- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 1, 2003

Call it the sport utility paradox: With their high profile, both on the road and in the public imagination, SUVs have become the most coveted and most reviled vehicles in America. Vandals target them; environmentalists and safety experts denounce them. Some clergy suggest they might be un-Christian, and new TV ads link them to terrorism. Yet at auto dealerships in the countryside, the suburbs, the inner city SUVs remain the nation's hottest-selling models.

"The reason sales figures are unaffected is that Americans don't like to be preached to by lifestyle police," said Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

The popularity of SUVs has increased steadily over the past decade. They now comprise up to 25 percent of total U.S. vehicle sales, depending on whether "crossover" models are included. Yet in recent months, SUVs have been the target of attacks notable for their variety and fervor:

•As part of a campaign begun by syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington, TV ads have suggested that owners of gas-guzzling SUVs are indirectly assisting terrorists, who obtain financing in oil-exporting Middle East nations.

•A group of evangelical Christian ministers started a "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign, urging SUV owners to consider whether they could switch to more fuel-efficient vehicles to better preserve the planet.

•Vandals damaged SUVs in several communities. They smashed windshields in King County, Wash., set fires at a car lot in Erie County, Pa., and spray-painted "No Blood For Oil" on SUVs in Newton, Mass. Some Internet-based groups offer hostile bumper stickers to be pasted on SUVs "As a matter of fact, I do own the road," says one.

•Long-running concern about the safety of SUVs was underscored last month by Jeffrey Runge, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. He said SUVs' rollover fatality rate is triple that for passenger cars, and referring to SUVs with poor safety ratings said, "I wouldn't buy my kid a two-star rollover vehicle if it was the last one on Earth."

Manufacturers say SUVs are safer than passenger cars in most types of accidents and insist they are working hard to reduce the two most commonly cited hazards rollovers and "incompatibility" that endanger people in smaller cars colliding with SUVs.

More so than safety, however, the SUVs' low gas mileage has aroused widespread disdain.

One of the TV ads released by Mrs. Huffington's campaign, the Detroit Project, showed a man filling his SUV gas tank juxtaposed with footage of terrorist training. "Oil money supports some terrible things," the ad said. "What kind of mileage does your SUV get?"

Several TV stations refused to air the ads, which have kindled a backlash among some SUV owners.

"It is not gargantuan, nor is it a bauble; it fits our needs," wrote Tampa Tribune columnist Tom Jackson of his family's SUV.

According to federal figures, four-wheel-drive SUVs average 17.3 miles per gallon, and several large models such as Chevrolet's Suburban and GMC's Yukon get about 12 mpg. By contrast, the gas-electric sedans touted by environmentalists the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid get 48 mpg.

U.S. automakers have pledged to improve fuel economy and develop their own hybrid vehicles, including SUVs. Mr. Shosteck said manufacturers would move even faster if consumers demanded it.

"Right now, consumers don't value fuel efficiency as highly as other attributes," he added. "Any time gasoline is cheaper than designer bottled water, it's not a big deal."

It is a big deal a moral question to the pastors allied in the Evangelical Environmental Network, which started the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign.

"Jesus cares about what we drive," says the group, which acknowledges that reaction to its campaign is mixed.

"Many people offered words of encouragement for starting this discussion," the group said on its Web site. "Many also asked us to check our sanity."

The so-called WWJDrive campaign is part of a broader effort by church leaders to lobby auto executives for greater fuel efficiency and reduced emissions.

"It's about far more than SUVs it's about the future of the planet," said Paul Gorman, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. "We seek to open a new conversation about cars and their effect on God's creation."

Mr. Gorman said he was unsettled by the SUV/terrorism TV ads; he worries that the SUV debate has become too polarized.

"We're not telling people not to drive SUVs," he said. "We're telling people to think about the choices they make and drive the most fuel-efficient vehicle that meets their needs."

Jason Mark, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' clean-vehicles program, said SUVs have deservedly become the "poster child" in the debate over gas-guzzling. "They represent the worst," he said.

But he also said that environmentalists, rather than exhorting SUV owners to drive smaller cars, should pressure automakers to produce roomy, versatile vehicles that get far better gas mileage than current SUVs do.

"Consumers aren't in a position to express their choice," Mr. Mark said. "The average SUV could go from 20 mpg to 40 mpg using available technologies, but the industry needs a nudge Congress needs to act."

Sens. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, and Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, on Thursday introduced legislation that would require SUVs and other light trucks to reach the same fuel-efficiency standards as cars by 2011.

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