The SUV Controversy

Sport utility vehicles and their drivers have been taking a bashing over the past several months. Fueled by a campaign sponsored by political aspirant Arianna Huffington and the activist group Earth Liberation Front, negative publicity surrounding SUVs has reached a very shrill pitch. Some of the most virulent of the activists have said that SUV owners are making our country oil-dependent and are creating unsafe highways. Some have even claimed consumers who purchase SUVs are supporting terrorism.

The anti-SUV campaign has resulted in an extreme case of piling on, especially in New York where many who are pontificating about the evils of the SUV don't even drive. Media pundits have suggested that SUV drivers are vain, self-absorbed, and have little interest in their community. Even the Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Jeffrey W. Runge, who ought to know better, urged consumers in a January speech to "educate themselves" (what a concept!) before purchasing vehicles he implied were rollover-prone.

While the furor plays out in Manhattan and inside the Beltway in Washington, one has to wonder how the rest of the nation feels about sport utility vehicles. Is this country's love affair with the substantial, useful SUV still blooming, or is it being sullied by the nay-saying publicity?

Well, a recent poll indicates that the American populace, as a whole, sees through the doomsday publicity about the supposed ills of SUVs. A New Vehicle-Buyer Attitude Study on sport utility vehicles released by Kelley Blue Book shows more than half of its respondents feel the negative press around SUVs is hype and more than 70 percent felt that groups criticizing SUVs ignored the vehicles' positive aspects.

Despite the scurrilous publicity, the study shows six out of 10 shoppers still feel positively toward SUVs, and of those considering an SUV the number rises to eight out of 10. (One has to wonder why 20 percent of those considering the purchase of an SUV feel negatively about the vehicles, but that could be the subject of another study.)

When it comes to the attitudes of current car shoppers, survey results show that SUV manufacturers have little to worry about when it comes to consumer acceptance of their products. Based on the study results, the rollover issue raised by Runge may be the only issue that resonates with consumers. The study shows shoppers rank rollovers as their number-one concern in purchasing an SUV. Four out of 10 surveyed say that concerns of rollovers could even keep them from buying an SUV, yet more than half rate the vehicles high for safety.

The other negative issues appear to have been dismissed by in-market car-buyers. Kelley Blue Book survey respondents, who represent the opinions of one out of every four new car-buyers in America, disagree with the assertion that SUV drivers are vain and have little interest in their community. Results show the top attribute respondents assigned to SUV drivers is "family oriented" with "safety oriented" coming in at number three out of 12 attributes. Few shoppers believe SUV drivers are selfish or irresponsible.

With the looming possibility of war, oil dependency issues have become a major topic in the press, but those currently shopping for SUVs ranked environmental concerns and oil dependency issues last among their concerns in buying an SUV. In-market car-buyers understand SUVs are less fuel efficient than compact vehicles, however that does not appear to be a deterrent to purchase.

"We have not seen an effect on SUV values or sales due to recent news. Any effect thus far can be attributed to uncertainty in the economy," said Charlie Vogelheim, Executive Editor, Kelley Blue Book. "We do expect to see a drop among larger SUVs but attribute the decline to market saturation as well as the growth and popularity of crossover vehicles, not necessarily criticism or hype."

The KBB New Vehicle-Buyer Attitude Study on SUVs was administered on the company's Web site. The study was completed over a four-day period at the end of January 2003 to determine the attitudes and views of SUVs.

Cleveland-based Luigi Fraschini is a conservationist who writes frequently on automotive subjects.