Tough Driving

If the Tahoes, Suburbans, Excursions, Expeditions, the Escalades, the Land Cruisers, Range Rovers and the BMW X5s are the lethal battle-cruisers of L.A.‘s urban sea, then, oblivious Westsiders and others, be advised: What I drive is the equivalent of a Yankee-class attack submarine. Yes, it’s true, you SUV drivers are three times more likely than someone piloting an ordinary car to kill another driver. Yes, with your three-quarter-ton chassis, with your undercarriage rails a good two inches above those of most of the cars of other innocent motorists, with as much as 300 horsepower pushing, say, the 5.4-liter-V-8, 5,600-pound Lincoln Navigator, you can blithely plow through the soft tissue of about any other car on the road and leave nothing but blood and scattered metal shards and still dock unscathed and not a minute tardy for lunch at the Ivy.

That is, my friend, unless you cross paths with me. For I‘m gonna hurt you -- real bad. I might even sink you. My Big Black Beast, my high-performance ’94 Impala Super Sport weighs almost as much as you -- 4,700 pounds. Its modified, cool-air induction LT-1 engine cranks 330 wild horses. My torque is that of a T5 twister. My doors armored enough to blunt your incoming prow. And I‘m slung so low to the ground, so insidiously low, that you won’t even know I‘m pulling amidships until you hear the teeth-rattling roar of my twin Borla cat-back exhausts.

I know you thought the SUV was the safest vehicle you could afford. You must have cringed earlier this month when Henry Ford’s great-grandson, William Clay Ford Jr., pretty much said the auto giant would get out of the suburban tank business -- if it weren‘t making so much damn money from people like you. Hell, you didn’t bounce 75 grand for that behemoth Range Rover 4.6 HSE because of its aerodynamic lines, did you? Nope. You bought it, not only because it was there, and everyone else had one, but because you thought you were buying invulnerability.

But what Jean-Luc down at the Rover dealership forgot to tell you is what happens when you combine your vehicle‘s high gravity point with its swervecounter-swerve response. Let me translate: Your SUV is set way up off the ground to avoid all those boulders and logs and decomposing deer known to litter such untamed outbacks like Montana Avenue. When you suddenly swerve to avoid an obstacle -- for example, my Impala streaking straight at you -- you will then immediately swerve back in the opposite direction to regain your original trajectory. With that high center of gravity you’re twice as likely as some putz in a Pontiac to tip precariously onto two wheels. It‘s at that crucial breakpoint when I come in and torpedo you so low and so lung-crushingly hard that I’m going to pitch you into an uncontrolled roll. It‘s a bad way to end up. I know when you bought that monstrosity you fantasized about being a mountain ranger, a logger, a country squire, a location spotter, maybe even a roving environmentalist.

Who would have thought, instead, you would wind up spending the rest of eternity picking the plate glass from the 17th Street Cafe out of your ass?

True, I might not survive such an encounter. But I decided some time ago that if it’s an SUV that takes me out, then you‘re going down with me.

Indeed, taking you with me is a sacred civic duty. As the gaps between rich and poor widen, the gaps in income, in housing, in the very political geography of this city, the allure of the sport-utility vehicle grows ever stronger. Like gated communities and $15,000-a-year private middle schools, SUVs are merely one more gadget allowing the wealthy to further distance and isolate and buffer themselves from the hoi polloi. They promise to protect their pampered owners from the ugliness of the outside world and damn the sticker price -- and the social cost. Even the recent spike in gasoline prices did nothing to snap the SUV-buying fever. I would guess that as gas prices go up, and as SUV sticker prices climb they will become even more passionately coveted commodities. And why not? Buyers of large SUVs have average family incomes of $85,000. The average buyer of the Range Rover and the Lexus LX 450 have household earnings of over $360,000. No wonder that during any given rush hour San Vicente Boulevard seems occupied by a modern-day armored Panzer division.

Outside of maybe a paratrooper stock AK-47 with a hundred-round banana clip, there’s no single piece of machinery you can own that is more socially irresponsible than a fully loaded SUV. But strange, isn‘t it, just how many of them are possessed by the same people who believe it is a capital crime to light up a Lucky at a ball game. This, when the tailpipe emissions from a single Montero, from any of these SUVs that Sacramento political analyst Bill Bradley calls ”global warmers,“ are toxic enough to choke a sell-out crowd at Dodger Stadium.


