SUVs: a guilty pleasure

I own a MINI. I am against gas-guzzlers of any size, shape or form. Yet I enjoyed driving a SUV recently. Here’s why.

I had brought my MINI Cooper S into the dealership for service. There were a few things I wanted them to look at, things that were troubling me. Because I’m fairly obsessive-compulsive, every little thing seems to bother me sometimes, although I’ve gotten better over the years.

The dealership offers free loaner cars to those folks whose repair jobs will take more than a few hours. Since I wanted them to look at several issues, I qualified. Unfortunately, they were fresh out, so they took me to their in-house Enterprise rental desk to get me into a rental car. Normally, I would get an economy or mid-size sedan since my MINI is a sub-compact, but they were out of those. I was told I’d have to wait for a bit, which I didn’t mind. They provide free snacks and beverages in the customer lounge, and they always have a good movie on a big-screen TV.

My wife and I meandered to the waiting area and watched a great movie – I think it was “The Transporter” – while the Enterprise clerks tried to find us a car. The movie was almost over when one of them told us our rental car was ready. After begging for a few more minutes so we could watch the conclusion, we stepped outside, where our view of the parking lot was obscured by some behemoth. I was about to step around the beast to look for some economy car, but the clerk stopped me. “This is your car,” she said, smiling. “You were so nice to wait, that we’re going to give you this BIG car!” She was genuinely happy that she could reward us in such a way.

I couldn’t help myself either. A broad smile started to stretch itself across my face. I thanked her politely while I examined the monster, all the while thinking: “Me, in a SUV?! If this isn’t ironic, I don’t know what else would qualify!” I looked at the make: Chevy Trailblazer. I looked at the tractor-sized exhaust pipe and winced. “My goodness,” I thought, “how much gas will this thing need?” I felt a vacuum pulling on my wallet, but I kept calm. I helped my wife into the car as I signed the final insurance forms and did the walk-around with the clerk. I waved to her as I got in and turned on the engine. Reality was starting to sink in – I had to drive THIS thing now, after driving my MINI for a year and half!

I’m not one to have problems driving any car. That was the least of my worries. It was the way this car felt and maneuvered that made me wary. It was too big to care about things like curbs or speed bumps, or even those little English cars we see happily zipping along the roads once in a while. “I have to be very careful,” I thought. “I’m not used to this thing’s dimensions, and I may bump into something.” I slowly inched out of the parking spot, and drove out of the dealership.

As soon as I was on the road, a feeling of ease came upon me. Without the fear of bumping into freshly crafted BMWs and MINIs, I could relax. Besides, this tractor was easy to handle! Even though it took up the entire lane width-wise, it was easy to keep in check. The brakes worked fairly well, and the steering wheel was surprisingly easy to turn. The steering pump would have to work pretty hard to turn those huge wheels! Sitting in the driver’s seat, one got a feeling of security, of unsurpassed safety. I felt like I could take my time driving, that nothing could hurt me. Now I was beginning to understand why people are so adamant about driving their SUVs – there is a certain unshakeable feeling of safety that one gets. Not only that, but one feels more relaxed at the wheel. I rested my left arm on the doorsill, and my right arm on the automatic transmission knob. I only had to hold the steering wheel with one hand – the car was easy to control. I could get used to this! I’ve driven big cars before, even bigger than this particular model, but the experiences had been unremarkable. I looked over at my wife, surprised. She was smiling, too. The great thing about my wife is that she always knows what I’m thinking about. I didn’t have to explain myself. She knew it, and my surprised expression made her laugh.

It didn’t take long to feel certain twangs of guilt pull at my heartstrings though. After all, I was diametrically opposed to SUVs! I wouldn’t have anything to do with those gas guzzlers! That’s why I got my MINI after all. It was small and beautiful, it was quick, and it didn’t need a lot of gas. How in the world could I enjoy driving this behemoth? I felt like I was engaging in some adulterous relationship – cheating on my MINI. How could I do that? I wondered how I’d make it up to my conscience. Grinning slyly, I wondered if I could pacify it by writing an article.

As I wrestled with these thoughts, we got on a winding road. For those of you who care, it’s Route 193, which runs parallel to the Potomac on its Southern side in Virginia. This is the kind of road that my MINI would love to run on. It would eat those curves and hills for breakfast! It would leave everything else in its dust on these roads. I had a problem though: I wasn’t in a MINI. I was in a rubber wheeled cargo train. I felt safe, but my wife and I were getting thrown left and right at every curve! I started to miss my MINI’s bucket seats quite a bit. I also slowed down, since I didn’t really enjoy being the car’s ballast.

We drove a little more, and were lulled into feeling safe once again, until – out of nowhere – a mean curve peeked its puckish face around the corner. This was a mean left curve, and there was nothing but a thin rail separating us from a downward ride into the tree-ridden valley below. From the little experience I had driving the car, I knew it couldn’t handle this curve although we were only going about 30-40 mph. I pressed gently on the brake pedal as I turned the steering wheel. I felt the tires starting to lose their grip on the pavement. Instinct kicked in, and I slammed on the brakes while continuing to turn the wheel. The anti-lock braking system began to work, and I could feel the hydraulic pumping vibrate the frame of the car. Unfortunately, we were still sliding toward the rail! There’s no worse feeling than impending doom, and we were in the thick of it! I could do nothing but sit there and wait for the car to stop moving. I looked at my wife out of the corner of my eye, and she was frozen in her seat. “Oh boy, this could be it!” I thought, as I braced myself for the impact… which didn’t come.

