SUV Phobia

Are SUVs truly as evil as we're supposed to think?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Environment, Fads

Skeptoid #15
December 20, 2006
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
 

Let's spend some time on the trendy fad of looking for villains to blame for global warming. My flavor of the week is SUV's, those evil gas guzzling, ozone destroying, unethical, politically incorrect, Nazi family soccer wagons. Only let's not do it the trendy way, let's look at the issue skeptically.

Let's start by finding some common ground, some generalizations that most people probably agree with. First, the premise that fuel efficiency in vehicles is a good thing. There are probably very few people who disagree that efficiency should always be a goal. Second, the premise that heavier cars are generally less fuel efficient, thus lighter cars are generally good things. Excess weight burns excess fuel. Cars should not be unnecessarily heavy. Third, many heavy truck-based SUV's are generally heavier and less fuel efficient than light passenger cars.

I'm going to continue with the assumption that you agree with all of the above. Based in part on these generalizations, many so-called environmentalist groups have been lobbying, often successfully, for laws against SUV's. I hope to encourage you to be skeptical of such laws. The problem with making laws based on generalizations is that the exceptions are being unfairly penalized, and some guilty offenders are getting away scott free. Any law against SUV's is a bad law, and here's why.

The vast majority of so-called SUV's are mechanically identical to conventional cars. They are given taller bodies and more upright styling, then sold as SUV's. Their weight, economy, and performance are generally similar to the cars on which they are based. Toyota's Highlander and Lexus RX series are built on Toyota Camry chassis and mechanicals. Honda CRV and Element SUV's are based on the Honda Civic. The Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe are rebodied Toyota Corollas. The Hyundai Tucson, Santa Fe, and Kia Sportage SUV's are based on the Hyundai Elantra and Sonata sedans. The Acura MDX and Honda Pilot SUV's are simply Honda Accords underneath that taller sheet metal. People don't need heavier metal or tougher mechanicals, they simply want a particular cosmetic style or a form factor that's more convenient for carrying people and cargo. And that's fine.

For example, a military Humvee, now also marketed to consumers by General Motors as the H1 Hummer, has portal axles and inboard brakes. Most people don't know what either of those are, but suffice it to say that they represent dramatic structural departures from conventional SUV's. People want to buy a big beefy military vehicle, but GM's engineers know that it's simply not a practical road car. Not wanting their customers to be disappointed, they took their existing conventional Yukon/Tahoe/Escalade vehicle, put a vaguely Humvee-like body on it, and they now sell it as the H2 Hummer. Most people wrongly assume, as GM hoped they would, that it's a second generation Humvee, new & improved, but still with military vehicle roots. Wrong on all counts, but again, most consumers don't know or really care. Not a single component is shared between the H1 and H2. Their whole design paradigms are polar opposites: one is a military truck, the other is a passenger car with a styled exterior. GM knew that people wanted to believe that they're driving a Humvee, so GM tried to license the name Hummer from the Humvee's manufacturer, defense contractor AM General; but AM General refused. GM had to buy the entire company, just to get access to the Hummer name so they could sell more H2's. It was well worth it since GM sells an H2 Hummer for about twice the price of a mechanically identical Yukon or Tahoe. And consumers now blissfully believe they're driving around in military trucks. Yet another example of why you should be skeptical of marketing labels.

People talk about cleaning up Los Angeles' smog by penalizing or banning SUV's. Did you know that a single container ship coming into Long Beach Harbor generates as much carbon emissions as 300,000 cars? Ships are not subject to emission laws. Why not? Are SUV's, most of which are mechanically and economically similar to conventional cars, really the logical targets? SUV's are hardly the cause of our carbon problems. Any road car, H2 Hummers included, is extremely environmentally friendly (as vehicles go), given all the emission laws that they comply with, especially when compared to the average car from only a decade ago.

