Oui, Oui SUV

Paris eyes anti-SUV resolution

Like an overprotective father bent on shielding his daughter from ill-intentioned suitors, France often guards its culture from would-be corruptors. Today, it is Paris who stands at the doorway to shoo away that very American menace, the SUV.

The city council recently passed an anti-SUV resolution, which could ultimately lead to an outright ban. But daughters often react to fatherly interference by pleading with daddy to “get to know” the suitor before passing judgment. Likewise, Parisian lawmakers should get to know the SUV, for the big lug may not be as corrupting as they suspect.

However, officials in the City of Lights don—t seem to be in the mood for a rap session. One high-ranking official criticized the SUV as an oversized “caricature of a car,” and wondered aloud why people would even want to drive such a vehicle. Indeed, critics have often scorned the SUV as a dressed up truck with lousy gas mileage, an unnecessarily beefy behemoth. Certainly hulking Navigators and Escalades still roam the road, but the SUV has evolved to the point where its —big lug— image has become increasingly inaccurate.

There’s mounting evidence that Americans are slowing falling out of love with the biggest SUVs. Hummer sales have slipped, sliding sales have prompted Ford to consider discontinuing its largest SUV (the Excursion), and Detroit’s Big Three auto manufacturers have introduced special incentives to move surplus truck-based models.

We don’t know exactly why it happened-perhaps the frantic moralizing had something to do with it-but consumers have grown fonder of smaller, car-based SUVs, often called “crossovers.” Last year, crossovers sales increased by 35 percent, and in recent years manufacturers have responded to increased sales by adding more models.

Just eight years ago, there were only two crossovers available. Now consumers can choose from over two-dozen models, and J.D. Power and Associates estimates that figure could nearly double by 2007.

The new generation of crossovers has answered many of the criticisms lobbed at their predecessors. Car-like features make crossovers easier to maneuver, a lower center of gravity makes them less prone to rollovers and the smaller size makes them more fuel-efficient. Some models surpass the 30-mpg mark and Ford will soon introduce the first hybrid SUV, the Escape, which will further improve fuel efficiency. As more types of hybrid crossovers become available, stamping all SUVs with the “gas guzzler” label will become less and less appropriate. In other words, the market responded to shifting tastes and came up with something that should please customers and critics.

In every nation, politicians’ personal outrage often morphs into shortsighted regulation. But markets evolve more gracefully than regulation, and laws are often outdated shortly after delivery. So if Paris does ban SUVs, enforcement could prove tricky.

For example, Ford’s Expedition would seem to be an easy ban, but what about the smaller Ford Escape? What about the hybrid Escape? Let’s hope tiny car-based models like Toyota’s RAV 4 would escape such a ban. French officials may have to consider lofty philosophical questions like, “If an SUV is car-based, is it still a ‘caricature’ of a car?”

Of course, we need not look to Paris to find SUV critics. Here in the States SUVs have been accused of, among other things, defiling the environment and supporting terrorism. (And all you SUV owners thought you were just picking up the kids from practice.) Last summer, one preacher even embarked on a nationwide publicity tour in which he suggested that Jesus would most certainly not drive an SUV. It must be exhausting to be on the wrong side of the Son of God, environmentalists, the war on terror, and now the city of Paris. Perhaps the SUV had no other choice than to transform into something less controversial.

So if Parisian officials insist on assuming the role of father figure, let’s hope they emulate the father who avoids broad-stroke bans, the one who softens to his daughter’s pleading and welcomes the new suitor. After all, both France and America have had unpleasant experiences with lawmakers who call upon rigid laws to regulate a society that—s in constant motion.

Ted Balaker is the Jacob’s Fellow at Reason Foundation.