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SUV RIP? — A Briton’s View of the Chrysler 300C Touring / Dodge Magnum

We see them every night on the TV, out there on the frontline. The Humvees, the Toyota pick-ups and our own beloved Land Rovers, defenders of democracy and liberators of the oppressed. But back on the home front they are taking quite a pasting. This rag-tag army of 4x4s, off-roaders and pick-up trucks have taken up a siege defence under the SUV banner. Sports Utility Vehicles, everything from school-run soft-roaders like the Volvo X90 to stone crushing monsters like GM’s Hummer, they have all become the enemies of civilised society. So is it time to put the SUV out to pasture, and this time bury it there? Chrysler has the answer, and a very big shovel.

The ammunition being stockpiled against the SUV is formidable. Carbon dioxide, CO2, has been identified as one of the worst culprits of the greenhouse effect and Britain’s transport network is the main accomplice: between 1990 and 2002 emissions increased by 50%. SUVOA, SUV Owners of America, have the temerity to claim that CO2 is not a pollutant since humans exhale it and plants require it. Chutzpah on this scale can only leave you gasping. In truth, aircraft account for the majority of the rise, but that did not stop The Guardian from pointing out that sales of large 4x4s doubled in the same period. It takes only a short leap of logic for the paper to claim that the Iraq war is not simply a war by 4x4s, but a war for 4x4s. The newspaper has British environment minister Michael Meacher to thank for that theory: apparently if the US improved its cars’ fuel efficiency by 2.7 miles per gallon, it could dispense with its Gulf oil imports and leave Iraqi oil to the terrorists.

 It is not just greed and flatulence that SUVs are guilty of, there is also the suspicion of a poor safety record. The strong frame can withstand head-on collisions very well, as any experienced ram-raider will attest. In a straight collision with a car, the car’s passengers will gently cushion the blow to the extent that they are twice as likely to be sacrificed than if they had been hit by another car. But if people are buying SUVs for their tank-like security, then they are buying tanks with bodies of tin. Like the Ford Model T the body is only there to protect the occupants from the weather.

The humble passenger car relies on a much more modern form of construction, the unitary, or monocoque, bodyshell. This uses a fully enclosed bodyshell to form the basic structure of the vehicle and all its strength, including the crumple zones that protect the occupants.  The major components are then bolted onto this shell. The separate frame design, on the other hand, carries the powertrain and has a lightweight body slung on top of it. This tin shack lacks the integral strength of a modern car’s monocoque and is most terrifying when those monsters are rolled on their backs. The NHTSA, a US government traffic agency, found that due to their relative height some SUVs were 30 to 40% more likely to roll over in a single vehicle accident. You might counter that rollovers in general are rare, and its true that less than a quarter of car deaths result from them, but once that SUV capsizes you are three times more likely to die under its crumpling shell than if you put a standard car on its roof.. The answer is simple: when that titan starts to roll, it’s too late to count the lifeboats.

The question is why a modern vehicle should rely on this traditional style of construction. The excuse has been that only a steel girder frame had the strength to cope with off-roading or heavy loads, yet the new Range Rover is able to impress despite having a car-like monocoque design. The Japanese have shown how standard car production technology can be used to good effect, drastically reducing the production costs. Honda have been particularly clever, taking the basis of the Odyssey’s monocoque body shell and attaching a fat-bed frame on the back by sliding the rails into the sills. The reason the older SUVs hang onto their traditional separate frames is quite prosaic: they are based on commercial vehicle platforms.

This approach is epitomised by the American SUV, modern equivalent of the pioneer’s hooped wagon. They are as old as the hills and the ubiquitous Ford F Series has been loyally serving America since the 1940s. Of course in those days American families cruised around in cars shaped like space ships that had just landed from Planet Chrome. OPEC put a stop to all that gas-guzzling self-indulgence and Americans had to squeeze themselves into more temperate Japanese and European gas-misers. The effect on society was no more permanent than the Prohibition, and once fuel prices became affordable again the old passion for something big and thirsty came back with avengeance. Since all the old land-yacht passenger cars had been pensioned off the American public turned to what was left, the pick-up truck.

The pick-up makes a great commercial vehicle. With the steel girder frame as the basis it is easy to shorten or lengthen, can take any engine you care to install and the cab is just a flimsy tin shelter. It is therefore an easy matter to extend the cab all the way back and turn a commercial into a passenger vehicle. What really clinched it for the manufacturers is that they found they could take this heap of old Detroit commercial iron, do a quick cut-and-shut job and charge car prices. They were clearing profits of ten thousand dollars on each one sold. This handsomely offset the huge losses they were making on car production due to fierce competition from the Japanese.