Paris and London are two cities that have really gone agro over SUV's, fining them for entering downtown. The claim is that they're not only fuel inefficient, but they're too big to park and too dangerous. But, as we've established, the term SUV really only refers to cars with a certain cosmetic style. There are plenty of cars that are fuel inefficient that are not SUV's. There are plenty of cars that are longer than many SUV's. And there are plenty of cars that are tall or heavy and do as much crash damage as SUV's. SUV's probably appear frequently on all three lists, but targeting cars because of their styling is still the wrong path to a useful solution. Ban cars that are fuel inefficient, or ban cars that are too long to park, or ban cars with bad crash ratings. Even do all three. But you won't solve those problems by attacking the irrelevant characteristic of cosmetic styling. So why do lawmakers do it? They don't care about the facts, they care about appealing to the voters' emotions. Ban those evil SUV's, and you'll satisfy the emotions of the ignorant masses. If you're not ignorant, you shouldn't stand for it. You should demand that lawmakers pay attention to the facts. (You might also mind your own damn business and stop trying to legislate what other peoples' priorities should be, but that's another subject for another time.)

Here's another wrinkle for you. Hybrids such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight have really pushed the bar higher on efficiency and economy. Thus, there is now a general perception that hybrids get better mileage. Generally true, but again, there are exceptions. The Lexus RX hybrid SUV uses exactly the same V6 engine as its non-hybrid counterpart, and thus posts similar mileage numbers. I drove both vehicles prior to their release in a consumer test. The hybrid system in this case simply adds additional power for acceleration. The improved mileage that you might expect from the hybrid system is canceled out by the additional weight of the battery and motor, particularly on the highway. The Lexus GS is an example of the same philosophy applied to a high-end luxury sedan. In addition, many high-end sports car manufacturers are testing hybrid prototypes for the electric engine's ability to add acceleration off the line. In summary, a hybrid system does not always mean improved economy or cleaner emissions. You should pay attention to the actual numbers that a vehicle posts, not to its label, be it "hybrid" or "SUV".

Here's the first example that pops into my head: my 2004 Audi S4, a 4 door sedan, gets 15 miles per gallon, which is worse than the 16 miles per gallon of my wife's 2006 Toyota 4Runner with the largest V8 engine. Which do you hear so-called environmentalists protesting: common sedans, or SUV's? They're smart: Protesting sedans will strike no nerves, but it's easy to terrify the public with alarmist warnings about those evil SUV's. And I think that this perfectly summarizes the fact that anti-SUV protests and legislation are not only counterproductive, they are factually wrong. When you hear marketing buzzwords and labels instead of valid test data, be skeptical.

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Brian Dunning

© 2006 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Cardenas, E., Gorman, E. The Hummer: Myths and consumer culture. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2007.

Corbet, J., Koehler, H. "Updated emissions from ocean shipping." Journal of Geophysical Research. 29 Oct. 2003, Volume 108, Number D20: 4650-4666.

De Place, Eric. "How SUVs Can Save the Climate." Sightline Daily. Sightline Institute, 19 Dec. 2007. Web. 22 Jan. 2010. <http://daily.sightline.org/daily_score/archive/2007/12/19/how-suvs-can-save-the-climate>

EPA. "Emission Facts: Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. US Federal Government, 1 Feb. 2005. Web. 20 Dec. 2006. <http://www.epa.gov/OMS/climate/420f05004.htm>

Padgett, Martin. Hummer: How the Little Truck Company Hit the Big Time, Thanks to Saddam, Schwarzenegger, and GM. St. Paul: Motorbooks International, 2004.

US Dept of Energy/US EPA. "Fuel Economy." Fuel Economy. US DOE/US EPA, 22 Jan. 2010. Web. 22 Jan. 2010. <http://www.fueleconomy.gov/>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "SUV Phobia." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 20 Dec 2006. Web. 19 Dec 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4015>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 52 comments

Roads in the old European Cities tend to be different and favour small hatchback cars (A.K.A city cars). SUVs (or any big car) are too clumsy to drive around.

