Monica, Luke MacFarlane, one of the stars of FX Networks’ “Over There,” is searching for his dream wheels--something stylish in a funky, offbeat way, powerful enough to haul his bike to the mountains, efficient enough that it won’t burn a hole through his gasoline credit card or the ozone layer.

The slim, sandy-haired actor--upwardly mobile, outdoorsy, adventurous--looks as if some Madison Avenue image-maker had conjured him up for a sport utility vehicle commercial. And the Lexus RX 400h, plugged by the company as “the world’s first luxury gas-electric hybrid SUV,” would seem to be the model to bait the 25-year-old. Its estimated city/highway fuel efficiency is 29 miles per gallon, nearly twice what many conventional four-wheel-drives manage. Green-dreaming drivers are biting. As conventional gasoline-powered SUVs collect dust on Southern California car lots, the RX 400h is a comparatively brisk seller at $49,000, brisk enough that there isn’t one for MacFarlane to see. He must make do with a glossy brochure and a sales pitch.

Neither does the trick. “I thought the mileage would be a lot better,” MacFarlane says. A recent arrival from New York, he hitched a ride to the showroom from a friend because he doesn’t own a car. “The ruggedness appeals to me, but it still seems so irresponsible to own one. When it comes down to it, it’s still just an SUV.”


After a half-century or so on the road, the sport utility vehicle is at a crucial evolutionary moment, and Californians will decide where it ends up. There are 2.8 million of the behemoths ripping up asphalt and gulping down petroleum here, more than twice the number in any other state, but these days a dealer can have trouble moving even an environmentally friendly--or at least friendlier--version of the beast with eight throbbing cylinders under the hood.

Signs of the shift are everywhere. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who in his previous life helped design and promote the faux-military Hummer H2 SUV for General Motors, has reduced his fleet of the macho roadsters from seven to three and reportedly seldom drives them. Steve Reisman of Canoga Park, founder of the Southern California Hummer Owners Group, is infrequently behind the wheel of his red 2003 H2, which has a 32-gallon tank that costs as much to fill as dinner for two, including a fairly pleasant wine.

In the minority among SUV owners, Reisman uses his in the rugged outdoors, pulling a boat trailer and volunteering with the Forest Service, and aims to make up for it by rationing his overall energy use. “I don’t think of the H2 as an everyday car,” he says. “I’m using this resource for what it was intended.” Similarly, his other automotive indulgence, a Ferrari, usually sits in his garage.

Because Reisman runs an insulation contracting business out of his home, he doesn’t burn fossil fuels commuting. When he goes to the gym, it’s usually on his mountain bike. The end result, he figures, is that he probably consumes less fuel each month than the compact-car drivers who shoot him nasty looks when he ventures out in his 6,400-pound Hummer.

Not long ago, “the H2 was a very cool thing,” he says. “You’d get a lot of thumbs up.” The change in attitude toward the massive means of transportation may have had something to do with the war in Iraq, gas prices and “What Would Jesus Drive?” bumper stickers. Or with the TV time purchased by Americans for More Fuel Efficient Cars, a group established by Hollywood notables that two years ago launched scathing spots accusing SUV owners of indirectly financing terrorists.

The TV campaign drew a storm of criticism, especially after vandals torched a Hummer dealership in West Covina, destroying 20 vehicles. But today, one of the group’s founders, environmental activist Laurie David, wife of “Seinfeld” producer and comedian Larry David, is feeling “totally vindicated.” SUV sales are crumbling like those imitation rock piles upon which the vehicles sometimes are posed at dealerships, like specimens in a natural history museum. Nationwide, full-size SUVs are capturing the smallest share of the market since 1996, according to a recent study by the Power Information Network, and the number of large SUVs sold fell 44% between December 2003 and April 2005, according to, which tracks automotive trends.


“When you think about the millions that Detroit spent trying to convince American families that these are the best vehicles to drive, it’s a pretty amazing turnabout,” says David, a believer in peer pressure. “When this SUV thing started, a lot of my friends had them, so my thing was to get them to reject them. Now, when we have a dinner party, the street outside our house looks like a hybrid dealership.”

But David, who drives a Toyota Prius, is somewhat democratic about vehicular choice. “I’m not saying people shouldn’t be allowed to drive SUVs. What I’m saying is, why can’t Detroit make an SUV that gets 40 or 50 miles per gallon? If they made an SUV that really was energy-efficient, the American public would buy it.”

Weirdly--or perhaps not--David and Reisman sound as if they’re reading from the same page. “I’m disappointed in auto manufacturers,” he says. “I think the technology is out there.” He notes: “A VW diesel turbo-fuel-injection Jetta can get close to 50 miles per gallon.” For him, that’s a sensible mpg even for a Cadillac Escalade or Chevy Tahoe. He won’t give up his H2, but he worries about the environment, overpopulation and global warming. “I guess there are two types of SUV owners,” he says. “There are some who think, ‘I can afford it, so I’m not going to worry about it.’ I see those people as a little bit ignorant, out of touch with reality. And then there are people like me. I believe in conservation, despite the paradox that I own a Hummer.”

That’s where the rubber meets the road for the auto industry. Manufacturers that long relied on the big vehicles as cash cows are eager to satisfy Reisman and David and keep California in front of the SUV-buying pack. In Detroit, Tokyo and elsewhere, researchers are working on short-term answers and a long-range solution--an SUV powered by a fuel-cell engine that combines hydrogen and oxygen to create water and in the process generates electricity. At the recent NextFest, a fair for futuristic technology in Chicago, GM exhibited the Sequel, an experimental hydrogen fuel-cell SUV of the sort that might be on the market by 2010. Though its hulking helmet-like shape is aesthetically underwhelming, the Sequel performs impressively, the first fuel-cell vehicle to go from zero to 60 mph in fewer than 10 seconds and the first to achieve a 300-mile traveling range. And giving off only water vapor as exhaust.

GM and other automakers are counting on the hydrogen fuel cell to save the SUV--and to preserve the fat profit margins that the big vehicles have generated. And not that it’s necessarily motivating the industry, but it may well be that producing better, more fuel-efficient SUVs would do as much to protect the environment as eliminating them. Transportation efficiency consultant Steven Plotkin, a former engineer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and analyst for the now-defunct federal Office of Technology Assessment, made such an argument in the November 2004 issue of Environment, a scientific journal. Plotkin calculated that if the nation’s 24 million SUVs were replaced with mid-sized cars and station wagons, which can carry about as many people and as much cargo, total U.S. fuel consumption would be cut by only 4%, which works out to a gain of 0.9 mile per gallon in average fuel efficiency. A switch to minivans would produce an even more measly gain in fuel conservation, Plotkin noted. Considering that someone used to lugging groceries or recreational equipment or children in a Toyota Sequoia with 127 cubic feet of storage space probably wouldn’t trade down to a two-door hatchback, Plotkin might have a point.

In Santa Monica, Luke MacFarlane says he’s not asking for much from his dream SUV. In case automakers are listening: “I’d want it to get 40 miles to the gallon, not just 30. But I do want to be able to handle a bumpy road without destroying the car, and I’d like a powerful engine. And I do like the luxury of leather.”