The car somehow stopped short of the rail. For a brief second, I looked around to check my surroundings, and then I looked at my wife. She looked at me. We both let out a sigh of relief as I pressed on the gas pedal and moved on. My body now had to cope with the stress. My heart started to beat faster, and my legs started to shake a bit. I had to slow down in order to keep good control of the car. What had just happened?

We had been lured into falsely believing that this car was safe. That’s what had happened! We realized that the car’s install appeal – safety on wheels – was also its downside – cargo train on wheels. When you pack that much steel into a car, when you make it that big, it’s going to be heavy. Heavy objects cannot be stopped or maneuvered quickly. There is a limit to the amount of grip that a tire can have on the road. The brakes can be the best in the world. They can be anti-lock brakes. The car can have a dynamic control system, or differential traction, or whatever other names these features are called. There is still going to be one limiting factor: the grip of the tires on the pavement. It is through the friction of the tires that all of the car’s power can be expressed, either to start or stop it. In the case of a heavy car, its weight works against the friction of the tires and overcomes it. This car will keep on going when you don’t want it to go. It cannot be stopped! I shudder when I think what would have happened if the pavement had been wet that day!

Yes, SUVs can feel very safe. They can lull you into thinking that you can’t get hurt very badly if you get into an accident. Yes, you may not be hurt very badly. But, if you would compare, side by side, the outcomes of SUVs and smaller, more maneuverable cars when placed in accident-prone situations, all other factors being equal (driver experience, alertness, etc.,) the SUVs would not be able to avoid any of those accidents if the outcome depended on maneuverability. By this, I mean things such as stopping distance, ability to veer away from or between other cars, etc. Sure, the drivers of the SUVs probably wouldn’t get hurt too badly (unless the SUVs rolled over, which is another story altogether,) but they would incur significant damage to their cars, cause serious damage to the other cars involved, and more importantly, to the drivers of the other cars. What I want you, the reader, to ask yourself is this: do you want to be responsible for the death of another human being simply because you wanted to drive an SUV? Try to talk to anyone who’s got to live with that guilt and see how they cope with that event.

Moralizing aside, here’s how the rest of my SUV experience went… After the accident, I learned to drive the thing much more cautiously, and I found its reactions around curves predictable if one went through them very slowly. I even got accustomed to the commanding view of the road, and I liked sitting in the chair, uncomfortable as it was. There a certain satisfaction one gets from operating a beast like this. One’s ego is awed by the ability to control it. Furthermore, that same ego has room to spread through that enormous cabin. It starts to feel very comfortable, and then a certain feeling sinks in. It’s called ENTITLEMENT.

Yes, on the second day of driving this thing, I started to feel entitled to drive it. Think on this, please. I care deeply about recyling and conserving the environment. I lobby my congressmen to pass laws that protect the environment, including restrictions on the emissions of SUVs. And yet here I was, driving my rental SUV, and feeling like I owned it – what’s worse, feeling like I ought to own something like it! I was shocked at myself! On one hand, I was dismayed at my lack of respect for all I stood for, and on the other hand, I really enjoyed sitting at the helm of that tractor-trailer. I couldn’t believe myself! I talked to my wife, and she had the same problem. She liked our MINI, but she also liked the size and the relative safety conveyed by the size of the Trailblazer.

Here was the curse of the SUV! This is why all of the people refuse to give them up! How could they give up something that makes them feel so good? It’s one more pleasure that they have to forgo, and in a society that’s so strongly oriented toward the attainment of pleasure, this is very hard to do! So what if it takes $50 to fill up the tank? It’s a small price to pay for feeling like you own the road! It’s a small price to pay indeed for such an ego-boosting experience. If I myself wasn’t immune to this – and I should have been – why should others feel any obligation to give up their SUVs? No, we haven’t reached that point yet, and I doubt that we will. There will need to be a stronger motivation. The price of gasoline will need to go much higher, and the smaller cars in general will have to be made much more attractive before that will happen.

As for me, how did I fare? I have to confess that I looked up the prices for a Chevrolet Trailblazer and a GMC Envoy the following day. Unfortunately, I also looked up the gas mileage. When I put the two together, I couldn’t justify owning the cars. Even if I could afford the price of the car, the price of the gas and the pollution created by the car couldn’t be ethically justified to a very loud voice: my conscience. The gas for the rental cost me about $20 by the way, for two days of driving – about 120 miles overall. I don’t know about you, but that’s a lot of money to spend on gas in two days. I happily gave the car back, although I had feelings of regret. Not to worry though! After I got into my MINI, all that regret melted away and I felt right at home!

There’s nothing like the feeling of being able to maneuver your car. There’s real safety in knowing that you’ll be able to stop or veer away from an accident. My MINI saved me from about three accidents so far – simply because the car can stop on a dime and turn better than a Porsche. Had I been in a SUV, I don’t know what would have happened to me. Yes, I feel a little threatened when I pull up to the exhaust pipe of behemoth at some stoplight, but I also can’t help smiling. I’ve got a car that can handle the meanest curves. I’ve got a car that can get me out of an accident. My ego may feel a little squeezed inside the cabin, but I can sleep well knowing I’m not part of the problem – I’m part of the solution. In the end, it all boils down to assuming responsibility or giving into entitlement. Which road will you take?

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