Truck, SUV, or Car















                    TRUCK                                                     SUV                                                            CAR






For most general use applications, the car is the right choice.  They carry people and most small to medium size items.  Fold down back seats increase the cargo carrying capacity for larger items.  Acceleration, braking, handling, comfort, maneuverability, and gas mileage are usually superior to Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs) and trucks.  Also, cars are certainly easier to handle in normal as well as emergency situations.  That’s the practical side.


The SUV has become increasingly popular with the American public, primarily because it has near the massive useable space of a van, but it does not look like a van.  In actuality, the differences between SUVs and vans are very slight.  There are very good reasons for the popularity of the SUV, but there are, also, very good reasons for deciding against SUVs.  When deciding between trucks, SUVs, and cars, the main question is how the vehicle will be used.  In deciding this, we should take a better look at the offerings, so a little history would be of help.

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	Chevrolet Suburban

The SUV as it is known today started with the dealer customized Chevy Suburbans and the customized vans (both trucks) of the 1960s and 1970s.  (The Jeep Cherokees of those years looked more like the SUVs of today, but that vehicle was designed as an off road utility vehicle.  Today’s SUVs may look like off road vehicles, but most are not designed with off road use in mind, and the few that are designed with off road use in mind spend very little time off road.)



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Dodge Caravan
In 1984, the Chrysler minivan brought to the family the idea that having interior space did not have to mean having to drive a land yacht.  Families, especially those with kids, flocked to the concept.  What was so innovative about the Chrysler was that it was really a car with a van body.  Therefore, it was lower to the ground, lighter than previous truck based vans, easier to drive, and got better gas mileage, but it wasn't tough looking.  Therefore, minivans got a reputation for being kid haulers and did not appeal to the sexually charged masses.


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Jeep Cherokee
That same year, American Motors, which was later bought by Chrysler, came out with the smaller Jeep Cherokee.  The Cherokee was immensely popular with active lifestyle people for hauling sports equipment, TVs, and lawnmowers without being a monster to drive around town, but it was still too small and too rough riding for families, since it was designed to be capable off road.  (Every Jeep has to pass the Rubicon Trail Test.)



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Ford Bronco II
At that time, Ford was offering a two door sport truck called the Bronco II as a smaller version of their big V8 Bronco sport truck and as competition to the Jeep CJ (grandson of the open air World War II Army Jeep).  The Bronco II was doing well except for many consumer law suits concerning rollovers, but the Ford marketing folks decided to lengthen it and give it two more doors to widen its appeal.  The concept looked like a winner, but when they took it to the consumer clinics to get peoples’ reactions to it, the consumers thought it was great except that it “rode like a truck”.  That was reasonable since it was a truck, but if it was going to sell, it would have to ride like a car.  Ford went back and softened the suspension, and renamed it the Ford Explorer.  Finally a more manageable size vehicle with space for the family, but Text Box:  

Ford Explorer
without looking like a minivan, which was considered too domestic looking for the upwardly mobile.  The SUV craze then exploded.



So what does this mean for you?  Well, the SUV is seen by most people as a “sports” vehicle even though most are never used for sports purposes, and, as a class of vehicles, they do not perform well in spirited driving or emergency situations.  What they shine at is “utility”.  You can actually put a TV box in one, and you can then park in a small parking space and stay within the lines.  Most SUVs can tow a trailer of some size, and gas mileage, while not great, is usually within reason.  You used to be able to see over traffic, but now that everybody has an SUV, that is no longer a major advantage.


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Height to width ratio makes the SUV more prone to roll.  SUV's soft suspension further aggravates roll tendency.

Down sides to an SUV happen in several areas.  First is due to the consumer clinic that the Ford marketing guys went to.  Remember that they softened the suspension?  Well, the softened suspension combined with the taller vehicle is what makes rollovers more probable.  The taller the SUV, the higher the probability of rolling over.  The softer suspension allows the vehicle to actually throw itself over when direction is changed quickly.  But rolling over is only the last part of the evil handling.  Since the vehicle tends to roll over due to its height in relation to its track width, that means that just changing directions has to be done with some care, so if you are trying to avoid an accident, the brakes which are already less effective due to the vehicle’s height and weight, have to be the only control available.  If you try to steer around the accident, the probably of a rollover will be high.  The reason that pickups do not have as high a rollover rate is that they do not have several hundred pounds of glass windows and tailgate perched at the top of the vehicle.  That gives them a lower center of gravity.


Another down side to SUVs is gas mileage.  The reasons for this are twofold.  First, SUVs are tall.  The taller the vehicle the more air it has to move out of the way.  Also, the higher the vehicle is off the ground (for greater ground clearance), the more air passes under it, and the undersides of most vehicles are notoriously unaerodynamic.  Lastly, in order to get the interior space without the big outsides, most SUVs are shaped like bricks, ie, flat fronts, flat backs, and flat sides.  Aerodynamics are sacrificed for space efficiency and “rugged” styling.


