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Big Vehicles Draw Big Criticism

Backlash Against Sport Utility Vehicles Doesn't Stop Drivers Who Want Them

Jan 13, 2003 | The News Journal

Don't tell Clarence Reynolds of Newark that his black Grand Cherokee Laredo may be bad for the economy, let alone unpatriotic.

"I've got two [sport utility vehicles] now, and I'm going to have three in my family soon," the 61-year-old Boeing retiree said outside the Christiana Mall, near a lot where about half the vehicles parked were either SUVs or minivans. "It's going to be a Ford Expedition," he said, referring to one of the largest SUVs on the market. "I've worked hard all my life, and no one's going to tell me what I can drive."

But several national organizations have been trying to do just that recently.

The Detroit Project, a campaign of the nonprofit Americans for Fuel Efficient Cars, dedicated to decreasing the country's reliance on foreign oil, is running two 30-second commercials in major cities across the country.

One ad shows people talking about their SUVs, and says, in part, "I helped hijack an airplane. I helped blow up a nightclub. So what if it gets 11 miles to the gallon. I gave money to a terrorist training camp in a foreign country. It makes me feel safe. I helped our enemies develop weapons of mass destruction. What if I need to go off-road? Everyone has one."

The commercials will run in Detroit, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., through Thursday at a total cost of more than $200,000. The funds were raised through donations.

The ads are only the latest in a growing momentum of anti-SUV activity. Recently, an alliance of religious groups began a "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign, which urged that "SUVs should be purchased only by those who truly need them, such as individuals in rural areas and those genuinely needing four-wheel drive."

And there have been reports that SUVs are not any safer - and may be more dangerous - than cars, especially in rollover accidents.

But those commercials, campaigns and reports will not prevent Bev Breeding from buying an even bigger Lexus SUV next year - bigger than the blue 2000 RX 300 she currently owns.

"They can say whatever they want to say," Breeding said. "As long as they don't do anything to me, I don't care."

Breeding, 43, who lives in Chadds Ford, Pa., but owns a seal-coating business in Wilmington, said she plans to buy another Lexus SUV soon because the company recently came out with an "intermediate-sized" vehicle.

"I have three kids," she said, when asked about her desire for the vehicle. "And you can see how easy it is to lift up the back and throw things in."

While The Detroit Project says that its call for Americans to give up its SUVs is a "moral imperative," automobile industry officials have characterized the project and its organization as "fringe elements." The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a business lobby that supports limited government, labeled the ads "elitist nonsense."

No matter who says what, the ads fly in the face of SUV devotees who are driving up the sales of bigger vehicles.

Jared Kolb, a sales associate with Newark Chrysler Jeep, said customers who purchase SUVs don't require a sales pitch.

"They come in here knowing what they want," he said. "All we do is try to steer them in a direction to buy our SUV, as opposed to a Ford Explorer or a Honda Passport."

About five years ago, Kolb said, the big thing was minivans. Now, it's SUVs and four-wheel drive vehicles.

"We sell twice as many Jeeps as we do cars," Kolb said, "and that's market-driven."

Sport utility vehicle sales rose 6 percent last year and account for a quarter of all new cars sold, according to Autodata Corp., a New Jersey-based research firm that charts the sales of motor vehicles.

Don Deal, a Newark architect who drives a red 1999 Ford Sport Explorer, said he loves using his SUV to travel to construction sites, to load feed for his horse, or to drive around his two children.

"I see better in the car. I'm up high and feel safer," he said. "And I like the way it looks."

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