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Some Useless Vehicles, or SUVs for short

A line of Jeep Liberties sit on

A line of Jeep Liberties sit on a dealership's lot. (Credit: AP)

On the surface, I take no issue with SUVs -- take a pickup truck, throw a “capped”-looking body on the chassis, and you’ve got some ground clearance and offroad fun. The problem is, we live on Earth, not inside a Jeep commercial. Most of us will only ever commute in our vehicles.

Which means you’ll probably be stuck behind someone in a Pilot or Yukon on your way to work tomorrow, the road ahead of you blocked by the trucks’ sheer girth. You switch lanes to pass, only to find there’s another vehicle in that lane blocking your escape route. You curse your fate, God, or maybe your ex-wife. But you’re still stuck behind someone driving a plush, watered-down SUV more at home shuttling kids to daycare than tearing through rock trails.

This fact diminishes the point and purpose of the SUV -- a vehicle meant to be rugged enough to take 90 percent of what you could throw at it, including transporting people from time to time. But ever since the offroader craze began in the mid-'90s, we the carbuyers have enabled the softening, and ultimately the death, of the SUV.

I like SUVs, I really do. A friend’s father still owns a ‘98 4Runner that we could still beat the hell out of if we felt so inclined. It still rides on chunky, noisy tires like the ones Toyota gave it 14 years ago. It makes all kinds of loud noises from potholes and mechanical four-wheel-drive. It’s not a vehicle concerned with societal status, but rather with utilitarianism; everything still works, and works well, but the only buyers you’ll get for it are those who want a real SUV.

Today’s 4Runner retains some of the old ones’ boxy shapes, but the similarities are not otherwise apparent. The newest 4Runner offers soccer moms and hockey dads (or whatever combination you can think of) leather, in-dash navigation, back-up cameras, comfortable car-like suspension, and televisions in the headrests for the offspring.

This emasculation, if you will, has poisoned and killed the original SUV. What’s left is nothing more than a sheep in wolf’s guise. The compact SUVs in particular are a joke -- Rogue? That’s a jacked-up Sentra. The Equinox is a Cruze, the Escape is a Focus, the CR-V is a Civic, and the a Caliber. None of those save the Caliber are bad cars, but the problem is that manufacturers throw around words like “trail-rated” or “off-road capable,” when the reality is that my 2003 Focus will do just as well, if not better, on a gravel road.

The transformation of the 4Runner is a perfect example of the death of the SUV -- an offroading icon, known and loved around the world for its resilience and capability, is now designed to haul groceries. It’s not the only one, either; the Equinox, new Escape, and Pilot all descend from legitimate SUVs. It’s just not right, and there is a group to blame for it.

Us. Not the manufacturers, the economy, Bush or Obama -- us. While companies are responsible for introducing the initial concept to civilians (the first Jeep was used in WWII), they did not force consumers to drink the Kool-Aid. We readily consumed the “bigger is better” rhetoric that polluted our culture in the '80s and '90s, so it’s no surprise that our vehicles followed suit.

The average family had a hatchback or a wagon for most of their needs, and a truck to haul or tow equipment if needed. The SUV was marketed as a way to have both at the same time, and convincing the public was easy -- after all, your dad had a Buick Roadmaster, and he tucked his shirts into his shorts. Wagons and hatchbacks were out, and Big McLargeHuge SUVs began to take over.

The end result of all this? We are a country obsessed with size -- homes, food, body parts -- so it follows that our vehicles would be affected the same way. We strive for opulent mansions, devour disgustingly-portioned meals, and develop inferiority complexes about our bodies. Granted, this is not all the fault of the SUV.

But it is a perfect example of our flawed logic. Instead of doing our own research or seeking out independent voices for advice, we buy cars as status symbols and quo satisfiers; your neighbor has a Pathfinder? Better go buy an Armada. (Note: This practice also holds true on the opposite end of the spectrum: hybrids. But that's a separate matter.) We buy more than we need out of ignorance, satisfying a desire to belong to a crowd.

So instead of buying a small sedan or hatchback, a single man in his mid-20s buys an Escalade. Because he can. Instead of purchasing a Focus hatchback or Elantra Touring for their newly expanded family, a young couple owns an Expedition. They believe the larger, cumbersome vehicles are safer than “death trap” compacts.

Their logic is sound, to a point; yes, a more massive object is harder to move (and therefore could protect you better in theory), but a small car with a good driver behind the wheel will avoid a lot more accidents in the first place. Plus, compacts wouldn’t have the “unsafe” stigma that they do (which is untrue by the way; even the original Focus hatchback did well in horrific crashes) if they didn’t have to deal with three-ton SUVs and trucks crashing into them.

If we bought what we needed instead of following the crowd, you’d see many more small hatchbacks on the road (gas prices aside). Then again, if more of us thought for ourselves, we’d change much more about this country than what we drive.

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