COVER

BIG WHEELS

TOM FENNELL July 20 1998
COVER

BIG WHEELS

TOM FENNELL July 20 1998

BIG WHEELS

COVER

TOM FENNELL

Charlene Couch wasn’t planning to get rid of her 1996 Oldsmobile—she just happened to fall in love with a spanking new 1998 Lincoln Navigator. The Saskatoon homemaker was smitten while driving past a Ford dealer in December. There in the front lot was a gargantuan $64,000 sport-utility vehicle—polished to perfection, its front end a waterfall of gleaming chrome. “It was a beautiful forest-green color,” recalls Couch, 40, the mother of seven-year-old Michael. “I had to stop and go back to see what it was.” One test drive was all it took to seal the relationship. The Navigator was loaded with cushy leather upholstery and a concert-quality audio system, but what really hooked her was the feeling of security that comes from cruising the streets wrapped in 2,200 kg of Detroit iron. “I feel safe,” says the five-foot, four-inch Couch. “Riding up high, you get a great a view of what’s coming up ahead.”

As vacationing Canadians hit the highway this summer, what’s up ahead is frequently a long line of big trucks—four-wheel-drive behemoths and gas-guzzling people-haulers churned out by upwards of a dozen foreign and domestic manufacturers. Across Canada, sales of new vehicles are stronger now than at any point since 1988, and nothing underscores the sector’s revival more than the surging demand for light trucks, the industry’s catchall term for everything from SUVs to minivans, full-size vans and pickups. This year, light trucks are expected to account for a record 48 per cent of all new vehicles sold or leased in Canada, up from 31 per cent a decade ago. The result is a sea of smiling faces in the auto industry—and a raging debate over the truck boom’s impact on road safety and the environment.

To Douglas Leighton, who teaches a course on the car and society at the University of Western Ontario, the enormous popularity of trucks echoes the car-mad 1950s, when neighbors competed to own the largest set of wheels on the block. “It’s like Happy Days out there,” says Leighton. “People are wearing these things like badges to show that they’ve arrived.”

Until recently, many people inside and outside the auto industry figured the truck boom was a fad, one that would blow itself out after a few years when consumers tired of heavyweight vehicles, heavy-duty

suspensions and heavy-on-the-wallet fuel bills. But instead of shrinking, the truck market is now spreading out in every conceivable direction. At the upper end, luxury brands such as Cadillac, BMW and Porsche are scrambling to roll out their own SUVs, on the theory that too much is never enough for today’s well-heeled urban road warriors. Simultaneously, Chrysler, Ford, Volkswagen and several other makers are pursuing plans for a new generation of compact, car-based SUVs that would do battle with existing models from Toyota, Honda and Subaru.

Another current trend is the shift to so-called hybrid vehicles—trucks that combine the convenience and roominess of a minivan with the macho, outdoorsy image of a sport utility. “There is no definition of what an SUV really has to be,” says Robert Duronio, market analyst at AutoPacific Inc. in Detroit. “That’s what will make a lot of these crossbred vehicles interesting to people. They’ll have utility and they will be sporty.”

The truck craze isn’t the only hot trend on the road. The industry has also begun to sell environmentally friendly electric cars, largely because of pressure from government regulators (page 42). And there have been some successful launches of smaller niche vehicles, such as Volkswagen’s New Beetle (page 40). For the most part, however, North American auto executives are emphasizing big muscular trucks in their efforts to appeal to the huge baby boomer market, the most targeted demographic group on the continent. Ironically, the generation that disavowed materialism in the 1960s and helped give birth to the environmental movement in the 1970s now leads the charge to the largest and most powerful vehicles on the market.

Ken Zino, director of product development for Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich., says the demand for trucks is in some ways a reflection of an earlier, more carefree age. Before the Arab oil embargo in 1973, the top-selling cars in North America were family-sized cars such as the Ford Galaxy 500, the Chevy Impala and Chrysler’s Town and Country station wagon, all of which boasted V8 engines and ample cargo space. Government regulations and consumer demand for smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles gradually killed off those lumbering dinosaurs. But strong economic growth and falling oil prices this decade—adjusted for inflation, gasoline is cheaper now than at any time since the 1950s—have taken the industry full circle to the time when big wheels ruled the road. “Look at the ve-

hides that have re-emerged,” says Zino. “They carry six passengers, have V8 engines and lots of cargo capacity. It’s a repackaging of what people bought by the millions in the 1960s.”

The trend to heavier and more brawny vehicles has drawn plenty of criticism, however. Consumers Union, the Washington-based consumer advocacy group, has denounced light trucks as “heavy, gas-guzzling behemoths that in accidents wreak havoc on other vehicles and otherwise take a particularly heavy toll on the environment.” Others note that while drivers often say they feel safer behind the wheel of a tall truck, those vehicles typically have higher centres of gravity than cars and are therefore less stable when cornering sharply. The biggest controversy concerns the danger trucks pose to other vehicles. The outcry from safety advocates grew louder last month when the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a study of 5,259 fatalities in crashes involving a

light truck and car. In 81 per cent of those cases, the people killed were the ones riding in the car.

