Big is beautiful again in the US suburbs

David Usborne on the giant ego machines taking over the streets

If you thought that the love affair between Americans and their gas-guzzling road-cruisers was over long ago, think again. Tail-fins may not yet be back in fashion, but cars with monster dimensions are once more the national rage.

In fact, these garage-busters are not cars at all. What is drawing buyers to the showrooms in droves are so-called sport utility vehicles that ride high above the road. They have beefy engines, intimidating front-grill fenders and that other feature that is so vital in suburbia, four-wheel drive.

Their conquest of the US roadway - the big American manufacturers like Ford and General Motors simply cannot keep up with demand - is sounding alarm bells among safety groups. In accidents between these Goliaths and flimsy saloons, guess which gets crushed?

Ford apparently sees no limits to the trend. Yesterday came news that it is developing what should be the biggest utility yet - an eight-passenger titan to be called a crew wagon. It will be 19 feet long - compared with slightly under 15 feet for the Jeep Cherokee - and boast a V-10 engine under the bonnet.

The crew wagon will be bigger even than the current bully among bullies, the Chevrolet Suburban. In this correspondent's neighbourhood the Suburbans rule everywhere except in one street. Here there is a resident with the biggest status-symbol-on-wheels available anywhere - the Hummer, a derivative of military vehicle that might have been designed to cross the Himalayas.

At Universal Ford, a sprawling dealership just across the East River from Manhattan in Queens, Frank Thomas confirms the passion for size. "The bigger they are and the larger the engine-size, the more I sell," he said yesterday. "I love it." For every five large-saloon Taurus models he sells, he will shift 30 of the four-wheel-drive Ford Explorers.

"It's totally about ego," Mr Thomas says of his customers. "I look at their backgrounds and their credit histories and it's obvious that there is absolutely no practical point in them buying these vehicles.

"They think that they are going out on safari or something when in fact the largest obstacle they are likely to meet around here is a runaway shopping trolley".

An additional, somewhat ironic, attraction of these brutes is that their size means that they can no longer be described as small cars by the government. They thus escape both luxury taxes and federal regulations on fuel consumption.

There will be no limits on how much these vehicles can drink - which is a good thing. Most can manage only 14 miles a gallon.

The safety disadvantage that the rest of us find ourselves in on the road was highlighted by a study released last week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

It noted that in fatal accidents involving a car and a light truck, which includes pick-ups and sport utilities, 80 per cent of those who died were riding in the cars.

That is a statistic, however, that may only quicken the stampede for the utilities. Have one of these parked outside your house and not only are you the meanest SOB on the block, your kids are likely to be the safest, too.

And who worries about fuel efficiency when you are living in a country where a gallon of petrol sells for less money than a gallon of designer mineral water?

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