Finances & Money

Can we get by without big SUVs?

FiveCentNickel posted a commentary on GM’s announcement of a new hybrid system in their large SUVs, and questioned the value of such a system. I agree with his assessment that the extra $10,000 cost of such a system for a mere 40% gain (i.e. 19-20mpg city vs 13-14mpg) is not a value-add compared to what other manufacturers are offering, but I wanted to contribute some additional commentary.

Everyone questions the need for super SUVs like the Tahoe, Suburban, Escalade (and other variants), Expedition, Excursion (which is gone, but replaced by the Expedition EL), Durango/Aspen, and Hummer H2. Oh, and don’t forget the Toyota Sequoia/Lexus LX and Nissan Armada/Infiniti QX.

But with all this complaining about big SUVs, let’s look a little deeper into the need vs. want issue. I can attest that the large majority of big SUVs I see are driven by business women, apparent soccer moms, or wannabe thugs. This is in a city/suburb where 99% of these trucks will never see a dirt road that’s not a driveway, including my own Ridgeline. But can we really expect people who don’t NEED SUVs to stop buying them?

There’s a catch-22 in all of this. If soccer moms stopped buying these rigs and just rented when they needed them, most would never rent one. You would just have ranchers, off-roaders, the federal and state governments and police left to buy them, so the market has been cut significantly.

If automakers lose the economy of scale in manufacturing these beasts then the profit margin shrinks. Therefore, there is less incentive to sell SUVs, or they’ll increase the prices. Then most soccer moms won’t buy them because they’re too expensive, and the cycle continues. But what you have left is a demographic who needs the truck (albeit, only the basic model, not the luxury) for daily duties, but it has become unaffordable.

The question is whether ANYONE truly NEEDS a large SUV. Can ranchers just get by with a minivan, crossover, wagon, or truck? (most likely the truck). Do the feds really need to drive around in black Tahoes, or could they just get a minivan? (GASP!) How would you like to see Bush and Cheney hauled through D.C. in a Dodge Caravan?

Honestly, I don’t think we need big SUVs. Really, how often do you haul 8 people, all their luggage and a trailer or camper? Once a year for every 5,000 families? 10,000 families? I’ll bet about 5 of you have ever truly needed this much hauling capability in your adult life, and I’m sure it wasn’t every year. Could a smaller SUV or crossover have done the job? How about a minivan? Some of the new minivans actually compete in hauling capacity with the mid-size SUVs!

Overall, I think that marketers have done a great job in making us think we need a big SUV. Personally, I like a lot of arm and leg room. I’m sure my passengers wouldn’t want to be cramped or uncomfortable. But I don’t NEED an SUV. And I’ll bet that you don’t either. Heck, I don’t even need a truck, but that’s for another time.

What are your thoughts?

About the author

Clever Dude


  • It’s not clear to me from your post why you’re examining the need v. want question. It seems like that could apply to any number of the things we buy, so why SUV specifically?

  • I think people just buy whatever is advertised, and whatever is pushed. Car makers realized they could make more by taking an existing car/truck/van platform, adding some sheet metal and plastic, and selling it at a huge premium. They’ve been forcefeeding SUVs to us with safety studies and images of happy, safe little kids in the back seats, hauling boats or driving off into the wilderness. Freedom and living rich.

  • I have 6 kids and we go camping with a trailer monthly. I need a big SUV to both haul our family and pull the trailer. Minivan would work for hauling the family, but won’t haul the camper.

    The Ford Excursion diesel was the perfect vehicle for us, and now they stopped making it. You would be surprised at the number of people with large families that RV camp.

    Sure, we could sacrifice camping and stay at a hotel, but it’s not he same. Camping as been a wonderful family experience for us and our kids. Plus have you ever seen those shows were they go in and look at how dirty hotels really are??? YUCK!

    The other option, which we are considering is driving two vehicles when we camp. A pickup and mini-van. Guessing that is probably even worse from an efficiency environment perspective.

  • It is incorrect to assume that if demand for large SUVs decreases, that prices will increase for those who really need them.

    Rather, the amenities sought by soccer-moms, but NOT by ranchers, will go away.

    My dad paid $12,000 for a Suburban in 1986. That was before large SUVs became popular. As soon as they became popular and volume increased, prices skyrocketed.

  • what ever did we do without the giant SUV and minivan? i guess we crammed people in little VW rabbits or stationwagons, but then again lots of people did have those big conversion vans which were much more gas guzzling than SUVs or about the same. There are definite needs for SUVs, so I don’t think it is only a want item. a pickup truck cannot fit as many people as comfortably as an SUV despite there being those massive extended cab trucks. some things just require bigger engines with more torque to haul crap, or to go on rough roads. minivans, sedans, and station wagons just don’t do that well on pothole infested roads. of course, the vast majority of SUVs will never see off road.

    as far as your comment about the feds and SUVs. well, given that you want some push power as well as clearance to go over obstacles more readily than a minivan or sedan, and the fact that larger SUVs will also provide a bit higher line of site for those pesky personal security detail types that accompany VIPs etc, i think there is a need for big SUVs. it’s a give and take, but i’d choose a big SUV over a minivan any day in this situation.

  • It’s not just SUVs… How about those 4-wheel drive, Hemi-powered, Quad cab behemoths that are used as daily commuters? And at 12 MPG!!! Wow!

    Yes, there are many people who do actually need these vehicles (both the SUVs and the trucks), but there are way too many people who buy much more than they need simply b/c they think they need it, or were upsold on it.

    There is always a personal choice involved. I could drive one of those larger vehicles, but I would rather drive a smaller more fuel efficient car, have lower payments and fuel costs, and fund my retirement. (and no, I am not saying that everyone that drive a larger vehicle is not doing that; everyone’s personal situation is different).

  • @Tim – You’re right, we had a full-size conversion van before we bought our big’ol “4-wheel drive, Hemi-powered” Durango. Regarding the Hemi, the MPG on the standard V8 vs Hemi is minimal. Hemi Durango gets much better MPG that the full-size van did (more reliable too…but that’s another story).

    Also, back in the day, seat belts weren’t required, nor were there child seat laws, so you could cram more people in a car, and the baby would be held. I remember going to the movies with my friends, my dad driving. The 8 of us in a 6 passenger car.

  • @glblguy: I don’t have 6 kids (yet) but I did find a vehicle that works well for my growing family: a Dodge/Freightliner/Mercedes Sprinter. It can haul 10 people, gear, and up to 5000lbs on the tow hitch. All while returning 20+ miles per gallon in fuel economy. Something to consider…

  • I drive a big SUV, I have 7 kids and need all the room I can get because at the moment, I cannot afford to get a 10 passenger Sprinter but that is what I want. Not just a van, but the Sprinter because of its gas mileage and its height inside without the conversion.

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