- The Washington Times - Friday, May 24, 2002

Families packing up everybody and their gear for a summer getaway should think about taking the sedan or station wagon instead of the family's stout-looking sport utility vehicle.

Despite their rugged image, some sport utility vehicles cannot safely carry as much weight as the average consumer assumes they can (who is buying them for their "utility"), said David Champion, testing director at Consumer Reports.

Overloading by 50 pounds won't matter. But overloading by 200 pounds can cause safety problems, particularly by inhibiting a vehicle's handling in an emergency, Mr. Champion warned.

Safety is the biggest concern when a vehicle's payload capacity, which is defined as the combined weight of people and cargo a vehicle can safely carry, is exceeded. But there is also the humiliation factor involved when some coupes and sedans, which have much smaller cargo areas, have as much or more payload capacity.

The Volkswagen New Beetle that Consumer Reports tested, for example, has a payload of 920 pounds, which is more than some popular midsize SUVs tested by Consumer Reports. Compare that to the Nissan Xterra SE with its maximum load capacity of 885 pounds or the Lexus RX 300 with its 840-pound payload or the Ford Focus wagon and its 880-pound payload. Other interesting comparisons: A Volkswagen Jetta GLS has a payload of 1,050, whereas a GMC Envoy SLE sport utility can carry 1,090 only 40 pounds more. The Audi allroad station wagon with its payload of 1,280 can carry 15 pounds more than the Acura MDX sport utility.

"The average person sees a big sport utility with a lot of space in the back. They put four people in and a load of camping gear and stuff on the roof, and they have no idea that they are overloading the vehicle," Mr. Champion said. "Any five-seat sport utility vehicle that doesn't carry at least 1,000 pounds isn't doing the job right," he contends.

It's not only what people put inside their SUVs that can cause overloading. Payload is further reduced by what people put on the roof and what they tow. Payload is reduced by the amount of weight a trailer exerts on the vehicle's tow ball. This is called "tongue" weight and is customarily 10 percent of the weight a vehicle is towing, which means a vehicle towing 3,500 pounds can carry 350 pounds less in payload.

Safety risks associated with seriously exceeding payload capacity include the increased risk of a rollover. A taller, narrower vehicle such as an SUV with its higher center of gravity is more likely to roll over. Any passenger or cargo weight that is loaded above a vehicle's natural center of gravity, which is the floor of a vehicle, will raise its center of gravity. Overloading raises the center of gravity even more.

In addition to making a vehicle unstable, overloading puts a heavier load on the brakes, adversely affects a vehicle's handling, and can lead to tires blowing out, particularly if the tires are underinflated, Mr. Champion said.

Although figuring payload sounds simple enough take a vehicle's "gross vehicle weight rating" and subtract its "curb weight" it isn't. A vehicle's gross vehicle weight rating is generally found on a sticker in the door jamb. It is the total weight of the loaded vehicle. Loaded includes the estimated weight of occupants and cargo and the vehicle's curb weight.

Curb weight is defined as the weight of the vehicle with its standard equipment and a full tank of gasoline. Ideally, the curb weight is subtracted from the gross vehicle weight and what's left is what the manufacturer says can be carried in people and cargo. One problem is that most manufacturers do not post the curb weight figure on the vehicle or in the owner's manual. Even when they do, it may be a general curb weight and not the curb weight of a specific vehicle, which varies with the amount of equipment. Sunroofs and four-wheel-drive systems all add to a vehicle's curb weight, which is deducted from the gross vehicle weight to come up with the payload.

Those manufacturers who haven't provided the information have offered some not-too-helpful suggestions, Consumer Reports found. Some have suggested weighing the vehicle at a shipping company or inspection station, a carryover from the days when trucks were used for work, not to haul families and their possessions on cross-country vacations.

For a listing of the load capacities of the vehicles Consumer Reports magazine has tested, visit this Web site address: www.ConsumerReports.org/loadratings.


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