- - Sunday, June 19, 2016

Henry Ford could never have imagined that the modest cars he put on the American road would one day grow into trucks. The sport-utility vehicle, the ubiquitous SUV, is big, comfortable and powerful. It’s a family friend in the suburbs, where it can spread out as it grows wider, taller and heavier by the year. But it’s a monster on the streets of older cities, which were not designed for trucks, which the SUV definitely is, for all its expensive styling.

Timid and fearful drivers, who were not trained to drive trucks and who never become familiar with the dimensions of what they’re driving, invariably insist on taking their lane and most of the lane of approaching traffic. The SUV is responsible for much of the traffic choking those older cities. Side mirrors are frequent casualties, theirs and those of others.

The automobile-manufacturing companies, who make more profit on a SUV than on a sedate and dignified sedan, clearly understand their contribution to the misery.

Russ Kick, in his book “100 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know” (MJF Books), tells how the automobile makers have done a lot of research on who buys their cars, and finds that buyers of SUVs are often not very nice. But they’re willing to pay more than the sheet metal is worth, which makes them courted customers. “They tend to be people who are insecure and vain,” Russ Kick writes. “They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in others and their communities.”

These are his conclusions, but he bases them on closely guarded marketing projections, first reported in The New York Times, of the giants of autorama, including Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and Honda. The automobile makers are eager to twist the sheet metal and mold the plastic to what their customers demand, but they don’t necessarily care about the damage they do to city traffic.

The director of market research at Chrysler told The New York Times that “we have a basic resistance in our society to admitting that we’re parents, no longer able to go out and find another mate. If you have a sport utility, you can have smoked windows, put the children in the back, and pretend you’re single.”

A onetime marketing strategist at Ford says the SUV is “about not letting anything get in your way and, in the extreme, about intimidating others to get out of your way.” An executive at Honda says “the people who buy SUVs are in many cases buying the outside first, and then the inside. They are buying the image of the SUV first, and then the functionality.”

These are generalizations, of course, and a cigar, as Freud reminded us, is also a smoke. The generalizations don’t apply to everyone in a Belchfire 8 with enormous wheels and an attitude. But someone in a modest sedan who meets a Belchfire 8 SUV racing toward him on a dark and stormy night, commandeering both lanes of a two-lane street, understands the fear of being hit head-on by a Detroit generalization. He’s only hoping to get out of the way in time. Sometimes he makes it.

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