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SUVs:  Myth vs. Fact

The fastest-growing segment among new car and truck sales in the United States is the sport utility vehicle or SUV. The sport utility vehicle is generally thought of as a rugged vehicle with the capability of going off-road. Usually, they have high ground clearance to go over rocks, snow and other obstacles. Most have all-wheel drive for greater traction and relatively large cargo capacity.

Sport utility vehicles come in sizes ranging from small to huge and with prices from economical to astronomical. In 1995, they accounted for 12 percent of new-car sales in the United States. In 2001, "SUV's accounted for nearly 22 percent of the market," says Jeff Schuster of the marketing research firm J.D. Power and Associates. "We look for that to hold this year and grow a little bit, by about a half a percent, rounding-wise, to nearly 23 percent of the market."

In short, sport utility vehicles are hugely popular and nowhere more so than in North America. We asked Keith Crain, publisher of the auto industry weekly, Automotive News, why? "It is a big, typically American vehicle," he says. "Gasoline here costs less than bottled water, so that the fuel economy is not an issue. And Americans just like their big vehicles."

Editor-at-large of Car & Driver magazine Brock Yates sees the SUV's versatility as a big factor in its success. "We are multi-purpose vehicle users and so many families now are employing automobiles not only for business and private use, but also for recreational purposes, all sorts of outdoor recreational activities," says Mr. Yates. "The SUV, the sport utility vehicle, seems to serve that purpose almost perfectly for us."

J.D. Power's Jeff Schuster sees the SUV as combining utility with image for modern families. "A lot of cargo is being hauled, trailers, boats, campers and such with an SUV. And it is also being seen as, essentially, the "anti-minivan". So, it has really taken over in America as the family vehicle."

Popular, yes. But the sport utility vehicle seems to attract a strong contingent of critics. We will explore that aspect of the SUV phenomenon in our next report.