- The Washington Times - Friday, October 18, 2002

America's fondness for sport utility vehicles shows no sign of easing, according to a study by R.I. Polk & Co., the Detroit consulting and data-marketing firm.
The reason for America's fascination with SUVs, however, may be darker than what the people polled in that study were willing or able to concede. The SUVs' popularity could be due to consumers' fears and the reptilian instinct for survival, according to a new book.
Polk found that during the first seven months of the year, about 26 percent of the new vehicles registered were sport utilities, more than any other type of vehicle. The second most popular segment was pickup trucks (19.7 percent), followed by midsize cars (18.7 percent). Polk predicts sport utility sales will continue because buyers like them enough to buy another. Fifty-one percent of those who bought SUVs from October 2001 to March 2002 had previously owned a sport utility.
The top three reasons given for buying a sport utility were: it was ideal for active lifestyles, it felt very safe and it was a good value for the money. And 80 percent said they frequently drive in bad weather.
They may be kidding themselves. The appeal of SUVs could go so deep that it might take thousands of psychiatrists countless couch-hours to try to understand it. In fact, auto companies do research the psyches of consumers to determine which new concepts may be popular with them. During the 1990s a French medical anthropologist, Clotaire Rapaille, worked on many such projects at Chrysler, which is now DaimlerChrysler.
The results of that research are laid out in a new book "High and Mighty SUVs: The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got that Way." It was written by Keith Bradsher, who covered the auto industry for the New York Times.
Mr. Rapaille told auto executives that people buy SUVs because they are trying to look as menacing as possible to allay their fears of crime and other violence, according to Mr. Bradsher's fascinating chapter, "Reptile Dreams."
Minivans, on the other hand, evoke feelings of being in the womb and caring for others, Mr. Rapaille said. Stand a minivan on its rear bumper and it has the silhouette of a pregnant woman in a floor-length dress.
Dave Bostwick, who is director of corporate market research at DaimlerChrysler, recalls the research with people implying, "It's a jungle out there." SUVs should convey the message: "Don't mess with me."
He also acknowledged the SUV formula that Mr. Bradsher mentions in his book: "It should look like Mad Max on the outside and the Ritz on the inside."
The reason for that, according to Mr. Bradsher's book, is the feeling: "I'm going to be on the battlefield a long time, so on the outside I want to be menacing, but inside I want to be warm, with food and hot coffee and communications."
Bottom line: SUV and minivan people are from different planets.
"Some people drive around in a sport utility with two kids in the back, but the windows are smoked in, and they are all dressed up as if they are going to meet somebody for a date.
We call it minivan denial," said Mr. Bostwick, who is with the company that is credited with both creating the minivan and establishing the compact sport utility vehicle with the four-door Jeep Cherokee.
"When you drive the SUV the idea is, 'How do I look? Do I look active? Do I look sexy? Do I look like a sport?'
If that's what you want to look like, you're not going to be driving a minivan," said Mr. Bostwick.
"When you are buying a minivan, you are saying 'I define myself in terms of others; I'm there for them.'"
So remember, when you purchase your next vehicle, some people think you are what you drive.


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