Thursday, January 30, 2003

SUVs most popular, protested in U.S.

By David Crary
The Associated Press

Call it the sport-utility paradox: With their high profile, both on the road and in the public imagination, SUVs have become the most coveted and most reviled vehicles in America.

Vandals target them; environmentalists and safety experts denounce them. Some clergy suggest that they might be un-Christian, and new TV ads link them to terrorism. Yet at auto dealerships - in the countryside, the suburbs, the inner city - SUVs remain the nation's hottest-selling models.

"The reason sales figures are unaffected is that Americans don't like to be preached to by lifestyle police," said Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

The popularity of SUVs has increased steadily in the past decade. They now comprise up to 25 percent of total U.S. vehicle sales, depending on whether so-called crossover models are included. Yet in recent months, SUVs have been the target of attacks notable for their variety and fervor:

As part of a campaign launched by syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington, TV ads aired this month suggesting that owners of gas-guzzling SUVs are indirectly assisting terrorists, who obtain financing in oil-exporting Middle East nations.

A group of evangelical Christian ministers launched a "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign, urging SUV owners to consider whether they could switch to more fuel-efficient vehicles to better preserve the planet.

Vandals damaged SUVs in several communities. They smashed windshields in King County, Wash., set fires at a car lot in Erie County, Pa., and spray-painted "No Blood For Oil" on SUVs in Newton, Mass.

Manufacturers say SUVs are safer than passenger cars in most types of accidents, and insist they are working hard to reduce the two most commonly cited hazards - rollovers and "incompatibility" that endangers people in smaller cars colliding with SUVs.

More so than safety, however, it is the SUVs' low gas mileage that has aroused widespread disdain.

One of the TV ads released this month by Huffington's campaign, the Detroit Project, showed a man filling his SUV gas tank juxtaposed with footage of terrorist training. "Oil money supports some terrible things," the ad said. "What kind of mileage does your SUV get?"

Several TV stations refused to air the ads, which have kindled a backlash among some SUV owners.

"It is not gargantuan, nor is it a bauble; it fits our needs," Tampa Tribune columnist Tom Jackson wrote of his family's SUV.

According to federal figures, four-wheel-drive SUVs average 17.3 miles a gallon, and several large models - such as Chevrolet's Suburban and GMC's Yukon - get about 12 mpg. By contrast, gas-electric sedans - the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid - get 48 mpg. U.S. automakers have pledged to improve fuel economy and develop their own hybrid vehicles, including SUVs.

Jason Mark, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' clean vehicles program, said SUVs have deservedly become the "poster child" in the debate over gas-guzzling. "They represent the worst," he said.

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