Commentary: Don't Tread on Me--or My SUV

By Larry Armstrong and David Welch

Seen the most recent volley from the anti-SUV brigade? In TV ads that started airing on Jan. 7, they try to make driving a sport- utility vehicle tantamount to financially supporting Osama bin Laden and his gang of terrorists.

In a parody of Bush Administration anti-drug ads, a parade of talking heads--seemingly ordinary Americans--intone "I helped hijack an airplane." "I helped blow up a nightclub." "So what if it gets 11 miles to the gallon?" The logic? SUVs use lots of gas. Gas comes from the Middle East. The Middle East funds terrorism.

This latest campaign is the product of the so-called Detroit Project, an ad hoc Hollywood group headed by conservative political commentator and gadfly Arianna Huffington. She gave up her 13-mpg Lincoln Navigator a year ago for a tiny, hybrid gas-electric Toyota Prius and wants you to do likewise. The Detroit Project is just one of a number of activist groups that have emerged recently with the aim of stamping out SUVs. By torching them at dealerships, tagging them with graffiti or phony parking tickets, or, most absurd, implying that Jesus would never drive an SUV, all hope to vilify the gas guzzlers.

It won't work. Just ask the Sierra Club. Veering from its longtime save-the-environment pitch, it ran a TV campaign linking gas guzzlers to national security last June. "It didn't resonate with the average American," says Daniel F. Becker, who heads the group's global-warming initiatives. In a Jan. 13 CNW Marketing Research Inc. survey of 4,700 people, only 1.8% of those who had seen the ads said they would reconsider buying an SUV. Says CNW President Arthur M. Spinella: "A lot of people took offense."

Americans aren't going to be shamed into giving up their big cars by inflammatory ads. Even poor fuel economy and growing charges that they're unsafe haven't made a dent in sales. Car buyers continue to snap up SUVs in record numbers. One out of every four new cars sold last year was an SUV, and sales of the monsters grew 6.3% even as the U.S. vehicle market fell 2%, according to researcher Autodata Corp. For the first time, so-called light trucks, including SUVs and extended-cab pickups, outsold passenger cars.

Carmakers are quick to note that there has been no backlash from buyers. The mantra: We make products people want to buy. To the extent that the industry has any awareness of the negative impact of SUVs, it stems from ever-toughening fuel-economy and emissions rules. On Jan. 7, General Motors Corp. said it will outfit a dozen models with a fuel-efficient hybrid powertrain by '07. Toyota Motor Corp., already the leader in hybrid-car sales, will launch a luxury Lexus SUV next year that has the fuel economy of a four-cylinder compact--roughly 35 mpg--and the performance of a V8.

Similarly, manufacturers are likely to make SUVs less vulnerable to rollover and side-impact accidents because of government prodding. On Jan. 14, citing data suggesting that SUV passengers are three times as likely to die in a rollover than are drivers of conventional cars, Jeffrey W. Runge, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, suggested that the government may make such safety gear as side-curtain airbags mandatory.

Mostly, though, carmakers are warily eyeing Gen X and Gen Y, the car buyers who will dictate the companies' future. They're idealistic and care more about the environment than their elders. "The younger generation will end up forcing a change," says Wesley R. Brown, an analyst at Nextrend, an auto market researcher in Thousand Oaks, Calif. By the time those youngsters have the cash to call the shots, you can be sure Detroit will offer the environmentally correct products they'll want to buy.

Los Angeles-based senior correspondent Armstrong drives a 1988 Toyota MR2. Detroit correspondent Welch drives a 2003 Mini Cooper S.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.