- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 30, 2000

Getting hit by an SUV if you happen to be driving a subcompact can be a life-ending experience. Not only is the SUV apt to weigh twice as much (if not more) than your typical compact sedan, it also rides higher and thus will tend to run right over your car's bumper, most of the "crumple zones" intended to absorb impact forces and straight into you.

Safety groups have actively denounced SUVs for this "design defect" even though it's kind of silly to characterize an SUV's higher ground clearance, greater mass and raised bumpers as "defective" just because these attributes tend to hammer little cars in accidents. Arguably, the problem is under-sized cars vehicles that emphasize fuel-efficiency over occupant safety. Federal gas-mileage requirements (known as "CAFE" Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency in bureaucratic argot) are the culprit here, having cut the mass of the typical mid-sized sedan by about 1,000 pounds since the mid-1970s.

The fact is that the majority of fatal accidents don't involve an SUV at all. Thirty-eight percent of all traffic accident deaths were the result of single vehicle crashes, according to data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) through 1997. Just 16 percent of fatalities occurred as a result of a crash involving an SUV and a passenger car. (Accidents involving passenger cars account for another 23 percent of fatalities.)

Nonetheless, the automakers are determined to nip this issue in the bud before it gets out of control and results in government getting involved, and thereby messing up the profitability of the booming SUV market.

New designs intended to limit the damage caused to smaller vehicles by SUVs are being integrated into several SUV models, ahead of any specific legal requirement to do so. Ford Motor Co. was the first to take this proactive step on its full-size Excursion SUV, which incorporates a tubular steel beam in its front end to keep the 8,000-lb. truck from riding over the frame of a smaller car in an accident. The Excursion, of course, is the 4-wheeled bete noir of environmental fanatics and others in the so-called "public interest" movement though who appointed these extremists expositors of the public's interest remains an open question. Ford spokeswoman Sara Tatchio said Ford may install similar equipment on other Ford SUVs, such as the Explorer. Consideration is being given to lowering the ride height as well though that may not wash as well with the buying public since lower ride height would diminish off-road capability.

General Motors, meanwhile, took a different road by lowering the frame rails the major structural component of an SUV on the Chevy Suburban and Tahoe. The same change will be incorporated into the frame rails of the redesigned Oldsmobile Bravada, GMC Envoy and Chevy Blazer all three of which are permutations of essentially the same basic model but sold under different brand names. GM spokesman Terry Rhadigan said the final ride height of these vehicles will be lower than current models, but did not specify how low. "The vehicles are a full year away from production, so it's a tad early to commit to a specific measurement," he said.

DaimlerChrysler, parent company of Dodge, announced that some changes will be made to the Dakota mid-sized truck and the Durango SUV which is based on a similar "platform," or underlying chassis. The changes would not appear until at least the 2002 model year, however.

Meanwhile, the SUV market itself is transmogrifying. Many new models are far less truck-like (or based on trucks at all) than the originals, such as the Ford Explorer and Chevy Tahoe. Included in this category are models such as the Lexus RX300 which is built on a unit-body (integral shell and frame) car chassis and which rides, handles and generally behaves very much like a passenger car. Mercedes M-Class (the ML320 and ML430), though built on truck-like full-frame chassis, similarly behaves more like vans or passenger sedans than cars. Each of these models incorporates design features intended to reduce the threat they pose to smaller cars.

It's gratifying to see the automakers get on the stick and fix this problem before being compelled to do so by government regulators driven by pressure groups and a lust for power. And unlike air bags and other bureaucrat-required add-ons, the fixes arrived at by the engineers are apt to work and be much more cost-effective than anything Washington busybodies might come up with.

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