US manufacturers then found that it was cheap and easy to throw an SUV body design together and bolt it to whatever pick-up truck frame they happened to be making. It was inevitable that Ford would release the Excursion, at more than 19 feet the mother of all SUVs. They had the frame, they had the engine, and America had the hunger. Officially it can haul itself around the suburbs at the rate of 12 miles for every gallon, unofficially Harper’s Magazine could only achieve 3.7 miles per gallon on a city run. In 1999, the Sierra Club awarded it the “Exxon Valdez Award” in dubious honour of its ability to destroy the environment. This leviathan does not even have to fear the latest CAFE regulations requiring a reduction in average SUV fuel consumption to a planet-saving 20.7 miles per gallon: the Excursion is too big to be covered by the ruling.

On our side of the pond we came to the British SUV by a more aristocratic route. Granted, the first Land Rover was a shameless copy of the military Jeep but they soon found their home with the landed gentry. That grand old dame, the Range Rover, was a more civilised version for the gentleman farmer even if by today’s standards the early versions appear surprisingly utilitarian. It later found its calling far from the shires, becoming a fixture of London’s leafy suburbs, but before American sales took off funds were only available for modest upgrades before it could seriously be considered a luxury vehicle in its own right.

Land Rover have always been proud to ensure that their vehicles were true off-roaders first and passenger cars second, paradoxically further stoking the rural fantasies of suburban dreamers. They have also stuck by the old separate frame, though now they are attempting a little lateral thinking. The latest Range Rover has become a bona fide luxury car with basically monocoque construction, but a new T5 frame has been developed to underpin the rest of the range. There are, of course, the usual excuses about only a frame being rugged enough for serious off-roading, but as always the real advantage is the adaptability of a frame to a disparate range of body sizes.

The novelty is that the T5 concept combines the best of both worlds in what they call the Integrated Body Frame, bringing together a rugged frame and a unitary-construction body. The unitary body gives passengers the same structural integrity of monocoque as enjoyed by mainstream cars and therefore the safest vehicle Land Rover have ever made. In return, the T5 frame gives the company flexibility: the new LR3 rides on it, the new Range Rover Sport is getting it and even the successor to the traditional Defender will probably use it. This covering-all-the-bases approach has one problem, and it is a big one: weight. The LR3 may be the Range Rover’s little brother but it weighs in at a whopping 5800 lbs, corpulence so outrageous it would make a true American red-neck blush. It is even heavier than that current juggernaut of luxury, the Rolls Royce Phantom.

There are those who continue to defend the SUV in its various forms. SUVOA claim that the downsizing and downweighting of the early 1980s forced on the road travelling public there resulted in up to 2,600 additional traffic fatalities in 1993. This was backed up by government safety agency reports stating that reduction in the weight of SUVs increased the safety risk to both occupants and other road users. By 1999, USA Today put the cost of each mile per gallon gained at 7,700 deaths. These sweeping statements are somewhat at odds with the specific figures for accident survivability.

On this side of the Atlantic we have industry apologists and official body the SMMT batting for the home team, and it is no surprise that they robustly defend their paymasters. They attempt to sidestep the environmental argument by claiming that off-roader sales are far lower than supermini sales, ignoring the fact that their polluting impact is far higher. They also point out that many off-roaders run on diesel which is 20-30 per cent better on CO2 emissions, and also boast various electronic stability control systems. This argument is based on the Principle of Relativity, that at least they are better than they might be. This is countered by the Principle of Reciprocity, whatever you do to 4x4s to improve them you can also apply to ordinary passenger cars to widen the difference again. Britain’s venerable Autocar magazine prefers to relate emissions to passenger carrying capacity. To claim that on this basis the seven seater Land Rover LR3 pollutes less than a two-seater Smart is simply laughable: how often are LR3s fully loaded? No, wait, the article gets funnier. The author claims three things that only an LR3 can give him: he needs an elevated vehicle so he can admire his local countryside, he listens to music with quiet bits and only the LR3 is quiet enough, and finally he likes air suspension because it is nice and squishy. Surely the earth is a small price to pay for such necessities.

