The view from the driver's seat of a GMC Yukon XL Denali is nothing short of commanding. From here, a driver feels omnipotent, like a swaggering despot looking down his nose on subjects scurrying like frightened ants. That was how I felt the other day, as I took the nine-passenger, 18-foot-3, two-and-a-half-ton, 310hp, 12mpg behemoth out for a test-drive. As someone who swears by his fuel-efficient compact car, I wasn't looking to buy one of these hot-selling monster trucks--which the automobile industry euphemistically calls "sport utility vehicles," to distance them from their exhaust-belching, fuel-guzzling, 18-heeled cousins. But I did want to know why my countrymen keep buying them, even as we earn other nations' scorn for leading the world in greenhouse-gas emissions and fuel consumption.
A cheerful dealer named Manny greeted me. (It's no minor affront to environmentalists that most SUVs are named after pristine wilderness; but the Yukon XL Denali pushes the marketing envelope by bearing the name of both a verdant Canadian territory and a spectacular Alaskan park.) The sticker price--$50,109--gave me a jolt. But I said I wanted my wife to feel safe. "That's what everyone says," Manny told me. "The more of these things that are on the road, the more unsafe all the other drivers feel... until they buy one themselves." It's the old cold-war theory of mutually assured destruction, updated for America's highways.
Manny hands me the keys. Climbing into this beast is like using a complicated piece of exercise equipment for the first time. You don't know where to put your arm to pull yourself up, or how your left foot gets into the car while your right foot is still on the ground. The Yukon XL Denali is so big, in fact, that passengers in the rear seats have their own radio controls so they can listen to different stations from the driver.
On the road, I feel as if I am driving a large, sodden sponge. Unlike a car, an SUV approaches the road like an ameba approaches a piece of food. Potholes are not merely absorbed but swallowed with a springy belch of the tractor-grade suspension system. The absolute power of a Yukon XL Denali corrupts absolutely. Even driving on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway--one of the most arteriosclerotic of the nation's thoroughfares--I feel so invulnerable that only when I look down at the speedometer do I realize I'm going 90mph. And I find myself driving far more aggressively than usual... because I can. "Where do you think you're going, you pathetic little Saturn?" I heard myself say when a subcompact tried to stick a nose in front of me.
This feeling of security in an insecure world--the inexorable craving of the common man to feel powerful--is ultimately the lure of the SUV, whose sales have risen 1,000 percent over the past five years, even as gas prices have gone up. Sport utility vehicles are a uniquely American phenomenon, for nothing is so American as the allure of enormity. From the "supersized" fast-food meals to the megamansions that crowd exurbia, Americans choose quantity over quality.
And unfettered mobility is seen as an American birthright. Of course, automakers have mythologized "the open road" for as long as there have been cars. But with SUVs, depicted in commercials as crashing through snow or confidently penetrating deep forests, the marketing bears little connection to reality. "No one drives these things off-road," says Manny. Public opinion may yet catch up with the SUV, though. Sales remain strong, but opinion makers in the media have come out against them. There's even (gasp) talk of federal regulations requiring better fuel economy.
I don't believe it. When the rubber hits the road, such talk evaporates faster than a drop of water on a hot chrome bumper. Americans wouldn't have it any other way. SUV owners tell pollsters that they buy such a big, expensive, socially irresponsible means of conveyance because they need "more space" to haul around the mountains of gear that have become a byproduct of American life. But there's another, more insidious reason. "I'm an American, and no one is going to tell me what to drive," one tells me when I challenged her to get from Point A to Point B by using a tiny bit less of the Earth's limited and nonrenewable resources.
It's a classic American argument: keep the government off my back. In Europe and Asia, democracies are able to restrict individual liberty in the name of a greater common good, but in America there's no issue of social unity--gun control, energy conservation, anti-smoking laws--that won't be fought under the rubric of personal liberty. My test-drive over, I turned the steering wheel over to Manny. No way I trusted myself to back this boat into its berth. These things are just too damn big.