The Hidden Life of SUVs

They're built to go off-road, but what kind of landscape are they really designed to conquer?

What's in a name? What do you make of a passenger vehicle called a Bronco?

Or one dubbed a Cherokee? How about a Wrangler? Are they just chrome-plated expressions of sublimated testosterone flooding the highways? Check out the herd that grazes the average car lot these days: Blazer, Tracker, Yukon, Navigator, Tahoe, Range Rover, Explorer, Mountaineer, Denali, Expedition, Discovery, Bravada. Besides signaling that we're not Civic or Gallant, they indicate there's something else going on here.

These are, of course, all names of sport utility vehicles, the miracle that has resurrected Motown. Think back to the dark days of the previous decade when the Japanese auto industry had nearly buried Detroit. In 1981, only a relative handful of four-wheel-drives traveled the road, and the phrase "sport utility vehicle" hadn't entered the language. Today, they number more than 14 million, and that figure is growing fast. If you include pickups and vans, then quasi trucks now constitute about half of all the vehicles sold in America. Half. They're rapidly displacing cars on the highways of our new unbraking economy.

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Go to any car lot and jawbone with a salesman, and you'll find that big is once again better. Any savvy dealer (clutching his copy of Zig Ziglar's Ziglar on Selling) will try to talk you up to one of the latest behemoths, which have bloated to such Brobdingnagian dimensions as to have entered the realm of the absurd.

Ford, in fact, has unveiled a new monster, the Excursion, due to hit the showrooms before the millennium. With a corporate straight face, its literature touts as selling points that the Excursion is "less than 7 feet tall...and less than 20 feet long" and is "more fuel efficient...than two average full-size sedans."

These Big Berthas have even spawned new vocabulary words. The biggest of the big, for instance, can no longer fit comfortably in a standard-size garage or the average parking space. So salesmen will often sell you on one of the "smaller" SUVs by praising its "garageability."

What, then, explains the inexorable advance of these giant SUVs into our lives? Why do we want cars that are, in fact, high-clearance trucks with four-wheel drive, an optional winch, and what amounts to a cowcatcher?

The answer, in part, lies in the vehicles themselves. Cars are not fickle fashions. They are the most expensive and visible purchases in an economy drenched in matters of status and tricked out with hidden meanings.

Some people will tell you that the shift from car to truck can be explained simply: We Americans are getting, um, bigger in the beam. We aren't comfortable in those Camrys, so we trade up to a vehicle we can sit in without feeling scrunched. Here's a new buzzword for Ziglar disciples: fatassability.

But I think the key is found not so much in their size or expense (although both keep ballooning) but in those ersatz Western names. The other day, I saw an acquaintance of mine in a boxy steed called a Durango. Say it out loud for me: "Durango." Can you get the syllables off your tongue without irony? In the post-"Seinfeld" era, can anyone say Durango without giving it an Elaine Benes enunciation at every syllable? Doo-RANG-Go.

The true irony comes from the fact that this thoroughly market-researched word no longer has any core meaning. No one comprehends its denotation (Colorado town) but only its vague connotations (rugged individualism, mastery over the wilderness, cowboy endurance). The word does not pin down meaning so much as conjure up images.

These names are only the end product of the intense buyer-profiling that the car companies and the marketing firms continuously carry out. By the time they make it to the lot, these cars are streamlined Frankensteinian concoctions of our private anxieties and desires. We consumers don't so much shop for one of these SUVs as they shop for us.

A typical focus-group study might be one like the "cluster analysis" conducted by college students for Washington, D.C.-area car dealers in 1994 and reported in Marketing Tools. The analysts coordinated numerous databases, mail surveys, and census information to profile the typical "Bill and Barb Blazers," whose consumer apprehensions can shift from block to block, but can be pinpointed down to the four-digit appendix on the old zip code.

Each Bill and Barb then got tagged as "Young Suburbia" or "Blue-Collar Nursery" or "Urban Gentry." Translation, respectively: "college-educated, upwardly mobile white" or "middle-class, small-town" or "educated black" people. The students next identified what images spoke to the underlying appeal of an SUV for each group (prestige, child space, weekend leisure). Then they developed targeted ads to run in the media most favored by each group: the Wall Street Journal, National Geographic, Black Entertainment Television.

Many of the ads they developed were directed at women. For example, the one meant for upscale homeowners depicted a "woman architect standing next to her four-door [Blazer] at a Washington-area construction site" and "conveyed her professional leadership in a city with one of the highest rates of labor force participation for women."

Sport utility vehicles are quickly becoming women's cars. In fact, current statistics show that 40 percent of all SUV sales are to women, and the proportion is growing. (More men, on the other hand, are buying bigger, tougher pickup trucks.) But one wonders what's going on in the mind of that female architect or that soccer mom, high above the world in her soundproof, tinted-glass SUV, chatting on her cellular phone as she steers her mobile fortress down the street.

When GMC decided to launch the Denali (an SUV named for the Alaskan mountain), the auto-trade papers discussed the subtleties of that outdoorsy name: Even though most buyers "will never venture into territory any less trampled than the local country club parking lot," wrote Ward's Auto World, "the important goal of the Denali marketing hype is to plant the image in customers' minds that they can conquer rugged terrain. The metaphor of Alaska is particularly apt because SUVs, especially the larger of the species, depend on the myth that we have new frontiers yet to pave. Perhaps we're trying to tame a different kind of wilderness. Indeed, in an age of gated communities the SUV is the perfect transportation shelter to protect us from fears both real and imagined."

In one focus group, female drivers confessed they hesitated even to exit the interstate "because they are afraid of what they are going to find on some surface streets."

G. Clotaire Rapaille, a French medical anthropologist and student of the consumer mind, practices a more advanced marketing technique called "archetype research." In one session he has consumers lie on the floor and lulls them into a relaxed alpha state with soothing music. Then he asks them to free-associate from images of different vehicle designs and write stories about what they hoped the design would become. Overwhelmingly, Rapaille told the Wall Street Journal, his participants had the same reaction: "It's a jungle out there. It's Mad Max. People want to kill me, rape me. Give me a big thing like a tank."

More and more, SUVs give us that tanklike security, and part of the feeling derives from their literal altitude. Down there is the old working class, the new peasants who haven't figured out how to snatch a six-figure income out of our roaring economy--the little people who don't own a single Fidelity fund. There's a brutal Darwinian selection at work: They huddle down in their wretched Escorts and their Metros--not merely because they are poor but because they deserve to be.

These are the new savages: people who drive cars. They scrape and fetch about in their tiny compacts, scuttling along on surface streets. But above it all, in their gleaming, skyscraping vehicles, is the new high society--the ambitious, the exurban pioneers, the downtown frontiersmen.

It's been said that the most distinctive feature of the American character is that we continually define ourselves as pilgrims facing a new frontier. In their darkest hearts, the members of the new-money bourgeoisie have convinced themselves that we live in an unforgiving wilderness of marauders and brutes. The hidden meaning of our new conveyances can be found right on the surface. Once upon a time, Trailblazers, Explorers, and Trackers tamed the Wild West. Now, through the sorcery of focus groups, the bull-market gentry have brought the Pathfinders and Mountaineers back into their lives in the belief that they need to conquer the savage land one more time.

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