However, I agreed that hybrid cars are not as efficient as they claim and normal city cars obtain more kilometres per litre (miles per gallon.

A very practical solution for you would be to switch to either LPG gas or diesel fuel.
Any petrol engine can be modified to accept LPG gas and it is a tried and tested technology. On the other hand diesel engine cars are sold world wide but never really caught within the US. I cannot understand why?
Example France car manufacture Peugeot makes diesel cars with lower emissions than any hybrid while keeping the car fun to drive (And more good looking as well).

Matthew Yeomans, Malta, EU
December 29, 2010 4:55am

That would be turbo diesel engines. Ive driven diesels and gas powered cars and hybrids as well as obviously petrol powered vehicles.

The only reason that I was unimpressed with gas is the very local rules on registration and the very few registering mechanics in this area alone.

Ive taken the lpg off and drive my cluncker around as its intended to be... lorded over by non SUV enjoying SUV drivers clogging up my view of the road around me.

Muddie, Sutherland BatCave, Oz
November 2, 2011 10:02pm

I enjoy your podcasts. They are factual, informative, and interesting. As for this one, however, I have similar objections as other commenters about MPG ratings and weight.

Also, it would have been interesting to know if there was data behind the "moral hazard" implications--in other words, do people drive more carelessly in an SUV because they think they are driving an indestructible tank? Also what about the "roll over" phenomenon? Both of these aspects are very probative of the safety of these vehicles.

But what I really wanted to talk about was the editorial comment suggesting that people who are concerned about safety and the enviornment are just trying to "to legislate what other peoples' priorities should be." Vehicle emissions affect the air that everyone breathes, and vehicles share the road with other vehicles and with pedestrians. The public has a right to regulate private behavior that affects and poses a risk to other people. Using an SUV on public roads, which emits substances into the public air, is not merely an issue of an individual's "priorities." (This is not to say that we should ban SUVs, although I do not particluarly care for them.)

It hurts your credibility to inject your political beliefs into your podcasts, even subtly. (In later podcasts that I have listened to you do not do this, so I think this may have been corrected.) This aside comment makes you sound like a libertarian trying to push an agenda rather a scientist giving the facts.

Tim, Hartford, CT
September 23, 2012 6:43am

Look, I have actually owned large and small 4WD in the past when I used to go out and slaughter trout (an ugly feral fish) as my moral duty.

Dr Karl, who is surely a friend of Brians by now (the balding guy with missing teeth in a hawaian noise shirt) has derived the few accident scenarios for larger vehicles.

Do these out score on smaller vehicles? Probably not as most drivers who USED to drive me do not even recognise wheel drift/understeer/oversteer whilst i am becoming the worst back seat driver on the planet.

Dr Karl is right, the short comings are easily derivable but the advantages of any new car for a soccer mum who can turn at an interection whilst hiding all traffic is astounding.

Here in Oz, unSUV SUV is a fashion and its only irritating for drivers for of lower slung cars trying to see around them.

I can cope with that compared to the idiotic decisions that drivers make whilst being otherwise entertained whilst driving...SUV or no..

PS... I wish i could afford a nice new car!! An SUV would be dandy!

A local Japanese brand has better mileage than my falcon.. That would truly rock..

Send donations to Mud at Oz

Mud (Dr Syd), sin seetee, Oz
November 15, 2012 9:22am

Why should I care if someone wants a fuel-inefficient vehicle like an SUV? As long as they pay for their own gas and insurance, it's no skin off my nose.

macsnafu, Tulsa, Oklahoma
January 25, 2013 2:07pm

I like the part about minding one's own business. That's what I do, and it makes my life less stressful.

Whenever a greenie gets in my face about "the environment", the "evils" of technology, and "earth day", I tell them that I drive my Ford Excursion to the mailbox 2 blocks away. I LOVE their reactions!

PS - I don't own an Excursion, I just tell them that to see their temper tantrums; and hopefully make them burst a dozen blood vessels.

Just sayin'....

