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SUVs:  Popular Vehicles Have Many Critics

With sport utility vehicles (SUVs) accounting for more than one out of every five new vehicle sales in the United States, the popularity of this type of personal transportation is well-established. However, the SUV also has no shortage of critics.

Some of the most vocal critics of the SUV are environmentalists. Kate Simmons is a member of the global warming and energy team at the Sierra Club. She says more than just the driving public's choice is at work here.

"The U.S. automakers have done a good job of convincing the American public that they are, somehow, safer and more adventuresome behind the wheel of a sport utility vehicle," Mr. Simmons said.

The publisher of Automotive News, Keith Crain, says the "green" opposition to SUVs goes back a long way to the World War II military vehicle known as the Jeep and to the period just after that war.

"The consumer version of the Jeep, which became popular in the [19]50s and 60s and spawned any number of imitators, all of a sudden gave Americans the opportunity to go off-road, to discover and explore the countryside. Unfortunately, many of those off-roaders had very bad manners and did terrible things to the environment. And to this day, the environmentalists associate sport utility vehicles with the destruction of our environment as well as the destruction, or the over-use, of natural resources," Mr. Crain said.

The Sierra Club's Kate Simmons points to the relatively poor fuel economy of SUVs, blaming automakers for not using technology that, she says, is already available to improve engine efficiency.

"The fuel economy of the sport utility vehicle is lower than that of cars, so they put more heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and they waste a tremendous amount of energy," Mr. Simmons said.

But Brock Yates, whose columns appear in The Wall Street Journal newspaper and who is editor-at-large of Car & Driver Magazine, says the "gas hog" label is unfair.

"The big sport utility vehicle has been this sort of example set as wasting fuel and wasting space, which in many cases, is unjustified. Because the average sport utility vehicle is relatively middle-sized in terms of weight and fuel efficiency," Mr. Yates said.

Another criticism of big SUVs: the fear factor. David Cole is director of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

"If you're driving down the highway in a small sports car or a small sedan, an SUV is a very intimidating vehicle," Mr. Cole said.