Virtually every time there is a new spike in gas prices, the death of the SUV is proclaimed. SUVs have long been demonized as gas-guzzling monstrosities, particularly those produced by American companies. However, the popularity of SUVs continues to climb, not just in the United States but around the world. While it is true that fuel-efficient hybrids have gained in popularity in some countries such as Japan and some states of the union such as California, overall the trend remains in favor of purchasing larger vehicles, both domestically and globally. Demand for hybrids spiked with a sharp upturn in the price of gas in 2005, but this was quickly forgotten when prices abated. Reducing carbon emissions must be a long-term concern for the environmentalist movement's goals to be effective, but consumers tend to focus on the short-term. Overall, despite a short period of trendiness for the Prius and hybrid cars, demand for SUVs is growing, and there must be greater incentives for consumers to drive more fuel-efficient vehicles other than simply to expect that steadily rising gas prices will cause car choices to change.
Advantages and disadvantages: SUVs
Recently, President Obama did an extraordinary thing: he openly endorsed a particular type of car to the American public, speaking out against SUVs. "When you do decide to buy a new car, think about that we're putting a whole bunch of money into the pockets of some folks who do not like us at all'[he said]...referring to oil-producing countries in the Middle East and North Africa" (Restuccia 2011). The federal government famously 'bailed out' the American auto industry, and one of the contingents of the bailout was more investment in green cars and green technology. "If you had to name a heyday for the American sports utility vehicle, most people would point to the '90s, when gigantic SUVS such as the Hummer, Lincoln Navigator, and Ford Excursion were first sold to the public. According to CNN Money, 1 in 5 new cars sold in the late '90s and early '00s was an SUV" (Tuttle 2012). The era of the SUV is supposed to have 'come and gone.'
However, that same year the president begged the American public to reconsider their purchasing habits, U.S. auto sales shot up 27%, "well above forecasts of about a 19% increase," mainly thanks to a spike in sales of pickups, vans and SUVs. This was even in the face of higher gas prices. Truck sales alone rose 32% (Isidore 2011). Large, luxurious vehicles have traditionally been a sign of affluence for the American consumer, and once the economy began to improve, almost immediately Americans began to turn their attention to cars that would signal such values once again. In 2012, nearly 1 in 3 vehicles sold in America was SUV (Tuttle 2012). Compare this with the fact that hybrids make up only 2.5% of the new car market (Kim 2012).
In fact, the developing world has begun to adopt America's tastes, now that it can afford to do so. In China, buying an SUV has become a sign that the driver can mimic American-style affluence in his or her consumption habits. Yet many of the reasons cited by Chinese drivers to buy SUVs are very similar to those cited by American drivers. "I have to drive my kid around practically non-stop on Saturday,'" said one mother "who ferries her eight-year-old son to Kung Fu and English classes on weekends to the Children's Palace of Beijing before joining her friends for yoga. 'It's pretty tiring, but I feel very good driving my BMW X5 around'" ("Tiger moms craving SUVs drive next wave of Chinese demand: cars," Bloomberg News, 2012). Mothers in China in particular cite how the commodious SUVs offer them additional room for shopping and children's equipment. As more people are 'living' in their cars, the ability to have extra space is seen as a worthwhile investment.
SUVs are popular as both first and second vehicles in China. Many women see them as a sign of their new-found importance and leverage within an economy -- and an economic sector -- traditionally dominated by males. "SUV demand in China jumped 20% last year, more than triple the growth in total passenger-car deliveries" ("Tiger moms craving SUVs drive next wave of Chinese demand: cars," Bloomberg News, 2012). SUV demand outpaces the demand for other types of cars, even though overall this area of the Chinese market has been in slight decline, thanks to some recent economic shakiness. Even Chinese residents who do not have time to take long excursions to the country say that they like the fact that possessing such a vehicle reminds them of the ability to access such a carefree lifestyle.
However, there is no question that driving an SUV is a costly luxury. Even with discounted prices, traditional gas-guzzling SUVs are extremely expensive to fuel and, financially speaking, it is not in the consumer's long-term interest to purchase them. For example, "the front-wheel-drive Escape hybrid lists for $30,030... A rear-wheel-drive Expedition XLT with the 310-hp, 5.4-liter V-8 lists for…$27,245…Using the same gas price of $2.64 for a gallon of regular, the Expedition's 16 mpg means it would cost $2,475 to drive 15,000 miles. The Escape hybrid should average 32 mpg and consume $1,238 a year for gas. At that rate, it will take only 2.2 years for the Escape hybrid to make up the difference" (Smith 2008).
However, it is important to note that the Escape is an SUV, not a small car. Although hybrid in technology, the Escape offers the same amenities of expanded size as a traditional gas-using SUV. Thus, the consumer 'choice' between a snub-nosed car and a full-sized vehicle may be a forced one. Not all SUVs are created alike and many gas-using SUVs are small and fuel-efficient -- like the Toyota RAV4, for example, as well as the hybrid incarnations of the major brands. The (now sold out) Mazda CX-5 "starts at a little over $20K and gets over 30 mpg on the highway" (Tuttle 2012).
The reasons for the upsurge in popularity can be traced to several factors. First, "the newest SUVs aren't the giant tanks from the '90s" (Tuttle 2012). Secondly, all things are relative, and relatively speaking, the price of gas has been slowly going down. Even though it is high compared with previous eras, based upon recent consumer perceptions, it does not appear to be spiraling out of control.
Hybrids: Advantages and disadvantages
Hybrid cars experienced a brief upsurge in popularity when gas prices were very high, around 2005. However, "hybrid car sales have dipped in recent years…consumers have been reticent to embrace hybrid cars" (Pros and cons: Is a hybrid car right for you," Sun Journal, 2011). While Toyota was much-praised for releasing the Prius, which is still synonymous with hybrid technology in many minds, the image of the car did more to boost the Japanese automobile manufacturer's reputation, and Toyota's most popular vehicles tend to be from its 'standard' lines of cars, such as its Camry.
Compared with even smaller cars that use pure gasoline, hybrids are better for the environment when one considers the fumes they emit while being driven. "A hybrid's low emissions mean less greenhouse gases, which can include harmful carbon dioxide. Fewer emissions make for a healthier planet. For consumers whose chief concern is the environment, then hybrid cars are the way to go" ("Pros and cons: Is a hybrid car right for you," Sun Journal, 2011). And they cost far less to drive, in terms of gas mileage, which can be particularly important for consumers in regions of the country like California, where commuting by car on a daily basis is a necessity, and traffic is often stop-and-go. Many places allow hybrid drivers to travel in the HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lane, even when driving solo, which can also lessen the demands of a trying commute ("Pros and cons: Is a hybrid car right for you," Sun Journal, 2011).
However, hybrids are not without some detriments. "Resale value of hybrid cars pales in comparison to that of traditional automobiles. Much of this lower resale value is thanks to the battery needed for hybrid cars. Hybrid car batteries typically need to be replaced once per decade" ("Pros and cons: Is a hybrid car right for you," Sun Journal, 2011). And this is assuming a robust demand for hybrid cars. At present, the trend is downward, making the resale value of hybrids even more questionable.
For some consumers, hybrids possess serious safety concerns. "Safety is also a concern when considering a hybrid car. Hybrids use high-voltage batteries to operate, which can prove disastrous should an accident occur. Manufacturers insist this concern isn't really a problem, as the batteries are designed to turn off in an accident" ("Pros and cons: Is a hybrid car right for you," Sun Journal, 2011). However, most hybrids tend to be smaller and lighter…