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On Today's Roads, Boxy Is Beautiful


Personal Business: AUTOS

ON TODAY'S ROADS, BOXY IS BEAUTIFUL

Did Alfred P. Sloan Jr. ever dream that someday carmakers would aspire to build a truck, not just a car, "for every purse and purpose"? Surely, even the master marketer who ran General Motors from 1923 to 1956 didn't foresee the day when Cadillac would plan a top-of-the-line sport-utility vehicle while BMW prepared a "sports activity vehicle" and Lincoln a deluxe, wood-paneled pickup truck.

And that's just the beginning. As America's love affair with all things big and boxy continues, auto makers are spinning off a dizzying variety of new luxury trucks and sport-utility vehicles on steroids (table). In SUVs alone, the industry will increase its offerings from 32 models just two years ago to 69 by 2005, according to Santa Ana (Calif.) consultants AutoPacific.HYBRIDS. Even the definition of trucks--a category that includes vans, minivans, SUVs, and pickups--is expanding to encompass trucklike cars: a burgeoning class of all-wheel-drive station wagons and a new breed of car-truck hybrid such as Toyota's RAV4, Honda's CR-V, and Lexus' RX 300. Says Chrysler Chairman Robert Eaton: "All the trucks and sport-utilities are going like dynamite."

For good reason. Consumers love the improved view that comes with riding high and the security of surefooted four-wheel-drive in bad weather. In exchange, they're willing to forgive dismal gas mileage, high step-in heights, a sometimes jolting ride, and less-than-precise handling. Even recent safety studies showing SUVs may pose an increased crash threat to small cars seem to be convincing drivers that they and their families are safest inside a well-armored truck.

More than anything else, what U.S. drivers crave--and trucks give them--is lots of seating and cargo space. Sharon Koorbusch, a Leesburg (Va.) pharmaceutical sales rep, is on her third minivan. She says her four-door Chevrolet Venture is perfect for carting her two children and two Labradors, plus kiddie seats, stroller, diapers, food, and play gear. And it's great for hauling drywall or furniture. "I could never go back to a car now," she says.

Other consumers seem more interested in how many amenities they can cram into their minivans. Chrysler has been astounded by the popularity of its Town & Country, whose sticker tops $35,000 fully loaded. Chrysler sells about 80,000 a year now, up from just 25,000 in 1993. Conversion companies are busily installing TVs and VCRs in vans and big SUVs and starting to add conference tables and computer hookups to the Internet.

Roberta Clarke, a Boston University marketing professor, has a theory about why. In the late 1980s, people liked holing up at home with their loved ones and plenty of creature comforts. Now, thanks to cheap gas and busy schedules that keep them and their kids on the road, baby boomers jam all that stuff, including CD players, cup holders, and fax machines, into their autos. "They're cocooning in their cars now," Clarke says.

The fascination with trucks may also reflect the baby boomers' last-ditch effort to cling to the symbols of their fleeting youth. Clarke says that she sees signs of the youth cult in the current obsession with SUVs. "Part of it is boomers beating their chests, saying, `I'm not old yet. With a four-wheel-drive, I can still drive into the woods, I can still hike. I'm rough and tough,"' she says.SIREN'S CALL. In addition, trucks have become a symbol of freedom. The more crowded, rushed, and complicated life in the late '90s becomes, the greater the lure of the open road--or better yet, the trackless wilderness. True, only 15% of SUVs, at most, ever go off-road. Yet driving a rugged sport-utility is seen as a way to prove to the world you aren't just another frazzled suburbanite--even if you are. "They clearly are symbolic that you're a person who's independent and self-reliant," says Michael Marsden, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Northern Michigan University, who teaches about the automobile in American culture. Advertising only feeds these fantasies with images of SUVs perched on remote mountaintops.

The all-American conviction that bigger is better is transforming the truck experience. Detroit has supersized the SUV. Ford's smash-hit Expedition and Lincoln Navigator jumbo SUVs are joining the Chevy Suburban, a mammoth sport-ute once favored mainly by those hauling boats and trailers, at shopping malls and country clubs. Not satisfied with that, the No.2 auto maker has plans for an even bigger SUV to dwarf the competition. Even recreational vehicles, long labeled as wheels for slow-driving retirees, are catching on with younger customers, according to a recent study by the University of Michigan.

These extremes have inspired satirists. The Ultimate Poseur Sport Utility Page Web site (poseur.4x4.org) spoofs the trend with a pitch for the fictional Kenworth Dominator sport-ute: a $200,000, eight-ton, 20-seat monster based on a semi with 10-wheel drive that can tow your camper and yacht.

Parodies aside, the 31-flavors approach to trucks could just be boomers' way of putting their own twist on the big, cushy land yachts their elders drove. They yearn for the same creature comforts as generations past. Their vehicle of choice has a soft suspension, plush carpeting, leather seats, and a blinding amount of chrome on its grille, but it's a Toyota Land Cruiser or a Lincoln Navigator--not Grandpa's Cadillac Fleetwood.

Certainly, trucks have rumbled into the high-rent district in ways no one could have predicted a decade ago. Sales of luxury SUVs surged by 291% last year. One of the hottest vehicles in the U.S. now is the Mercedes ML320, a new compact V6 SUV starting at $34,545. Mercedes will have a V8 version of the ML320 out later this year, selling for under $45,000. The new $55,445 Lexus LX 470 now arriving in showrooms comes equipped with more standard features, including reclining rear seats and a smog sensor, than even Lexus' flagship LS 400 sedan. GMC is adding the Yukon Denali, a deluxe version of its big Tahoe SUV. Even that will be upstaged this fall, when Cadillac introduces its fancier version, the Escalade.

In their quest to make SUVs more like cars, the latest trend is the car-truck hybrid. These crossover vehicles look like sport-utes but handle with the finesse of cars--because they're based on a car chassis. Following the success of the small, sporty RAV4 and CR-V, Lexus on Mar. 23 launched its RX 300, a luxury SUV based on the ES 300 sedan.TOO CLUNKY. As SUVs become more carlike, some cars are bulking up to compete more with trucks. The once-scorned station wagon is reinventing itself. Even some of the outdoorsy types who were hardcore truck owners are now going for husky, all-wheel-drive wagons. Take Dewey Moser, 55, a New York stockbroker who owned an Isuzu Trooper for hunting and hauling his boat to the shore. But he says he didn't like the truck's clunkiness: "At this stage of my life, do I really need to be banged around by a truck?" So he swapped his Trooper for an Audi A6 Quattro wagon. "The cargo capacity is tremendous, and the ride is just superb," Moser says, enthusing about his wagon's easy handling of tight highway curves and bumpy dirt roads.

Are you ready to get behind the wheel of something big and boxy? Your menu of choices has never been better, as the days of one-size-fits-all trucks fade as surely as did the Model T.EDITED BY AMY DUNKINReturn to top


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