The men standing in front of the pool hall would look up and see the big black crate ghost down the street at forty, and one of them would spit on the concrete and say, "The bastard, he reckins he's somebody," and wish that he was in a big black car, as big as a hearse and the springs soft as mamma's breast and the engine breathing without a rustle.
Robert Penn Warren wrote those words about a Cadillac, in a novel set in the 1930s. Back then Caddies were what you drove to announce that you had power, which is why people desired them even as they loathed their owners. Today another automobile is inspiring such passions. As sport-utility-vehicle owner Amy Dickie says, "The SUV is the Cadillac of the new millennium." Dickie is 30, brokers insurance in Atlanta and owns a Lexus RX 300. Ads hint the thing could haul a yak carcass across Tibetan grasslands; though it's one of the smaller SUVs, it can tow up to 3,500 lbs. But Dickie uses it to drive, by herself, three miles each way to and from the office. She also occasionally lugs scuba gear in it, but mostly she likes its style. Which makes her much like millions of other Americans who have bought the big vehicles--drivers now surprised to find themselves labeled tools of terrorists in the brawl over SUVs.
In the past few weeks, what started in the '90s as a quiet debate among car buffs and greens has become, as former Nissan design chief Jerry Hirshberg says with a sigh, "a religious war." On one side are devout environmentalists and icky Hollywood types, as well as reputable safety experts who say SUVs can be death machines. A lefty group called the Detroit Project has produced slick ads charging that because SUVs use so much gas, and because some of the crude oil for that gas comes from the Middle East, and because some oil-rich princes have funded Islamic extremists, SUV owners are supporting terrorists. (Got it?) Some of the anti-SUV people take their mischief very seriously: on New Year's Day, three Fords were set ablaze at a dealership north of Pittsburgh, Pa. There have been at least six other such attacks since 2001.
On the other side are champions of the land barge. These assorted auto lobbyists, free-market enthusiasts and moms on car-pool duty say there's nothing wrong with roominess, four-wheel drive and a seat high enough to give you a look at the world. Owing to their Establishment orientation, SUV partisans aren't burning anything (except gas); their defense is mostly carried out in sedate op-eds. After enduring months of attacks, pro-SUV forces cheered last month when it was disclosed that the Bush Administration wants to increase a tax break allowing small businesses to deduct much of the price of the heaviest SUVs from their taxes--even when those SUVs won't be hauling anything more than the boss and his morning Starbucks.
At first blush, then, the SUV war looks like a fight between two groups of elites--the overeducated vs. the overcompensated, the Whole Foods crowd vs. the Outback Steakhouse crowd, New York Times people vs. Wall Street Journal people. Keith Bradsher, a Times reporter, wrote High and Mighty, a book published in September that calls SUVs "the world's most dangerous vehicles." Recently columnist David Brooks attacked Bradsher in the Journal for his "broad generalizations about people's souls on the basis of what car they drive."