Don’t Count Out the SUV

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At first glance, the SUV looks like an endangered beast. The daily news is filled with so many stories of four dollar gas that the SUV seems to be teetering on its last leg as we rush headlong into the realm of the hybrid and alternative fuels. However, it’s a bit foolhardy to count the SUV out just yet.

For all the great disdain directed towards the sport utility vehicle, one very obvious item is overlooked – the class of vehicle was created for a reason. The pickup truck, a close cousin to the SUV, was built to carry goods and materials that could be exposed to the elements through terrain and climates that would be less than forgiving to a slighter vehicle. What later became the sport utility vehicle performed essentially the same function, with the noted exception of replacing goods and materials with a softer passenger – people.

When the SUV moved from the ranges and onto the streets they didn’t go unchanged. Many elements of the sedan and the station wagon began to work their way into the vehicle’s design, moving the vehicle closer to the car in many respects and largely helping to replace the minivan. The mission, however largely remained the same – carry people to places that might otherwise not be so easily acceptable. There was no fear of getting stuck in the mud at soccer practice. Beyond that, half the team or so could cram into an SUV, and still be comfortable with bags, balls, cones, and cleats.

As the price of gas slowly started to creep up, the SUV became a target due to low EPA mileage estimates. And on paper, that mileage does indeed look terrible. In reality, however, things are a little different. The mileage estimate is applicable in only a single situation – for the vehicle. It’s great for an estimate generated in a lab, but it falls short when you apply gallons per person over distance. When viewed under the total number of people currently in the vehicle, as well as the amount of cargo that is being moved, a fully loaded SUV mathematically comes out even with some of the best hybrids on the road today when plotted on a gallon per person per mile measurement.

The hybrid is often the go-to vehicle of choice for those looking to cast doubt on the survivability of the SUV as a vehicle class. The mixed gas-electric vehicles are touted as the first step in our nation’s rapid quest to move away from a gasoline-based ecosystem. However, the perceived rapid change to alternative fuels will not happen as quickly as some might hope. The nation’s infrastructure is simply not geared towards disturbing fuels other than gasoline, and an overhaul would require a massive investment. This stumbling block is also joined with another rather large delay, the American public also needs to replace their auto fleet in order to take advantage the new types of fuel.

Of course, the switch to alternative fuels will eventually happen, and doing so will still likely benefit the SUV. As already seen, the demand for SUVs has lowered the price for the vehicles, which helps to greatly offset the increased cost for fuel. As the move away from gasoline picks up, the cost of gasoline will likely experience a similar drop. And for those worried about purchasing a new SUV, don’t worry, Jeep has announce a hybrid electric vehicle to be on the road by 2010. As long as the need for which the SUV was first developed still exists, as long as the mission is still there, the SUV will be as well.