Trucks of all shapes and sizes are taking over the road-hut the BOOM has set off a raging debate about safety and the environment

SHIFTING UP

Canadians are buying almost as many light trucks—vans, pickups and sport-utility vehicles—as cars

There isn’t much mystery about why. To a large extent the problem is one of physics: on average, light trucks weigh 400 kg more than cars. Trucks also tend to have stiffer frames than cars and they ride higher off the ground. As a result, big sport utilities and full-size vans or pickups can easily overshoot car bumpers, riding up over the hood or smashing into the passenger cabin. The bottom line, says Dennis DesRosiers, president of Richmond Hill, Ont.-based DesRosiers Automotive Consultants Inc., is that “you don’t want to be in a car if you’re hit by a truck.”

The U.S. traffic agency’s report—released during an international conference on vehicle safety in Windsor, Ont.—examined, among other things, side-impact collisions between light trucks and cars. The agency’s findings were staggering. In cases where the “bullet” vehicle—the one hitting the other vehicle—was a full-size van, 23 car drivers died for every van driver killed. The death ratio for SUVs was 20 to 1; for full-size pickups it was 17 to 1; for minivans, 16 to 1; and for small pickups, 11 to 1.

Manufacturers, spurred by a rising tide of negative publicity surrounding SUVs, are now examining a number of ways to make them more trafficfriendly. One solution would be to increase the weight of cars, but the extra bulk would make them burn more fuel. (As a rule, every 10 per cent reduction in weight improves fuel economy by eight per cent.) Another option, says Barry Felrice, director of regulatory affairs with the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, would be to install exterior air bags on trucks that would inflate when onboard sensors detected an imminent collision.

Of course, the simplest course of action might be to require that manufacturers redesign their trucks so the bumpers are the same height as those on cars—something a few companies have already done. But for now, the uproar over truck/car safety appears to be having an unintended consequence: according to Automobile Magazine, sales of SUVs have increased 14 per cent in the United States since the controversy over light trucks began last year. “Sales of SUVs are still going up,” says Larry Nairn, sales manager at Merlin Motors Ltd. in Saskatoon. “People don’t feel lost in traffic. There is a sense of security.” In the short run, those additional sales are good news for the North

American auto industry. Reason: the profits they reap from light trucks are often many times greater than the money they earn from family sedans—as much as $15,000 per vehicle in some cases. In addition, the light-truck category is the only significant segment of the vehicle market in which domestic automakers still enjoy a commanding lead over the imports. Since 1985, the Big Three’s share of car sales in North America has fallen from 74 per cent to 61 per cent, but the popularity of their trucks has masked that decline.

Although European and Japanese makers are now targeting the high-end truck market, for the most part the category still belongs to General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. (The popularity of Chrysler’s Jeep and Dodge truck lines was a major factor behind the company’s recent purchase by Daimler-Benz, the company that builds Mercedes-Benz cars.) And GM’s plan to introduce a lucrative new line of pickups this fall—its most important launch this decade—was a major reason why company executives were pushing last week to settle a strike that has shut down virtually all of its North American assembly plants.\

Chris Traveil, a director of Markham-based Maritz Canada Inc.,

“Vehicles are like fashions,” says Traveil. “There is no rational reason why we need to envelop ourselves in a 2,000-kg vehicle.”

Clarence DeYoung of Halifax was thinking of both safety and brute power when he bought a Lincoln Navigator earlier this year. “I wanted something that could handle the winters,” says DeYoung, who is retired. He also loves the Navigator’s interior space, which allows him to haul vending machines for the rental business his son operates in Halifax. The truck does take some getting use to. It is so big that DeYoung tore off the roof rack while leaving an underground parking lot. And because of its size, his wife finds it difficult to drive in the city.

an automotive research firm, says the industry’s heavy reliance on SUV and van sales leaves it vulnerable to sudden changes in market trends. If gas prices soar or driving a truck is suddenly viewed as environmentally incorrect, owners could abandon them in droves.

Automakers are targeting UPSCALE buyers who want to project an active, go-anywhere image

One thing that does not faze DeYoung, however, is the truck’s thirst for fuel, which averages 19.6 litres per 100 km (14 miles per gallon) in city driving. “I guess it should concern me,” he says, “but it doesn’t.”

Size and power were things Mary Ann Hack of Saskatoon never thought much about—that is, until her husband, Baron, suggested they trade in their boxy grey Dodge Spirit sedan for a Plymouth Voyager minivan. After reluctantly climbing behind the wheel for a test drive, she was so impressed that she is now happily cruising the road with her two boys—Bryce, 12, and Clae, 10—and the family dog,

Maggie. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “It’s so great. You ride up high and you really feel safe.” For the same reasons, Paula Lawlor of Dartmouth, N.S., can’t imagine ever going back to a car. In May, the Lawlors purchased a new moss-green Chevrolet Venture minivan, with more than enough room for their three children, their friends and all their sports gear. The higher fuel consumption makes the van more expensive to drive than the cars Lawlor used to own, but she says the added power and many

options are worth the tradeoff. The van has bucket seats back and front and cup holders throughout. “I wouldn’t go back to a car,” she says.

