The Student News Site of MAST Academy

The Beacon

The Student Newspaper of MAST Academy, since 1991.
The Student News Site of MAST Academy

The Beacon

The Beacon

The plague of the modern-day SUV

By Theo Miller
News Editor

It is that most wonderful time of year where millions of us stuff ourselves into the back of our vehicles and drive somewhere in the great American tradition known as a ‘road trip.’ One thing you get to see a lot of on road trips are cars. The Interstates are positively infested with the things.

I like cars. I spend too much of my time thinking about cars. I’ve contemplated getting a job selling cars. I would probably be pretty good at it, given that I seem to know more when I go car shopping than the salesman do most of the time. I also like to walk places. Oftentimes I find myself walking next to a street. Sometimes I see cars parked on the side of those streets. Sometimes I see cars drive down those streets. It is a positively thrilling experience.

I know what you all must be thinking. It is December, again, the time of year when Theo crawls out of whatever cave he’s been hiding in for the last 11 months to write an unnecessary, bitingly sarcastic op-ed. Under normal circumstances, I would agree with you. However, this is 2020! The year of disaster! Sadly, it is with great disappointment that I must inform you that a plague is infecting our cars as well. It may not be as deadly as COVID (yet), but it certainly is harmful, and it is within our own power to stop it. If we do nothing, it will consume us and punish us for our very hubris that summoned it into existence.

Story continues below advertisement

I speak, of course, about Sport Utility Vehicles, or Sport Activity Vehicles if you belong to BMW’s marketing team. Cars are getting bigger! In fact, cars are getting so big that they are now called ‘crossovers,’ and marketed as SUVs. The legal category of ‘light trucks,’ which includes SUVs, pickup trucks, and vans, currently makes up 72% of all new cars sold in the US. The Toyota Camry, the best selling car in the country, is placed 8th for bestselling model in 2019.

The manifestation of my darkest fears: the 2021 Chevrolet Suburban. (Photo from General Motors).

‘Ok, big deal. People are buying SUVs. How is this my problem?’ I hear you asking. It becomes your problem almost immediately, both as the purchaser and as the person that has to share the road with them.

Let me talk about rationalization for a bit. People are choosing to buy SUVs these days. That is a given. If you ask them to justify it though, people start to get a bit jumpy. They will say that it’s to haul their kids, or to have a more durable car. Maybe they’ll say it is safer. Maybe the dealer gave them a good price, a nicer car for the price of a smaller one. But if you bring up the fact that it’s the same car under the hood as the hatchback they passed up, or that they only have two kids, or that they’ll never go offroading in a Ford Escape, or that the gas mileage is worse and therefore the cost of ownership higher, they will brush you off as spouting the raving of a madman. ‘Fake News!’ they’ll cry, and run to their fully stocked fridge of Whole Foods brand seltzers.

So. Why are people actually buying bigger and bigger cars? Psychology! What else? This is America! Bigger = Better! Did they not teach you anything in ‘Patriotism 101?’

In all seriousness, there is a sense of power and luxury that comes with a higher ride height. You are commanding, you stand tall over the road beneath you. The ‘extra space’ is a fringe benefit at that point. By the way, that ‘extra space’ is in quotes because many SUVs are shaped like ‘fastbacks’ nowadays, essentially sloping roofs and curved body lines that cut down usable cargo space to the practical equivalent of a $20,000 Civic.

Speaking of the Civic, let’s talk about car platforms for a second. Almost every SUV is actually a cheaper, smaller car’s internals dumped into a bigger chassis. Translated: you have to carry around more with less. SUV’s notoriously abysmal handling and performance is because of this: they are inherently heavy, unaerodynamic, and slow. The CRV runs on the same engine as the Civic. The RAV4 on the same platform as the Corolla, and the rest of Toyota’s lineup for that matter. Be my guest then, remove the fun of driving for your brain games.

That actually brings me to the reason I pitched this article (read: rant). I like to walk alot. I walk all over creation. I actually intend to not buy a car for the foreseeable future after I leave for college. So imagine my horror when I saw one of the new generation of Chevy Tahoe (which is the same car as the Suburban, Yukon, Escalade, Silverado, and Sierra) parked on the side of the road. I consider myself a fairly big guy, but I was genuinely scared, because I knew these would soon be everywhere.

The car is gargantuan. The front end is comedically tall. The hood is a comfortable lean height for me, without any kind of lift kit. The wheel wells had more than 8 inches of unnecessary space. You are not even getting that much ride height in return, as the gaping maw of the front end goes almost down to street level. And that’s when it dawned on me. These things are going to be murder machines.

