Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Yesterday at lunch with three others, I said something totally inappropriate for polite company. I said I was considering buying an SUV. I immediately was criticized by two of the other three: SUVs waste gas, SUVs create more pollution, SUVs cause more accidents of all kinds, more rollovers and more deaths in accidents, and if that's not enough, people will honk at you more and 'key' your SUV. Also they asked me, why should anybody ever need to buy an SUV unless they live at the end of a hilly gravel road in wintry country -- if you need a vehicle capable of bringing around your stuff, get a station wagon or a minivan. And finally, you can't park SUVs.

The first ironic thing is that none of these issues were brought up earlier when the fourth luncheon eater said he was considering buying a Jeep Wrangler. Apparently that's free from the Yuppie taint on SUVs.

The next ironic thing is that I specifically mentioned the Rav4. This is an SUV built on the Toyota Camry (Celica?) frame, which I pointed out early in the conversation. Yet that didn't save me from the parking/gas/pollution/accident critiques. In fact it was difficult for the anti-SUVers to believe that any SUV could be small, safe or have good mileage. In fact, the Rav4 gets 24 MPG in the city and 29 in the country, according to the US government. That's better than any of the minivans, and better even than many of the station wagons listed (for example, the Audi line of station wagons gets no better than 18/25 MPG city/country, and although the VW Jetta gets good gas mileage the VW Passat gets no better than 22/31 or worse depending on the model. And also it's pretty obvious that if a Rav4 is built on a Camry frame, it's no harder to park than a Camry, and I'll assume (correct me if I'm wrong) that the pollution is no worse. BTW, the Rav4 isn't the only SUV doing this - the Honda CR-V gets similar gas mileage and is a similar size.

Next the safety critique. It's true that the media loves to criticize SUV safety, but although the headline of this CNN article is "SUVs pose danger to cars", but further in you get a more nuanced view:

The group's report, an analysis of government safety data, will show that sport utility fatality rates have fallen sharply in recent years and are now almost even with passenger cars.

But O'Neill said the analysis will also show that because of their size and weight, sport utility vehicles can cause considerable damage to smaller passenger cars in side-impact crashes.

Does the overall SUV safety record apply well to a small SUV like the Rav4? There are a few ways to look at it.

  • The theory/testing bsed scorecards from www.hwysafety.org give the Rav4 a poor score on side impact but otherwise good. Typically station wagons seem to be good all around, generally safer than the Rav4. But minivans and the Jeep Wrangler get worse safety ratings here.

  • Another safety rating method is based on actual insurance claims for injuries (to vehical occupants), and vehicle damage. By this rating, the Rav4 is worse than average for injury claims but average on vehical damage. Heavier SUVs are all much better than average, protecting you from both injury and vehicle damage, but interestingly a couple light SUVs rate well (Honda CR-V again or Ford Escape). With claims-based ratings, the numbers can be biased by type of driver. So if the Rav4 attracts young dangerous drivers, while the Ford Windstar (minivan) doesn't, you'd expect the Rav4 to have more claims even if the vehicle itself is safe.

  • It seems really hard to get data about danger to other vehicles. Still, if the theoretical objection that SUVs can kill the occupants of other vehicles due to their size, high center of gravity and high bumpers, then the Rav4 should not offend too badly. Its bumper may be higher but not as high as that of a transport truck, and it's just as light as a car.

So if you care both about safety and gas economy, but care a little about driving a cool vehicle and having room for bikes too, a Rav4 or CR-V seems a reasonable compromise. If you're a good driver and wear your seatbelt you might decide that the overall safety risks in SUVs are reasonably mitigated (personally, I haven't been in an accident in 10 years). But apparently this kind of choice is socially unacceptable. You're better getting a Jeep Wrangler which gets worse mileage and has a poorer safety record but at least your friends won't shun you and strangers won't honk at you.

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