Chrysler hopes to keep drivers like Lawlor coming back to its minivans long after the kids leave home by building a hybrid version that will resemble an SUV while remaining spacious inside. Company executives will not discuss the final design, but Chrysler Canada spokeswoman Jody Ness says the sector is headed towards “mutations” that are part van, part SUV. Traveil believes that Chrysler’s reincarnated

van will be aimed at boomers who still want the utility of a van, but also want to make a statement. “Sometime as people get older and the kids are grown up, they want something sporty—a vehicle that harkens back to their youth.”

Hybrids of various sorts are already showing up on showroom floors. One of the most successful, the Subaru Outback, merges a conventional station wagon with a four-wheel-drive system normally found on an SUV. After a brush with bankruptcy in the early 1990s, Subaru enjoyed record revenues of more than $2 billion in 1997 and company executives credit the strong sales of the Outback with saving the company. Volvo has also launched a four-wheel-drive sport wagon, and no one really knows where the trend will end. “Does the Ford Taurus stay like a sedan,” said Zino, “or does it migrate into a van or SUV?”

A clearer indication of where vans and SUVs are headed is represented by Mazda’s four-wheel-drive MPV. From the sidewalk it resembles an SUV, with a squarer front end, large rear bumper and roof rack. But inside it retains the box-like configuration of a minivan with bucket seats up front and two rows of bench seats in the rear.

General Motors is also attacking the crossover market with the Montana version of its Pontiac Trans Sport minivan, which GM executives have dubbed a “bridge machine” because, outwardly, it spans both the SUV and van markets.

To distinguish it from the rest of the minivan market, GM designers gave it a beefier looking body, traction control and a stiffer suspension to handle tougher terrain. An estimated 30 per cent of Trans Sport buyers opt for the Montana package, which adds about $1,500 to the minivan’s base price. The company’s Montana Thunder concept vehicle also hints at the future. It disguises its minivan roots with air scoops on the hood and lights above the windshield. “It is for people who like minivans but want something with more image to it,” says Detroit analyst Duronio. “They’re saying, ‘I’m not just a family person. I have an identity.’ ”

Other companies are aiming their products at upscale car buyers who do not need off-road capability but still want to project a go-anywhere image. Toyota’s Lexus division was one of the first into this market with its $82,600 LX 470. Built on a car-like platform, it has a smooth ride and luxury appointments, but, with its 230-horsepower engine and high road clearance, LX 470 drivers can feel like rugged outdoorsmen.

Manufacturers are also trying to cater to drivers who like sitting high up but do not need the hauling capacity or off-road ability of a large SUV. Toyota is exploiting the niche with its RAV4 SUV, and Ford plans to launch a similar small truck based on the subcompact Escort. By offering smaller vehicles with the same macho design as large SUVs, the industry hopes to attract young drivers, who shun minivans as too conservative, and older drivers who want to project an adventuresome image. “The industry is focusing on boomers and Generation X,” says Duronio. “You’re getting boomers who are saying, T want to be trendy. I’m not dead,’ and younger drivers who are saying T don’t want to drive a minivan like mom.’ ”

The introduction of a wide range of smaller SUVs might also help to

ease environmental concerns surrounding the weaker pollution control standards on most light trucks, as well as their relatively poor gas mileage. To draw attention to the issue, the Vancouver-based David Suzuki Foundation ran a series of newspaper ads in April depicting a family wearing gas masks while picnicking beside their SUV. The vehicles are unquestionably dirtier than sedans. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a typical light truck emits at least 75 per cent more nitrogen oxides, a major cause of global warming, than a large family car.

Suzuki Foundation executive director Jim Fulton sent Finance Minister Paul Martin a brief last September urging him to introduce a plan that would reduce the emissions from larger vehicles. Without a dramatic shift to more fuel-efficient cars, Fulton says Canada will not meet its obligations to cut greenhouse-gas emissions as agreed in Kyoto, Japan, last December. What bothers Ron Nielsen, a director at Toronto-based Pollution Probe, is the fact that people who drive SUVs just don’t seem to care. “I don’t see why someone who can afford a $75,000 vehicle,” says Nielsen, “can’t afford proper pollution control.”

Ford’s Zino, however, says that unless fuel prices spike upward in the near future—something few analysts expect—environmentalists are destined to lose their battle. “Consumers want power,” says DesRosiers, “and that’s what vans and SUVs give them.” The proof— big and brawny—is out there on the highways. □

DANYLO HAWALESHKA

Toronto