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The way Cizik parses the issue is instructive: the focus shouldn't be SUVs but overall fuel consumption. The problem with the furor over SUVs isn't that it's groundless--SUVs do pollute--but that it's carried out in a strange void, as though Americans don't live in the most sumptuously energy-guzzling society of all time. For at least the past two decades, North America's per-capita energy consumption has been about 4 1/2 times the world average, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Gas for our SUVs is only one of many ways we devour power. Why don't we have a campaign against overly air-conditioned cinemas or those pricey double-wide refrigerators (many of which chill a nice bottle of Riesling and not much else)? Arianna Huffington, the columnist who helped start the Detroit Project--the group with the ads saying SUVs support terrorism--says that whenever she is invited to a swank gala, she has a chauffeur take the wheel of her gas-sipping Toyota Prius. We weren't rude enough to ask how heavy her chauffeur is, but his extra body weight is burning extra fuel, some of which may be coming from Persian Gulf nations that may have funneled money to ...
If it takes a Prius three trips to Sam's to carry the same load of paper towels and salsa that an Expedition could manage in one, is the Prius evil? While only 1% to 10% of SUV owners actually use their vehicles' off-road and towing capacities, it's wrong to say those extras are wasted on the majority. Surely many of the buyers made the rational calculation that off-roading and towing might be useful in an emergency. (At a time when everyone is duct-taping the windows, it doesn't seem so crazy to think you would one day drive the family into the mountains.) How else to explain GM research showing that the No. 1 reason people buy midsize SUVs is that the vehicles have four-wheel drive, a feature most people rarely need? Americans frequently pay extra for security: alarm systems, travel insurance, fire extinguishers. If you consider what they can do on dirt and snow, SUVs aren't materially different.
Finally, many SUV drivers accrue a simpler but equally important benefit from their burly automobiles: fun. Presiding over several tons of metal from a heated leather seat is great entertainment. "It's not like I'm living large, but I like when people take notice," says Brent Bormaster, 24, a Dallas executive recruiter who drives a 2002 GMC Yukon.
The right way to frame the SUV debate is not whether SUVs should be dumped but whether society pays too much, and their drivers too little, for the benefits SUVs provide. One point that environmentalists and auto executives agree upon is that gas prices, despite their recent rise amid the talk of war, remain low by historical standards. Eron Shosteck of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers says his members offer more than 30 passenger vehicles that get at least 30 m.p.g. (compared with, say, the Range Rover, which gets 14). "But very few people buy them," Shosteck says of the fuel-efficient cars. "Gas is cheaper than bottled water. There is no incentive for people to use less."