Ron, Calgary Alberta Canada
May 5, 2013 2:32pm

Ron, apart from trying to turn when a larger vehicle blocks your view, apart from trying to get a clear view from behind a larger vehicle SUV's are perfectly safe for the user.

I dont know why people who dont use the facilities of off road vehicles purchase larger vehicles with slightly poorer handling.

Anecdote alert/// Ive owned many SUV's and the advantages the SUV delivers over a conventionally suspended vehicle indicates,; its easier and cheaper to borrow one when touring for fishing and surfing.

Suburban warriors confound me whether in conventional, sports or articulated vehicles. They certainly dont seem to drive to their vehicles properties and road conditions.

Admittedly, cars etc are far more forgiving nowadays.

But then I have to drive my many masters vehicles quite often whllst they relax. I am along the police..(another authority to suspect I suppose) a dodgy driver or speedster or inept needs to be booked and fined until his/her abilities match that what is acceptable to current laws.

The more police and cameras on the road the better

Magnanamous Dinoflagellate, sin city, Oz
June 21, 2013 2:53am

Every summer as I would drive my Ford Explorer I would get leers from owners of compact cars.

Every winter I would inevitably be pulling those cars out of the snow banks.

Got more thanks than leers.

Fact not Fiction, Canada
September 1, 2013 9:51am

I love Skeptoid and agree with just about everything Brian has written on each of the hundreds of episodes. Episode 15 on SUV's has always bothered me a bit though, because it seems the difference in vehicle weights between the SUV and sedan models they are based on was not taken into account. This weight difference can dramatically affect fuel efficiency as I have noted in the Table 1 below, using examples from the episode. I believe these specifications show fuel consumption is in fact worse for SUV's. This fact does not necessarily mean regular cars are good and their SUV counterparts are bad. Only that the null hypothesis that they are the same is incorrect, which contradicts what Brian was trying to argue in the episode.

Table 1: Vehicle Weight and Fuel Efficiency Differences - 2014 Models
Make Model Curb Weight (kg) Difference Combined Difference
Fuel
Efficiency
(L/100km)
Honda Civic (EX) 1304 6.0
Honda CR-V (EX) 1583 279 7.8 1.8
Honda Accord (EX-L) 1531 6.7
Honda Pilot (EX-L) 2068 537 10.5 3.8
Toyota Corolla (LE) 1275 5.9
Toyota Matrix (FWD) 1310 35 7.3 1.4
Toyota Camry (LE) 1441 7.0
Toyota Highlander (LE FWD) 1925 484 9.6 2.6

Glenn, Vancouver BC
July 23, 2014 5:45pm

The table in my previous post did not format well, so I have reconfigured it into regular text below. Hopefully it makes more senese now.

Honda Civic (EX): Curb Weight 1304 kg , Combined Fuel Efficiency, 6.0 L/100km
Honda CR-V (EX): Curb Weight 1583 kg, Combined Fuel Efficiency 7.8 L/100 km
Difference = 279 kg, 1.8 L/100 km

Honda Accord (EX-L): Curb Weight 1531 kg, Combined Fuel Efficiency 6.7 L/100 km
Honda Pilot (EX-L): Curb Weight 2068 kg, Combined Fuel Efficiency 10.5 L/100 km
Difference = 537 kg , 3.8 L/100 km

Toyota Corolla (LE): Curb Weight 1275 kg, Combined Fuel Efficiency 5.9 L/100 km
Toyota Matrix (FWD): Curb Weight 1310 kg, Combined Fuel Efficiency 7.3 L/100 km
Difference = 35 kg, 1.4 L/100 km

Toyota Camry (LE): Curb Weight 1441 kg, Combined Fuel Efficiency 7.0 L/100 km
Toyota Highlander (LE FWD): Curb Weight 1925 kg, Combined Fuel Efficiency 9.6 L/100 km
Difference = 484 kg, 2.6 L/100 km

Glenn, Vancouver BC
July 23, 2014 6:04pm

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