Friday, August 01, 2008

Demise Of The American Land Yacht

Let us, first and foremost, be perfectly clear: it ain't over yet. Millions of dinosaurs still roam the Earth, the giant meteor of merciful annihilation has yet to strike, complete and total upheaval is still merely pending.

But it's coming fast. You can sense the shadow, the darkening, the imminent and oily doom. The dinosaurs are trembling, scribbling out their wills as fast as possible. They know the end is near, the signs are all in place, as that giant $63K Toyota Land Cruiser V8 you bought just a couple years ago violently depreciates down to less than half of what you paid for it. Ouch.

Yes, the imploding petroleum economy has spoken, and this is what it said: The era of the big, happy, dumb SUV is over.

Will you celebrate? Mourn? Mark this year on your calendar with the bright red Sharpie of petro-economic ignominy mixed with the cold tears of terrified Detroit CEOs, and dash off to buy a nice scooter? Well, why not?

Twenty years. That's about how long these great and ridiculous beasts stomped the Earth without peer or predator or even much coherent justification, how long the full-sized SUV has been at the center of warped American automotive identity, giving soccer moms and frat dudes alike a false and often dangerous sense of security and capability, when all the beasts really offered was horrible mileage and appalling handling and many thousands of fiery rollover deaths, mixed with aesthetics straight from the caveman-with-a-sledgehammer school of design. Ah, we loved them well.

Shall we enjoy a brief retrospective? Because I believe it was Ford MoCo who (arguably) fired the opening salvo, who shocked both itself and the world when it (sort of) invented the first mass-market SUV back in 1990 merely by tacking some extra seats and a few hunks of cheap leather and soft shocks onto a lug-nut pickup truck, painted it a pretty color and called it an Explorer and sold about 50 million in a week.

Oh, there were plenty of stiff trucks with SUV-like shapes in existence many years, even decades, before the Explorer (hi Ford Bronco, Jeep Cherokee, Chevy Blazer, et al), but Ford was the first to see the untapped potential of these ungainly beasts and take the thuggishness-with-style idea soft and mainstream. What a time it was.

But now, brutal irony abounds. Ford is in panic mode, just suffered a whopping $8.7 billion in losses last quarter alone, is right now scrambling to overhaul many of its truck plants so as to start cranking out hot little Fiestas and Focuses and a slew of mediocre sedans, all as a result of leaning on the SUV's enormous profit margins for far too long. And GM is in the same boat, having racked up $50 billion in losses in three painful years. In fact, all of Detroit is, technically speaking, freaking out.

Meanwhile, all Japanese and even most German automakers, each with lots of small, efficient cars/brands already in the stable, are grinning like well-prepared survivalists in their own bomb shelters. Leave it to America's most boorish, thick headed companies to find themselves as they were back in the '70s oil crisis, caught about nine steps behind reality. Zero sympathy, except for all those laid-off factory workers.

But really, who didn't see the SUV's collapse coming a mile away? Who didn't note the beginning of the end when, a mere five years ago, the world's worst consumer vehicle ever took its place as the king of obscene stupidity, the poster child for all that went wrong with the condescending American ethos, the oil-sucking war-drunk Bush-mauled mind-set?

Ah, the Hummer H2. Has any consumer product embodied our misguided arrogance better? The ridiculous scale, the horrible handling, the crappy build quality, the contemptible road manners, the false machismo, the Cro-Magnon design, the ability to traverse 60-degree rockslides in a hurricane even though all you ever really needed to do was run over those little concrete bumps in the Wal-Mart parking lot. Dude! Righteous!

But I have to admit, this part of the tale makes me a little bit sentimental. Honestly, I'm going to miss the Hummer (and its simply fantastic byproduct, Hummer cologne), much in the same way I'll miss Dick Cheney when the Hellmouth swallows him home next year. Dumb villains simply don't come much more glaring, much more churlish and sad than that.

But baby, it's all over now. GM is trying desperately to dump the Hummer brand (maybe on China), SUV sales are nosediving faster than Miley Cyrus' career into the land of anorexia and Olsen Twin-certified rehab. Already small cars are outselling SUVs and pickup trucks for the first time in years. Hybrid sales are soaring. "Crossover" is the new (and rather lame) buzzword in Detroit, as automakers strain for a tolerable fusion of SUV-like capacity and car-like efficiency.

Of course, the shift won't happen overnight. There are still tens of millions of SUVs on the road, most well under a decade old and most with lots of lumbering life left. Plus, five bucks a gallon is still a pittance for a large and wealthy hunk of the SUV-loving populace, as evidenced by the slew of luxobarges still being cranked out by Audi, Mercedes, Lexus, Porsche, et al. Hey, when you can afford $95K for a loaded Cayenne Turbo, 100 bucks for a tank of premium is pocket change.

So maybe what's really changing is the central mind-set, shifting from our usual "more is more" ethos, the near-religious belief that Americans can use as much as we want and take up as much space as we like and not really give a damn, to something resembling thoughtfulness and refinement. Wouldn't that be nice? That the downfall of the SUV is largely due to a slow but sure awakening and re-education of the American animal?

Not a chance. As usual, it's merely sheer economics, most Americans turning back to small, efficient cars only because they have to. And besides, all those mid-sized sedans and silly retro-inspired muscle cars and 30 mpg quasi-hybrid Ford Escapes coming out now aren't exactly a big step forward. Detroit is about as nimble and innovative as a brick.

But it's not completely their fault. Big Auto knows that big, graceless, overpowered vehicles are a cornerstone of the all-American identity. Even with President Obama's imminent new environmental policies, thoughtful, permanent change is gonna take awhile.

So now I suppose we just sit back and watch the slow and uncomfortable fade, enjoy the clunky death throes of the giant and wonderfully pointless beasts that helped define an era. Oh you big, sweet, dumb dinosaurs. You'll always have a special place in our hearts. And, you know, in our juvenile rap videos. Farewell.

Source - San Francisco Chronicle


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