The last downside is the most evil.  Crash worthiness.  You would think that an SUV,  being a heavier vehicle, would protect you in a crash.  Not necessarily true.  Since SUVs are considered as trucks by the government, they do not have to have the 5 mph bumpers and other required crash safety equipment that cars have to have.  While it is true that you will probably fare better than the driver of the little BMW that you crash head on into, when you hit a tree or bridge abutment, you may not fare as well as that same BMW driver does when he hits the same tree or bridge abutment.  And that assumes that you do not roll over, which tends to happen with SUVs.


Having a lot of metal around you in a crash would sound like a good thing, and when you crash into a subcompact, it’s usually the smaller car that suffers the worst.  The problem with the bridge abutment is that the abutment (or other immovable object) usually wins, and when you hit it, the front of your vehicle has to stop the back of your vehicle.  Therefore, if you are driving a very heavy vehicle, the front will continue to crumple until the back is stopped, and since weight does not necessarily translate into strength (and of course, Text Box:  
the driver is in the front of the vehicle), the driver and front seat passengers can be hurt by what is called “intrusion”.  That is when the engine, abutment, or whatever, pushes back far enough to intrude into the vehicle’s passenger compartment or change the shape of the passenger compartment.  It is like riding in the first few cars of a train when it wrecks.  The back cars have to be stopped by the crumpling of the front cars.  That is, also, why the people in the rear of an airplane have the best chance for surviving a crash.


To remedy many of the down sides to SUVs, the manufacturers have brought out cars with SUV bodies.  The results are lower, wider, lighter, and more fuel efficient SUVs, but they still ride taller than cars, and they comply with the lower truck safety standards, so they should still be treated as SUVs even though some of them do actually handle better than some cars.  These vehicles have less weight carrying capacities and off road capabilities than the traditional, truck based SUVs, but since most are never asked to tow or haul heavy loads, they might be more considerable.


While talking about truck based this and that, pickup trucks should be addressed.  The pickup truck has historically been the only vehicle that can tow and haul really heavy loads.  The Suburban has been around for longer than that, but it grew from the light duty panel truck.  In the 1960s, manufacturers started to understand that the market really needed heavy duty enclosed vehicles that could haul cargo or people.  Work vans and heavy duty Suburbans became popular, but so did the passenger versions of those vehicles. Owners began to customize their pickups, Suburbans, and vans for more people friendliness.  The manufacturers caught onto this trend and are now offering trucks of all types with true luxury appointments.  Their interiors are as nice as those of luxury cars.


Pickups no longer bounce like they used to, and the lightest duty full size pickup trucks, which used to be called ½ ton, can actually haul around 1800 lb in the bed.  Further evolution of the pickup truck is shown in the sheer variety of models within each manufacturer's line.  Ford, for example, has five separate models in their lightest duty pickup truck.  Each model comes in multiple bed and cab sizes and two bed styles.  All told, within the F150 line (the highest sales volume vehicle in the US by far), you have a choice of more models to choose from than in their entire line of cars.  If that's not enough, there are the F250, F350, F450, F550, and F650 versions for increased weight handling capacities.  The least expensive F150 pickup trucks are priced around the same as a Taurus, and the most expensive can be priced close to a Lincoln.


Still, even with all this variety, they are all pickup trucks, and they have some very similar characteristics.  First, the standard cab and extended cab versions are really two person vehicles.  The extended cab versions have rear seats, but they are cramped.  Second, with a cargo bed in back, the back end of an empty pickup truck is very light.  That means that its traction and handling on slick surfaces are "iffy".  If you get one, be prepared to haul around sand bags during lousy weather and when trailering a boat.  Third, whatever you have to haul in the pickup bed will be subject to the weather unless you install a bed cover, which, of course, limits the height of what you can haul.


When you are deciding on what type of vehicle you need, look very carefully at your history.  Vehicle interior space is intoxicating, and a more spacious vehicle does not cost that much more to build or to buy.  However, operating a more spacious vehicle is another story, unless you are used to calling harbor control prior to leaving the dock.  All maneuvers take extra space, extra effort, extra time, and extra fuel to accomplish, and owners of smaller cars are not likely to give you the extras you need.  Tires, brakes, and essentially every cost of maintenance is higher.  If you need the extra capacity only a few times per year, you can rent a vehicle for those times and not have to deal with all the bulk for the rest of the year.  On the other hand, if your lifestyle requires the extra capacity, it is safer and more financially prudent to purchase the vehicle with the right capacity than to overload a smaller vehicle.


Bottom line:  If you buy an SUV, be prepared to drive it like a truck, not like a car, and not like a sporty vehicle.  Also, if you need the hauling and/or towing capabilities, buy the vehicle that is rated do the job.  If the application calls for a truck, get a truck.  However, if you do not need the extra capacity, cars are far easier to live with.  They fit into garages and parking spaces, and you do not need a step ladder to wash them.