in defense of my SUV, part I: cargo and passengers

This is the first part of a multi-part series of essays on why I like SUVs (how so retro a topic, I realise). I am also working on my related and comprehensive essay describing why Apple Macintoshes are the SUVs of Home Computing :) I'm sure that title will offend pro-Mac anti-SUV people, but its actually a compliment. To think otherwise is almost hypocritical ;)

This is not an essay explaining why SUVs are the best possible car type ever. Its an essay (in series) describing why I choose to drive oine and why my next purchase will be another SUV. Your mileage may vary, pun intended.

My '94 4x4 Jeep Cherokee Sport is my first car. I never really thought about the SUV issue at first - my dad had bought it and when I moved to Boston he gave the car to me. It worked wonderfully in Boston's snow and rain. I moved to Houston and found it equally useful - Tropical Storm Allison was not fun. I'm hooked on 4WD and won't ever buy a vehicle without it now. But you don't necessarily need an SUV for 4WD or all-wheel drive (AWD) so that isnt a reason in and of itself to go for an SUV.

I like SUVs. That's my bias, up front. The rest of the post could conceivably be seen as simply rationalization (and probably will be dismissed as such by anyone who holds fast to ideology about SUVs. We could replace the word with Linux, or Mac OS/X, and have essentially the same conversation). My outlook is that cars are just tools, and SUVs fill several niches for me very well (including, but not restricted to, the aesthetic one). The truth is different for others and some might well find that a minivan is better or that a sedan or an econobox fits their needs.

That said, almost all of the arguments against SUVs are straw men. Each of the following issues are therefore looked at in the context of "all other things being equal". I'm also writing these points as "responses" to a fictional argument. The "quotes" are based on actual arguments in real life from some friends, but I have modified them to be more general for the purpose of this series.

Argument 1: Hauling people and cargo :

Minivans can hold more people more comfortably than even the largest SUV's, they're easier to get in and out of and usually have more cargo room...Getting seats in and out of a minivan (in order to haul stuff) is easy since they tend to be low and roomy.

This common argument clearly doesn't apply to large SUVs like the Ford Expedition which seats 7 comfortably, or the Excursion which seats NINE. No minivan that I am aware of matches that capacity.

The latest crop of mid-size SUVs have third row seating as an option (like the Ford Explorer and GMC Envoy XL). That makes them equal in carrying capacity to normal minivans, so I don't see any advantage. You can argue that SUVs or minivans are more/less comfortable by finding any two representative models to fit your desired result, but on the whole they are equal. I've spent 2,200 miles on the road from Boston to Chicago to Houston in my jeep and my butt was just fine. Kimberlee can chime in as to whether the Jeep was comfy for the Boston-NYC roadtrip we did, or not.

I only need seating for five. A minivan is overkill, just as a 7-passenger SUV.

with regard to cargo, Minivans and SUVs, on average, have about equal theoretical maximum cargo volume, but achieving the maximum capacity in practice is very different. To haul stuff, you have to make some modifications. In my Jeep, that means flattening the middle seat, which takes me about 30 seconds. In a minivan, that usually means physically removing the third row.

However, you usually have enough cargo area even in the default configuration of an SUV that reducing the passenger seating is not necessary. The cargo area on my Jeep even with the rear setback up and five people sitting inside is still enormous- for example, when I dropped my inlaws off at the airport for their trip to India last month, they left with three suitcases and three carryons. When I picked them up from the airport, they had six suitcases, two boxes, six carryons. And a friend who needed a ride. Stuff is cheap in India. If I had been in a minivan, there would have been a third row seat left behind on the tarmac to accomodate the extra goodies.

If you carry both cargo and people on a regular basis, A minivan simply involves extra hassle and less flexibility. I make enough trips to the airport (at least two a month) dropping people off that its not a negligible annoyance. I rarely need to just haul passengers or cargo, I usually haul both, and a minivan won't cut it for me.

(note that this issue is related to engine power, discussed later.)

The "hauling" excuse for an SUV is equally spurious. The actual weight allowance of most SUV's is so low that moving furniture safely would be totally out of the question. In fact, there are passenger cars with higher weight allowances than some large SUV's. The reasons behind that are twofold:SUV's sit up very high, and are heavy themselves so you've got both a center-of-gravity problem and a weight problem.

This is demonstrably false. If it were true, then standard trucks like the F-150 would also suffer from teh same flaw and be utterly useless. After all, the Ford Expedition (a large SUV) is built on the F-150 platform.

But look at the actual numbers between minvans and SUVs. The Ford Explorer can tow up to 3500 pounds sith the standrad tow package. With the optional tow package, it can tow up to 7500 lbs. The optional 4.6L V8 has 239 horsepower at 4750 rpm and 282 lbs.-ft. of torque at 4000 rpm. Compare that to the Ford Windstar minivan (one of the best minivans out there) which handles only 2000 lbs standard, 3500 as an option. The biggest engine that the Windstar has is a 3.8L SPI V-6 with horsepower @ rpm 200 @ 4900 and torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm) 240 @ 3600. The SUV has a truck engine, and the minivan has a car engine, basically.

The curb weight of a Ford Windstar is 4355 lbs. The curb weight of a Ford Explorer is 4344 lbs. They basically weigh the same. whither excess metal?

as for the center of gravity, thats also nonsense. Its true that smaller SUVs have rollover problems (for example, of the same size class as the Saturn VUE or smaller). Of course, an idiot could roll any SUV regardless of size. But the same is true for minivans or cars - put someone who doesnt know how to drive in charge, and its a menace regardless of make or model. I know I'm not taking sharp turns at 35 mph, whether I am driving my Jeep or my wife's 91 Corolla.

btw, the minivan is much more expensive. By about $2,000 for a comparably-equipped vehicle, amenities-wise. But we will examine amenities in the next post.

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