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Editor’s Notebook Big Oil is giving SUVs a bum rap

SUVs are getting a bum rap.

Every time the price of gasoline goes up, someone blames it on the popularity of “gas-guzzling” sports utility vehicles.

I confess, I’ve done it, too, in this very column. But lately I’ve reconsidered the topic , largely because I recently sold my faithful, 17-year-old Honda Accord and bought a Nissan Xterra SUV.

Perhaps I’m trying to assuage a guilty conscience, but I think I have a good, altruistic reason for buying a Ute, as SUVs are called for short. When I’m not editing this newspaper, I’m a wilderness search-and-rescue volunteer with the San Diego Sheriff’s Department. My trustworthy Honda simply wasn’t going to survive some of the unimproved mountain and desert roads I have to drive over in that line of work.

In the past, I’ve always driven environmentally friendly cars, with the exception of an old seven-cylinder ’66 Impala Supersport I drove for a short time in college. (I say seven-cylinder because the eighth didn’t fire.) The idea of driving an SUV was antithetical to my personal beliefs until I started researching them.

Now I believe SUVs, for the most part, have become the fall guys for Big Oil, which wants to deflect criticism for their own price-gouging to the popularity of Utes.

First of all, not every vehicle on the road that passes as an SUV is a Ute. We Xterra owners, you see, are purists , SUV snobs, to be blunt , and a true SUV is a truck, nothing less.

The Xterra, for instance, is a truck, built on a truck chassis with the guts of a truck. Most small and many medium SUVs are simply SUV bodies attached to standard car chassis with standard car machinery. To Xterra owners, they are little more than stubby station wagons.

However, because they are really simply cars in disguise, these smaller SUVs tend to have pretty good gas mileage , a little lower than a compact car because of the extra weight, but pretty good nonetheless. At an average of about 24 gallons per mile, according to published reports, they just don’t live up to the common perception of gas-guzzling SUVs , that is, if they actually were SUVs.

At the other end of the SUV line, of course, are the large, luxury SUVs, a sort of cross between an M-1 Abrams battle tank and a luxury cruise ship. Xterra owners do not consider these real SUVs, either.

You see, we Xterra owners are also minimalists, the ascetics of the Ute world. We believe in Nissan’s marketing motto for the X: “Everything you need. Nothing you don’t.” No fancy leather seats here. No highly polished wood paneling. Get the water-resistant interior of an Xterra dirty, just open the doors and hose it out.

Luxury SUVs, on the other hand, are simply luxury sedans on steroids, all blow but no show. Built on the skeletons of heavy-duty work trucks, the heaviest load these SUVs will ever carry is the booty from a Nordstrom sale. Oversized, overweight and overpriced as well, the only off-roading they ever do is pulling into a driveway for valet parking.

Yet these non-SUVs, as we Xterrans think of them, are chiefly responsible for the SUV’s reputation as gas-guzzlers. When the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) released its “Green Guide to Cars and Trucks” in 1999, gluttonous luxury SUVs like the Cadillac Escalade and the Chevy Suburban made the list of the least environmentally friendly vehicles based on fuel consumption and tailpipe emissions.

The media, with the encouragement of the oil industry, quickly lumped all Utes into this category. Big Oil had a scapegoat: Blame all the SUV drivers for gulping down all the gas and driving up costs.

Yet, according to the ACEEE, this places SUVs in a false light. While the Escalade and Suburban still made the ACEEE’s list of environmentally “meanest” vehicles for 2001 , along with the GMC Yukon Denali, the Ford Excursion, the Lincoln Navigator, and a host of high-end foreign sports cars , several SUVs , large, medium (including the Xterra) and small , also made its list of environmentally friendliest cars of 2001.

ACEEE’s John DeCicco credits advancements in automotive technology with the improved performance. “Even though the low emission vehicle standards for SUVs and other light trucks are weaker than those for cars, automakers are now using improved engines and better emission controls to cut smog-forming pollution from vehicles of all sizes,” he wrote in an article on the GreenerCars.com Web site.

“This year,” DeCicco continued, “the U.S. automobile fleet, even though it is now half ‘trucks,’ goes 50 percent farther per gallon of gasoline than in 1970, with far less tailpipe pollution.”

The auto industry still has a long way to go to create cleaner burning vehicles with higher fuel mileage. Hybrid engines, fuel-cell technology and other new technologies are moving in that direction.

Until then, the price of gasoline will rise and fall and rise even higher depending on what excuses the petroleum industry comes up with next.

But the idea that SUVs should be blamed for higher gas prices is as ridiculous as the price-gouging electricity industry’s attempts to blame the popularity of home computers for the soaring cost of kilowatts.

Hill is editor of the Business Journal.

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