Four-Wheel-Drive Fantasies

A defense of the SUV

Here comes Mickey Mouse, riding in the back of an open-topped Jeep. Clinging to the roll bar with his big three-fingered gloves, he's wearing fatigues and a 10-gallon pith helmet. Donald Duck, who scandalously wears no pants, is in the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser. Minnie Mouse just rode by in a Land Rover Defender.

Spend enough time in Orlando's Walt Disney World, and you begin to distrust everything. In recent years, Disney's park designers have filled the place with what look like real antiques, genuine artifacts, authentic junk. At a water park called Typhoon Lagoon, for example, there's a fake 20-foot trawler marooned on a cement volcano, ringed by trails that are lit by replica brass sea lanterns. Each lamp has been brushed carefully with a briny patina. In Animal Kingdom, the ruins of a bogus Buddhist temple have been constructed, with frescoes sandblasted and smeared with rusty water to simulate the ravages of time. In the Magic Kingdom, the architecture is richly appointed with counterfeit second and third stories. Cinderella's Castle sends its gothic spires 300 feet up into the cloudless Florida sky.

None of it serves a purpose beyond giving the appearance of volume, substance, extension. As much as it all makes you feel like you're stuck in The Prisoner, this detailed artifice is obviously crucial to the overall effect -- the effect I'm paying $200 a day to see. It certainly makes no difference to my kids that everything is a prop or a set. At Disney World, the chief distinction between reality and fantasy seems to be that if it's not nailed down, it's reality. In which case it will quickly be swept up and disposed of by a legion of custodians in knickers.

Fantasy brings me back to Mickey Mouse in a Jeep. Here at Disney's Animal Kingdom, the streets are cleverly paved to look like wet dirt and mud -- ancient footpaths through an Asian village or an African rainforest. Everywhere the red-tinted cement is impressed with the footprints of children, feral dogs, rickshaws. It looks wet. It looks like you'll have mud up to your knees -- and yet magically your tennies squeak as if you're on a basketball court. When Mickey's Jeep drives by, I notice that his beefy off-road tires are showroom clean. Minnie's and Donald's SUVs are painted white, with explosions of parti-colored confetti.

There was a wonderful Isuzu commercial years ago. A man wheeling his shopping cart through a toy store pulls up short in front of a huge box on a shelf. Inside is a full-size Trooper. The man's mouth falls open, and his eyes light up. Great advertising is like great art: It's a lie that tells the truth.

And so, the boy is the father of the man. Fantasy sustains us all, and we should stop pretending that adult toys are any less important -- or any more complicated -- than children's toys. Mickey Mouse rides in his Jeep through Disney World. That's one fantasy sitting in another fantasy riding through a third. As I've been telling my children ever since we got back, Mickey and Disney World live in Orlando -- and, of course, in our hearts.

But we can take our Jeep anywhere.

Go Tell It on the Mountain

What do sport utility vehicles say about us? First, they say we're herd animals. The latest numbers from the auto industry say that every other new car driven off a dealer's lot is a "light truck," the category that includes pickup trucks, vans, and SUVs. Five million new SUVs are sold every year. And the numbers keep growing. There are now more than 70 distinct models identified as SUVs. Recently the Ford F-series became the best-selling automobile of any kind or class, finally vanquishing the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry after their many years atop the sales charts. Of the five top-selling vehicles in the U.S., three are now light trucks or SUVs. Whatever else you want to say about the SUV, you certainly cannot call it a passing fad.

Aside from the more pragmatic reasons people like to drive them -- they're big, they feel safe, they're full of luxurious options -- there are lots of less rational reasons, and these are never made more explicitly clear than in SUV advertisements. A recent ad for Nissan's Pathfinder carries the tag line "Not That You Would, But You Could." It shows a young man bouncing through ditches and racing jets down runways, a rooster's tail of sand and mud shooting immodestly out the back of his Pathfinder. This ad is just about the purest distillation of SUV spirituality there is. Take your pick of any recent Jeep commercial -- the stereotypical Wrangler, say, perched on the edge of a precipitous canyon at sunset -- and you have a snapshot not only of modern 4X4 marketing but of the somewhat dreamy soul of an entire nation.

If we are what we drive, SUVs have some interesting things to say about us. Some things they say may be ugly: We are excessive, solipsistic, wasteful, indulgent, egotistical. Some of what they say may be noble: We are free; we are individuals; we want access to wilderness and new frontiers; we are self-reliant. Taken as a whole, the qualities of the SUV are quintessentially American. Although there are certainly more remote and rugged nations than the U.S. -- even in the industrialized West -- the SUV could not have originated in any other country.

Like all cars, sport utility vehicles are about the freedom of mobility. But more than that, they are about absolute mobility -- mobility that transcends pavement and even civilization itself. (Of course, airplanes do this even better, but populism and price converge on the ground: Any 16-year-old can get a license to drive dad's Explorer.) At the same time, SUVs are ostensibly about access to wilderness and about self-reliance, although real wilderness and authentic self-reliance are shibboleths of the 19th century. Emerson and Thoreau surely would have understood the appeal of the SUV.

Back here in the 21st century, there's growing concern that the automobile is killing the planet. Presumably, bigger, dirtier cars capable of making their own roads aren't a part of the solution. There's plenty of evidence that SUVs contribute to our environmental dilemma. It takes more resources to make them; they burn more gas, oil, and rubber during their useful lifetimes; and they continue to pollute disproportionately once they've been scrapped.

On the other hand, the difference between SUVs and other cars is one not so much of degree as of perception. Picking on SUV owners is probably as misguided as it is disingenuous. New SUVs, for example, are a far sight more responsible than the 15 million used cars that become obsolete each year. Even the greenest autos built in the 1980s, for example, are 90 percent dirtier and less efficient than new SUVs. Anyway, if I really wanted to get serious about reducing my daily contribution to the planet's carbon dioxide, I'd be pumping two wheels instead of driving four. The anti-automobile crusade is hopeless, and singling out any particular model is an exercise in pointlessness.

The Road Less Taken

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