Local news station WTHR ran an investigation into the front blind spots of several popular SUVs. (Chart by WTHR and Mehak Sandhu).

If I, as a larger and more likely than the average pedestrian to survive a collision, saw no way for me to not die should I ever find myself staring down that behemoth grille, what about the 6 year old crossing the street? What about the 4’11 grandma who is totally lost under the hood?

Indianapolis’ Channel 13 WTHR ran the experiment several years ago. The last generation Escalade performed the worst in the test (to say nothing of the new model), taking upwards of 15 ft for some drivers to see a 2ft tall object over the hood. That is the equivalent of 13 kids sitting in a single file line (without social distancing).

Yuri Tereshyn demonstrates the optional technology that Cadillac engineered to see over their unnecessarily long hood. (Screenshot from

The physics equation gets worse and worse. Traditional pedestrian collisions with a car have a point of impact around the shins or knees, sending the collidee over the hood and roof, increasing survivability. The unnecessarily flat and tall front ends of SUVs are far less kind. They are more likely to strike either in the stomach or square in the chest before pushing the pedestrian backwards onto the ground, where they can be trampled by the wheels of the car.

This is far from a hypothetical. Pedestrian deaths in the US, where SUVs are oh-so-popular have skyrocketed. Around 6500 pedestrian deaths were logged in 2019. That is a 60% increase since 2009, and the highest since 1988, according to the Governor’s Highway Safety Association. Europe, a more urbanized and traditionally pedestrian-oriented place, where narrow streets keep most people from buying SUVs, lowered their pedestrian fatality rate by 36% in the same time frame. By driving a SUV you don’t actually need, you look from your elevated ride height in the face of every pedestrian you see and say: ‘My life is more important than yours.’

And, as a cherry on top, let’s talk about economics. SUVs are more expensive, both upfront and in terms of cost of ownership. Automakers really like SUVs and trucks because they have higher margins for what amounts to the same car. They love the current purchasing trends. They love them so much that marques across the world have been axing smaller cars, pricing lower-income families out of objectively safer and more fuel efficient new cars.

New car prices have skyrocketed, and between 2019 and 2020 the average cost of a new car rose by more than $1,400—pandemic recession be damned. Ford no longer sells any car, with the exception of the Mustang. GM is in the process of doing the same. The marketing gurus have been at work rebranding the Kia Soul, a formerly compact car, as a ‘crossover. Honda has announced it will no longer be selling the absolutely fantastic Fit in the US, raising their price of admission from just over $16,000 to more than $21,000. Mercedes killed it’s US smart brand, selling them only in Europe now.

The joke from before about the affluent and well stocked fridge of the SUV buyer is not a joke. Public transportation in the US is in shambles, and by pricing out lower income purchasers from new cars, the economic inequality of this country only grows.

I almost forgot to actually talk about fuel economy. You almost do not need me to say anything. You know that these cars guzzle gas. The new ‘most fuel efficient ever’ truck, the F-150 Powerboost claims 24 mpg. The new Suburban claims 18. That’s fine when gas is cheap, like it is now, but what about when the price inevitably skyrockets again, like it did in 2008? That saw the death of the 12 mpg Hummer, the famously thirsty and outdated Saturn, among others.

Automakers like to spin the idea that today’s SUVs are just as fuel efficient as the cars they replaced, which is just not true. Sure, they might be slightly more efficient than the last generation cars they replaced, but what about a more apples-to-apples comparison? Thankfully, because SUVs are the same vehicles as their sister hatchbacks under the hood, this is easy. The Civic-based CR-V gets a combined 29 mpg to the Civic’s 36. The Rav-4 gets 30 to the Corolla’s 35. Even the most fuel efficient SUV that I know of, the not-an-SUV hybrid Kia Niro, gets 48 mpg to it’s sister’s 55 mpg. That adds up in a warming world and a 10-year ownership period.

In conclusion, I humbly beseech thee to buy the right car for your needs. If you need an SUV, get one. If you don’t, don’t. Do not buy a Jeep Wrangler to make grocery store runs. Do not buy a Tahoe for your family of 5. Be responsible with your purchases, and just know that I’ll be silently judging you the next time you almost run me over on the crosswalk as the only occupant of a land yacht.

Leave a Comment
Donate to The Beacon

Your donation will support the student journalists of MAST Academy. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment and cover our annual website hosting costs.

Donate to The Beacon

Comments (0)

All The Beacon Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Activate Search
The plague of the modern-day SUV