The arguments stacked against SUVs are so pervasive one wonders why people ever bother to buy them. It cannot be the four wheel drive because Audi and Subaru, amongst others, give you that. They are no better for shifting people, people carriers do that far more effectively. It is unlikely to be the performance, and fuel consumption is just a dirty joke. Unless people are completely irrational then there must be some reason for them buying such nonsensical vehicles. The SMMT show their pale faces above the parapet once more to suggest that people like them because they feel safer, however inconclusive the facts may be. This is probably the nub of the matter, there is something comforting about knowing that if a new ice-age where suddenly to strike you could still make it down to WalMart.

Having lambasted SUVs so mercilessly, perhaps I should declare my own interest: my dream car is an original Range Rover, cruising out across the Saharan dunes. I love everything about them, their grace, their aristocratic breeding, but I am not blind to their faults and will probably never justify having one.

If the end of the SUV world really is nigh then the question is what all these 4x4 defenders are going to do when their mobile castles are overrun. Lightweight crossover vehicles represent the easy answer, Toyota RAV4s and the like, but they are simply diluted versions of the real thing. They may be more socially responsible, but they do not answer the “what next?” question. America is the best place to look, since this is the market for which all these SUVs are designed anyway. The Japanese have launched a new wave of modern SUVs which amount to a frontal assault on the last redoubt of the US Big 3. With greater production efficiency and lower costs it is the Japanese who are now making the big profits. Consequently, they can best survive a downturn in the market and there is no reason to expect them to shake up their model line up with risky new concepts. Their success has hit Chrysler hardest, customarily the weakest of the domestic triumvirate, and they have had to come up with a radical counter strategy. This is not the first time they have been backed into such a tight corner; in the 1970s they gambled and won with the first people carrier, the Voyager. Now they have reinvented the traditional American monster saloon.

The latest incarnation of the 300 was released this year to critical acclaim, mainly for its muscular styling and a return to rear-wheel drive values. When Chrysler dropped a good ol’ Detroit iron Hemi V8 engine under the hood of the 300C it recalled the old days of muscle cars and thunderous performance. The Chrysler badge was shining bright once more, but then something rather amazing happened. Sales were not just good, they went through the roof. Waiting lists are now measured in weeks, even months, and Chrysler are trying their best to boost production. The V8 is the one everyone wants and, interestingly, the demographic is pure SUV heartland. The buyers are predominantly male, 77 per cent in fact, and they are no car-driving wimps. A survey showed that nearly half of all new 300C owners were turning-in their trucks, while a measly 18 per cent were trading up from mid-size cars. It seems that in the rugged looks and brutal power of the 300C Hemi there is at last a passenger car answer to the SUV hegemony. Chevrolet are now experimenting with the HHR, their muscle-bound answer to the PT Cruiser, and no doubt there will be more to come.

This puts the Europeans in a very difficult position. Only America has a market big enough to justify full-scale investments in SUVs which sell elsewhere as niche models. It would not make economic sense to carry on investing in SUVs and 4x4s without the American sales to justify it. The Japanese are so embedded in the US that they design their vehicles for that market and sell the variants at home. Chrysler are showing how it is possible for the domestic US manufacturers to return to the car market, while the Europeans are caught between a niche and a hard place. Fortunately, the Europeans have always been reasonably clever by basing their SUVs upon existing passenger cars. Should the market collapse they could continue with 4x4s as a niche, or retract to concentrate on the original cars. The BMW X5 owes its existence to the 5 Series and so the demise of the 4x4 version would not have wider ramifications for the model range. Land Rover, meanwhile, could consolidate their entire range on the T5 platform.

The other side of this coin is that the Europeans are not being forced into the same kind of quantum leaps as Chrysler. Consequently there is a dearth of new ideas, though certain avenues have been explored. Renault bravely tried a people carrier coupé in the Avantime, but that turned out not to be the Next Big Thing after all. Mercedes Benz are having their own go at it with the GST concept, which has yet to be released on the market. At worst, it seems the Europeans will simply give up on their SUV variants and return to the premium passenger cars they specialise in.

This is not really a bad thing. The way things were going it was looking like the Japanese SUVs were going to do to the American industry what everyone else had done to the British car industry. If Chrysler can lead the counter attack in the aftermath of the SUV’s decline then this might restore some balance to the US market. The Japanese will remain profitable in the diminished SUV niches while the US domestic industry will find new prosperity in cars. In Europe attention will once again be focused on more orthodox cars, with a few 4x4 variants and specialist vehicles clinging on to what is left of the market. This might give the environment some much needed breathing room, and restore some of the individuality that was inexorably bleeding out of the industry. The 300C may not become a big seller outside of the States, but its impact is being felt worldwide.

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