- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2001

You've probably seen the commercial for Nissan's Pathfinder SUV in which the trucks are used in lieu of horses to play a bracing round of polo. "Not that you would. But you could…" So reads the text on the screen as the ad fades to black.

Then there's the commercial for Mazda's just-introduced Tribute SUV, in which zoom! zoom! zoom! the entire Mazda model lineup storms down a secondary road at high speed, escorting the Tribute, each car violently maneuvering in acrobatic fashion to display the sporty handling attributes of Mazda cars. The Tribute matches these moves, then plows off the pavement to carve its own road.

These ads convey a dangerously misleading message about SUVs. Instead of emphasizing the different ride and handling characteristics of SUVs, these ads imply that SUVs can be driven with wild abandon, as if they were sports cars indeed, as if they were high-performance sports cars.

The hype may help the automakers sell more SUVs, but it's also fueling, or at least contributing to, the problem of accidents especially high-speed rollover accidents involving SUVs.

In many instances, these accidents can be traced to inappropriate driving, such as excessive speed, or subjecting the vehicle to aggressive cornering maneuvers exactly the type of things portrayed in those ads.

But SUVs are not cars let alone high-performance sports cars. They have a higher center of gravity, which renders them less balanced than even ordinary passenger cars. Their steering response is typically not as precise as a car's and their truck-based suspensions are not ideal for either high-speed travel or for taking arching freeway off-ramps at speeds appreciably higher than the posted limit.

It's especially important to point out that much of what falls under "inappropriate driving" as regards SUVs is not necessarily, however, illegal.

For example, it is not unlawful in several states to drive at 70 or even 75-mph on the highway. And the flow of traffic on highways posted 75-mph is often much closer to 80 or even 85-mph. Even on the crowded highways of the Northeast, the flow of traffic is typically 70-75 mph. However, though these speeds are considered "normal" and "safe" in an SUV, such speeds are potentially far more dangerous than in a conventional passenger car. In the event of a tire blowout, for example, the SUV would be much more prone to a catastrophic loss of control mainly due to the weight transfer that occurs as the vehicle's center of mass shifts abruptly. Any excessive braking or a jerk of the steering wheel the typical response in an emergency can cause a violent, out-of-control skid, even a rollover.

In a passenger car, a tire failure at high speed is less dangerous because the car is inherently more controllable. If one tire goes completely flat, the car will not suddenly become unbalanced as the weight shifts toward that corner. It will also be less likely to skid out of control even in the hands of an inexperienced driver.

And the tire failure itself is less likely, because passenger-car radials, as a rule, dissipate heat more effectively than the all-terrain and M&S; (mud and snow) rated tires found on many SUVs. (A common cause of tire failure is heat-induced failure arising from subjecting the tire to sustained high-speed driving. Last summer's Bridgestone/Firestone imbroglio was at least partially due to marginal tires being subjected to higher heat/friction than they could tolerate without failing.)

Yet at least in part because of silly auto industry advertising, many people who currently drive SUVs have no idea they are driving a vehicle that requires a different, more conservative driving style. As discussed above, they often believe exactly the opposite.

Overdrive transmissions introduced as a fuel-saving technology more than a decade ago have inadvertently exacerbated the problem. Before the advent of overdrive transmissions, engine noise served as a sort of "fail-safe" or "early warning device" to drivers, letting them know in a very audible way that they were moving along at a good clip.

Without overdrive, most engines begin to feel as though they are straining at speeds much higher than 70-mph. But with overdrive transmissions which reduce engine operating speeds by as much as 1,000 rpm in top gear it "feels" like you are driving 55 or 60 when you are in fact actually going 70, 80 or even 90-mph. This lulls people into a false sense of security and has probably lead to many accidents that might not have otherwise occurred and increased the severity of the injuries sustained in those accidents.

The marketing of SUVs, combined with engineering advances such as overdrive transmissions, in sum, has given us the current state of affairs where far too many people are driving their SUVs not only as if they were cars but as if they were high-performance sports cars, at speeds far beyond what is reasonable and prudent for these specialty vehicles.

Educating consumers about these facts is critical if SUV accidents are to be kept to a minimum. Driven properly and within their limits, SUVs do not pose an unreasonable risk. But they must be treated with respect zoom! zoom! zoom! or not.

Eric Peters is an editorial writer for The Washington Times and a syndicated automotive columnist.

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