Into the belly of the beast

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love SUVs

Photo By Tom Angel

Call me Ishmael.

I am sailing up The Esplanade in a 2003 Chevy Suburban when I suddenly get the urge to make a U-turn at 12th Avenue. I whip through the green light and attempt to turn southeast (at least that’s what the rearview mirror directional LED indicator says) and onto the frontage road that runs just west of The Esplanade.

I’m sitting high and feeling pretty darn superior just an hour after taking the wheel and crisscrossing town like Mad Max. Hell, I’ve already blown through a three-way stop intersection without even looking back—something I would have never done in my 1986 Mitsubishi pickup.

For a long time I’ve griped in this paper about America’s fascination with the sport utility vehicle—particularly the super-sized versions, those street-legal Moby Dicks that have no practical application beyond making up for their drivers’ character shortcomings and emotional insecurities.

But how could I be sure about this conviction of mine without climbing inside and driving one of these motorized behemoths? How could I criticize before driving a mile in another person’s vehicle of choice?

I couldn’t. So I decided to allow myself to be swallowed whole by the great white Suburban, which was actually my second choice, and try to find out why so many Americans have sold their souls to own an SUV.

Back on The Esplanade, two cars waiting for the light to turn are blocking completion of my U-turn. But when the drivers see the brute I’m driving approach with its left turn signal on, a near miracle occurs. Like the Red Sea, the cars part and allow me just enough room to slide through and continue my journey.

What would Jesus drive? I’d have to guess a white 2500 4WD Suburban just like the one I’m piloting now.

Hallelujah! I’ve seen the light.

My initial intention is to test drive a Ford Excursion Eddie Bauer 4x4 with a 7.3-liter power stroke turbo diesel engine. But when my e-mail effort to set up an appointment with Wittmeier Ford meets with no response, I do the next best thing: I call Enterprise Rent-A-Car.

“I’d like to reserve an SUV,” I tell the man who answered the phone. “The biggest one you have.”

“OK, we can do that,” he says. “Where are you going?”

“Nowhere,” I tell him. “I just want to drive one around for a day. We’re working on a story.”

He hesitates, then tells me he is pretty sure they have an Excursion I can rent the next morning.

Unfortunately, by next morning the Excursion is gone. Enterprise has only 10 big SUVs on hand. Rich, the branch manager, tells me that just last week he had to turn down at least 40 requests from people wanting SUVs to take them to the snow for the holidays.

Rich points to the parking lot where the white Suburban sits, silently waiting for the journey and my lesson to begin.

(The Suburban, of course, has history. It didn’t start out as an SUV; it was more of a panel truck that evolved due to market forces. The success of that evolution, however, is questionable. Sales in 2001 jumped 13 percent as SUV popularity soared, but the first half of last year saw sales for Suburbans dip by 12 percent.)

As Rich goes over the paperwork and shows me some of the gadgets located on the dashboard, I am a little uneasy.

“Geez,” I mutter. “I feel like I’m taking flying lessons.”

Rich doesn’t hear me. As he has me initial and sign the rental form, he looks up and asks, “You’re not gonna do any crash tests, are you?” I assure him I won’t, and he hands me the keys.

I climb aboard and head southeast down The Esplanade. Right away I pull up next to a Mercury Mountaineer. I dwarf it. I can almost taste the creeping feeling of superiority as I gaze down on the blue-haired woman driving the puny Mountaineer.

The light turns green, and I return to reality.

“If this thing squirrels out of control,” I tell myself, “there won’t be damn thing I can do about it.”

For the next few hours I drive around with photographer Tom Angel. Our maneuvers include entering and exiting Highway 99 (pretty good acceleration and braking for a tank); sliding around on a muddy foothill road (something I normally try to avoid); and—the main reason people buy SUVs—driving through downtown traffic, where you command an amazing level of respect from the drivers in smaller vehicles.

At noon I pick up my 8-year-old son from the CARD winter-break science camp.

I don’t say a word about the SUV as we walk across the parking lot. When he sees it, in all its shimmering white glory, his eyes light up and he asks with the eternal hope that can spring only from one so young, “Did you sell the truck and buy this, Dad?”

My laugh must sound cruel to him. I explain what I’m up to, and for the next hour he rides along with me, seated all the way in the back. I can see him in the distant reflection offered by the rearview mirror. I feel like a bus driver.

An hour later I drop him off at home, and Angel and I continue our journey.

Since we are driving one, we are both keenly aware of other SUVs we pass or see parked. And we both give a whoop when we see the mother of all SUVs, a Hummer, parked in front of the Chamber of Commerce.

I find a place to park and thank God school’s out and I don’t have to try to parallel this wagon into one of those little parking spots designed for mere mortals.

We check out the Hummer, and I feel a slight sting of envy over this 6.51 turbo diesel with two fuel tanks. It looks like it should be patrolling the Iraqi border rather than sitting here in front of the Chamber of Commerce.

(I later check the Internet to find out what kind of fuel efficiency the Hummer offers. “N/A,” it says, meaning either “not available” or, more likely, “not applicable” as in, “If you have to ask you can’t afford to drive this baby.")

At the end of the day, before we return the Suburban to Enterprise, I pull into a gas station. We’ve driven 47 miles, and I have to put 5.49 gallons in the gas tank. This means that, if the tank was full when I picked it up in the morning, this vehicle achieved a whopping 8.56 miles per gallon. My hatred for SUVs is restored.