There’s nothing new about the wealthy using their superior resources to purchase protection and privilege. But there used to be an enforceable social contract governing such transactions. In the pre-SUV era, the trendy, souped-up or ostentatious cars that once thrived NorthOfWilshire were, because of their raw power, often dangerous to innocent others. But here was the Faustian bargain: They were also a threat to the driver him- or herself. Ask Jimmy Dean about that. When you plunked down a load for a Porsche or a ‘Vette, you knew that in a rush of adrenaline you might flatten the paperboy lurking in your blind spot. But you also knew that if you misjudged the bank of Deadman’s Curve, you could end with a chest full of fiberglass or, worse, wrapped around a Sunset Boulevard telephone pole like Mel Blanc. Even if your tastes were a bit more sober and you opted for a pricey Caddy, you knew deep down you were essentially buying a perfumed piece-of-crap Chevy whose wheels could fly off unannounced at any moment. This is at least how I rationalize my own growling, gas-guzzling Impala SS. It‘s bad for everybody -- including me. I claim no virtue for owning it. And at least my under-chassis rails are at the same height as all other ”normal“ cars. When I recently rammed the rear of a dinky Toyota on the Ventura Freeway, I bent it up pretty badly. But its own chassis absorbed the shock on an even keel, and the other driver not only lived to tell the tale but he emerged healthy enough to litigate like a sonofabitch. The moral here: Better To Sue Than To Be Strewn.

Twenty years ago the sensitive liberals who now power the SUV craze and who seek protection at any price would have used their excess cash to buy a completely different sort of ”safe car.“ And there was an inherent social justice in that bargain as well. When you exercised the option your financial position permitted, you brought home a car that sounded like a Latin name for some nether body part -- a Volvo or Saab -- and that looked like one as well. That always seemed eminently fair to me. Your car might be safer than the one I could afford, but, to paraphrase O.J., it was the ugliest-ass, most soporific car on the road. You might survive any accident, except falling asleep while gazing at your own car’s stark Swedish interior. Fair enough. And, most importantly, not only was your car boxy and boring, but it was no more likely to kill me as it was you.

SUVs shred that social contract. They are the first vehicles in history consciously designed and purchased to enhance your safety at the expense of everyone else‘s. When you own one you might fancy yourself a free-spirited adventurer equipped to explore exotic and remote sites where cheaper vehicles don’t dare to tread. But, in reality, you are an excessively self-absorbed and potential serial killer.

There‘s some glimmer of a chance that this collective insanity is peaking. Growing public reaction against them might someday soon stigmatize SUVs as much as tobacco or (the much safer) .357 magnum Python. Some major carmakers are at least becoming equivocal on the matter. Ford, in an act that can only be described as clinical schizophrenia, has just introduced into the market the gargantuan, nine-passenger, 18-foot-long Excursion, built on the F-series Super Duty pickup platform, and tipping the scales at twice the weight of an average car. At the same time, Ford is claiming this monster can get 18 miles per gallon (probably coasting downhill), is supposedly designed to be somewhat less murderous to others, and is supposed to run cleaner than previous similar models. ”You can be environmentally conscious and buy this vehicle,“ says Dave Millerick, manager of Ford’s emission planning department. Notice, he didn‘t say anything about being an environmentalist and actually operating this vehicle.

Until and unless this infestation of steel-plated orcas goes the way of the Edsel or the NASDAQ, I will cling to the helm of my Impala. So the next time you’re ensconced and swaddled in the buttermilk calf‘s leather of your taupe-and-mauve Eddie Bauer Expedition, and you’re rolling down 26th Street on your way to Babalu, the cooled air caressing your cheeks, your favorite Kenny G tunes flowing harmoniously from your Alpine deck and out your Bose speakers, and with your windows and doors secured against the outside world, as you sit perched far above the line of plebe junkers in front of you, and all of a sudden and without warning you hear the gut-wrenching rumble of tuned exhausts and the hungry, sucking swoosh of forced-air induction resonating off your side panels, and in your rearview mirror you discern the dark and determined sneer of the grill of an all-black Impala SS, be afraid. Be very afraid.


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