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Keith Bradsher explores an interesting and so far overlooked aspect of Our Modern World in a 7.18.00 article for the New York Times: the deeper psychology of minivan owners versus owners of sport utility vehicles. He writes:
“...A growing body of research by automakers is finding that buyers of these two kinds of vehicles are very different psychologically. Sport utility buyers tend to be more restless, more sybaritic, less social people who are "self-oriented," to use the automakers' words, and who have strong conscious or subconscious fears of crime. Minivan buyers tend to be more self-confident and more "other-oriented" -- more involved with family, friends and their communities.”
Anyone who has been to Seattle lately, or indeed, to many other American cities, has doubtless noticed the growing proliferation of sport utility vehicles clogging up the roads recently, and has probably been cut off by at least three. While I am always loathe to berate people for being selfish—i.e., for wanting to obtain and enjoy wealth, or for working for themselves as opposed to others—I sometimes cannot help sneering in disbelief when I see these people. It’s 1/4 funny, 3/4 inane that so many city-dwellers who have never left the city would choose to drive these large, clunky, gas-guzzling, “off-road” vehicles. My goodness! Yes, my own father owns an Explorer, but sweet mother of mercy! At least he drives over to Eastern Washington and elsewhere on occasion and actually uses it!

Anyway, Bradsher’s article brings up some interesting points. Thomas Elliott, Honda's executive vice president for North American auto operations, says that when people go for SUV’s over minivans, they tend to be buying image over the function. With minivan buyers, he claims it is the other way around. There is also the sex drive to be considered. Whether you like it or not, a minivan screams, “I am married and have children.” SUV’s are more readily associated with aggression, hence with violence, and hence with sex. Does this mean that if your husband buys a sport ute, he’s cheating? If you’re single, will buying a minivan dash your chances of finding a mate?

Of course, studies on consumer psychology will be useful chiefly to automakers looking to market their product. I’ll be expecting more SUV ads with taglines like “So Ultimately VICIOUS!!” or the like. (“Sexed Up Vehicles”?) Ugh. Wow.

The only psychology of the SUV I have seen is this:

SUV driver: "Wow! My 6000 pounds of sexy machinery with its 280hp engine can accelerate just as fast as that Honda Civic Sport! I bet I can stop just as quickly too. So, I'm gunna tailgate him to show him that I'm just as fast!

This seems to be a very common ideology amoung SUV owners as I have, personally, seen 3 (separate) accidents where a Ford Explorer, a Chevy Suburban, and a Dodge Durango were sitting in the back seat of a Honda Civic, or Civic like car (the one involving the Suburban, I was unable to tell what the "little" car was).

Yes, California highways are crowded and things like that happen often, but it just seems that every SUV driver thinks that their vehicle is going to stop in 180 feet when traveling at 60mph. Sorry guys, it ain't going to happen. Give us "little" guys some room, ok?

Like any consumer product, the SUV's popularity and the attitude that is associated with them has as much to do with marketing as it does the psychology of its owners. The auto companies could make just about any car look cool if they wanted to. Consider the way Pontiac and Toyota are marketing the Vibe/Matrix line. Both of these cars are essentially just minivan-station wagon hybrids, but with flashy bodywork, and appearing in commercials with lots of drum 'n bass music. A similar approach was taken by Chrysler with the PT Cruiser and Mazda and Lexus's "sport wagons".

Although drum 'n bass music is sometimes involved, SUV marketing campaigns usually focus on brainwashing people into thinking that they're going to be driving on rugged mountain roads, tearing around on snowfields, and fording streams with all of their boys onboard. If real life was like this, SUV's wouldn't be a bad thing- in off-road conditions, they're safer than normal cars, and if their seating capacity is full, they get better per-person gas mileage than a Toyota Prius. Unfortunately, an overwhelming majority of SUV owners find themselves using their vehicle to commute to work on the interstate with an empty cargo hold.

Auto manufacturers are also very good at using P.R. to influence the thinking of consumers. One very good example of this is the things that happened in the 2000 Firestone tire recall. Firestone was a smaller company than Ford, and since tires are far less likely than cars to become items of political controversy, Firestone lacked the lobbying infrastructure that Ford had needed for decades. During the lawsuits, Ford was able to successfully divert fault away from the fundamental cause of the rollover accidents- that SUV's are not safe on high-friction surfaces such as paved roads- instead tossing the blame on a minor defect in Firestone tires that causes them to blow out under extreme conditions.

This public relations machine is also put into use whenever a bill is proposed that would tighten up the CAFE requirements for fuel efficiency. Every time, the auto companies claim that increasing the average gas mileage of their vehicles would compromise safety. This could not be farther from the truth. Cars have bad gas mileage for two primary reasons:

  1. They are big.
  2. They are powerful.

There is only one time one of these characteristics can actually improve the safety of the driver: If you are driving a big car and hit another car, you will suffer less impact. Of course, all of that reduction of impact happens at the expense of the safety of the person you just hit.

But why do the car manufacturers spend so much time marketing SUV's if they could just as easily make any car look like libido on wheels? The bottom line, of course. SUV's and other light trucks generate profit margins to match their tons of steel- oftentimes over 12,000 $US a vehicle. So they're going to keep marketing these things like they are primary components of badmotherfuckerdom until consumers come to their senses, or regulations are passed that make them harder to make money off of.

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