Commentary: Confessions Of A Sport Ute Owner

Hello, my name is Keith and I drive a sport-utility vehicle. I used to think my Chevrolet Blazer marked me as a fashionable commuter. I admit to boasting vainly that I wouldn't be caught dead hauling my family in a dowdy minivan. I was too cool for that--just like all those other baby boomers behind the wheels of Blazers, Explorers, Suburbans, and Jeeps. But lately, our SUVs have started to suffer from an image problem of their own: In the heated debate over global warming, they have become the symbol of gas-guzzling, ozone-depleting indulgence. I admit that the only thing green about my truck is the paint job. But who knew that I was ruining the world by driving to work?

Now along comes Detroit to soothe my concerns about social irresponsibility. Ford Motor Co. announced on Jan. 5 that this fall, it is converting all its sport-utility models into low-pollution vehicles certified by the Environmental Protection Agency. Ford, which sells 650,000 sport utilities a year, will cut the pollution they belch by 40% so they match the cleanest cars. Chrysler Corp. promises to follow with a new Jeep Grand Cherokee this fall that also emits as little pollution as a car. And General Motors Corp., the maker of my Blazer, says it is also looking at ways to make sure that its trucks spew less pollution, although it might not copy Ford's approach.

NO MORE APOLOGIES. In a single stroke of automotive engineering magic, Detroit assures us, sport-utility vehicles will become environmentally friendly. "There is no need for a customer to feel apologetic about buying an SUV," says Ford Chairman Alexander J. Trotman. Indeed, Ford intends to dress up its sport utilities with green leaf badges so no one will mistake the trucks for despoilers of nature. Crows Jacques A. Nasser, Ford's president of automotive operations: "Now we call them CUVs--clean-utility vehicles."

Nice try, but sport utilities will never be green machines. Ford is to be commended for outfitting its SUVs with stronger, smog-scrubbing catalytic converters, which will help clear the air in urban areas. And it helps that competitors are following suit. But sport utes still guzzle gasoline--the hulking Ford Expedition gets 14 miles per gallon in the city, while Ford's cars average 27.5 mpg. And Ford's new catalytic converter will not reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which are believed to be a leading cause of global warming. Only better gas mileage can accomplish that.

PROFIT HAULERS. The truth is that Detroit is attempting to protect the geese that lay the golden eggs. The Big Three haul in humongous profits from sport-utility vehicles. Analysts estimate that the trucks accounted for more than $4 billion of Ford's record $6.5 billion in profits last year. For instance, Ford's chrome-encrusted Lincoln Navigator, which sells for $45,000, churns out estimated gross profits of $15,000 a vehicle. By contrast, Ford loses money on nearly every ordinary passenger car it sells. Those hefty SUV margins make it easy for Ford to swallow the expense of outfitting its sport utilities with the high-tech exhaust-scrubbing technology, which analysts estimate will cost the carmaker only about $100 a vehicle.

Ford and its competitors have watched uneasily as sport utilities have been dragged into environmental debates. These trendy vehicles--which owe much of their success to the favorable image they have among status-seeking baby boomers--risk losing their appeal if they are perceived as environmentally irresponsible. In fact, in some markets tire-kickers already have begun to turn away from sport utilities because of environmental concerns, says Richard Parry-Jones, Ford's group vice-president for product development. "We have seen some misgivings, and we want to eliminate those," he says.


RIDING HIGH. The Big Three also are desperate to burnish their environmental credentials after Toyota Motor Corp. pulled ahead in the "green car" race last month by introducing an affordable hybrid car powered by gasoline and electricity. Even in sport-utility vehicles, the Japanese are threatening Detroit. Honda Motor Co. says its popular CR-V will match Ford's low-polluting technology by 2000.

Ultimately, what Detroit is really trying to do is find a way to sell me another sport-utility--a new, improved one. But if I really want to make the world a greener place, maybe I should just go back to driving a compact car. Then again, I'm not sure I'm ready to climb down from my SUV just yet.