What Will Moralists Make of Fuel-Efficient SUVs?

Some SUVs approach 30 miles per gallon

If you think SUV foes have reached the zenith of their outrage, wait till hip-hop overlord, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs rolls out his souped-up line of Lincoln Navigators. Cops chased after Diddy’s Navigator when he fled from a 1999 dance club shootout in Manhattan, and you can bet SUV haters will chase after anyone who cares to shell out $85,000 for one of these limited-edition models.

Diddy’s Navigators will feature special 22-inch wheels designed by Boyd Coddington, black chrome paint treatment, a back-up camera and a heated, vibrating driver’s seat.

Apparently, you’ll still have to bulletproof it yourself.

All these extras won’t likely make the Navigator any more fuel efficient, only more ostentatious – which will only make SUV foes even more furious.

But it wasn’t always like this. There was a time when SUV owners were depicted as robust outdoor enthusiasts and sporty soccer moms. Then as SUVs bulked up and became less fuel-efficient, public opinion started to turn against them and their owners. Buying an SUV stopped being simply a reflection of the owner as a consumer, and more about the owner as a moral agent. In some circles, buying an SUV was no longer a choice, it was a sin.

SUV foes demanded to know why someone would suck up natural resources, and trash the planet just to intimidate other drivers with his street-legal monster truck? As the moralizing mounted, the social standing of SUV owners continued to erode. Today, SUV owners can only claim moral superiority over the likes of smokers and spammers.

But SUV foes aren’t satisfied with social stigma. They want higher gas taxes, higher fuel efficiency mandates – anything that forces people pay more for driving gas-guzzlers. Well, those who buy the Diddy-mobile will pay more, about $30,000 more than the Navigator’s normal sticker price.

Of course, this won’t satisfy the anti-SUV lobby because there’s still that pesky element of choice – buyers choose to pay more for more features. It’s much more fun to force someone to repent for his sins.

But the simple point is we don’t need additional laws to make people pay more for driving SUVs. Those driving gas-guzzlers already pay more to drive somewhere because they have to buy more gas to travel the same distance. Of course, paying more because you use more doesn’t carry the same moralizing component of, say, a sin tax. But if SUV foes want to they can always close their eyes and imagine that it’s the government – not the market – that makes SUV drivers pay for their sins.

Then again, SUV foes shouldn’t be so quick to give up on personal choice. Things may be looking up for SUV foes, even without more laws. Perhaps they should stop making demands, and pause to watch this new trend develop.

After all, even the Diddy-mobile won’t likely see big sales – Combs only plans on selling 100 of them. And next year Ford will stop producing its most hulkish SUV, the Excursion. Most fundamentally, customer preference has gradually shifted toward smaller, more fuel-efficient SUVs. The new “crossover” SUVs are more car than truck, and with 21 different models, the crossover is the fastest growing auto segment.

Maybe crossover owners were shamed away from monster SUVs or maybe they simply grew weary of paying more at the pump. Whatever the reason, crossover owners certainly do complicate the moral posturing that surrounds the SUV wars.

The Hyundai Santa Fe gets 27 miles per gallon. Ford’s Escape gets 28, and the Toyota Rav4 gets 29. This new generation of SUVs inches ever closer to the magic 30-mpg mark, after which point auto owners can claim they’re saving the planet, not trashing it. Imagine SUV owners having enough eco-credibility to sneer at other, less environmentally conscious drivers.

Actually, if you like to sneer and you like SUVs, a manual transmission Rav4 will get you over the 30-mpg hump today. And I don’t mind if others use this information to improve their social standing. None of this threatens my morally superior perch. I walk to work.

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