Five Reasons Gas-Guzzlers Won't Die--And Shouldn't--Any Time Soon

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2010 Cadillac Escalade EXT

2010 Cadillac Escalade EXT

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Writing about green cars can be a challenge. On the one hand, this site attracts many new-car buyers who want to learn more about more fuel-efficient alternatives to what they're driving now. Consider the Ford Explorer driver who bought a Honda Fit because it was really all he needed.

But on the other hand, it has a significant readership of green advocates who often seem to believe that driving anything other than the most fuel-efficient vehicle you can buy is a moral crime.

1979 Lincoln Town Car, Missoula, Montana

1979 Lincoln Town Car, Missoula, Montana

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It's for them that we provide this gentle dose of reality, albeit with a needlessly provocative title. 

(1) Size and mass require more energy to move

In auto markets all over the world, drivers buy the largest vehicle they think they can afford to run. The bigger the vehicle, the heavier it is (despite all-aluminum luxury sedans like the Audi A8 and Jaguar XJ).The heavier it is, the more energy it takes to move.

Not everyone will drive the smallest vehicle they fit into. Nor should they, because ...

2005 Ford Excursion XLS

2005 Ford Excursion XLS

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(2) Some families really DO need seven seats

There really are families with three, four, five, even six or more children. They need family vehicles. And that doesn't even get into the Little League coaches, the parents roped into carting athletic teams around, or just those play dates with multiple kids.

Families need bigger vehicles. Period. And a Mazda5 minivan, as admirable a vehicle as it is, just won't cut it.

(3) Some buyers tow very heavy things

Even ignoring work trucks, a remarkable number of Americans own fifth-wheel trailers, or haul motorcycles or ATVs or snowmobiles around on trailers, or tow 7,500-pound boats four hours each way to the lake house every other weekend.

2009 Dodge Ram 2500 ST

2009 Dodge Ram 2500 ST

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Let's be clear: It's a way of life that's utterly alien to the rest of the world. But in parts of the U.S., the wherewithal to tow a large boat to a weekend house defines middle-class life. It means nothing to the average Chinese first-time car buyer--who provides the growth in global car markets--but as John Mellencamp sang, "Ain't that America?"

(4) There'll always be a low end of the scale

As fleet average gas mileage moves toward 34 mpg in 2016, there'll be cars that do better than that--battery electric vehicles that use no gasoline at all--and vehicles that do worse.

We'll still have seven- and eight-seat crossovers in 2016. While their fuel efficiency will likely be a lot higher than today's crop deliver (a 2011 Chevrolet Traverse AWD is rated at 16 mpg city, 23 mpg highway), they'll still be a lot lower than the compact sedans that deliver 40 mpg today, and probably better mileage yet by then.

Which will make those full-size crossovers gas guzzlers. Relatively.


2010 Chevrolet Suburban

2010 Chevrolet Suburban

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(5) There'll always be a Texas

Texans really love their trucks. Big commercial-grade pickup trucks. Turbodiesel trucks. And Chevrolet Suburbans, which for many years sold half their production in Texas alone. Renting a compact car in Texas is an exercise in repeatedly losing your vehicle because you can't see it among the parked trucks.

Yes, Texans (and many other Americans) drive long distances. But not every Texan needs a truck to go from a gated suburban community to the nearest mini-mall or high school. Perhaps it's the state's history as the former source of much of this nation's crude oil.

We hope it's not a representative sample, but more Texans have sneered to us at the idea of using less gasoline than residents of any other state. You almost get the sense that Texans take a perverse pride in using as much gasoline as possible. It's some kind of cultural indicator of manhood or something, except that Texan women drive pickups too.

Texas Governor Rick Perry may be the only one of 50 governors to call out the Toyota Prius hybrid by name just to sneer at it. (He was wrong; it holds five bales of hay.) He also accused the EPA of "preparing to undo decades of progress" and "destroying hundreds of thousands of jobs."

Paradoxically, Texas also produces lots of renewable energy, and would benefit from natural-gas vehicles, given regional supplies. But we suspect Texans will consume more gasoline per mile driven long after mileage standards tighten.

(We welcome Texans to weigh in with opposing viewpoints, by the way. Please leave them in the Comments below.)

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Comments (22)
  1. I disagree. I don't think that you should have a boat and a huge oversize truck to tow it, I don't think that you should have a car that is larger than you need.
    What gives others the right to hog limited fuel supplies and un-nessasarily pollute the environment? That's just rude and inconsiderate.
    Why should my children suffer for their hobby?
    We need to to re-think the things that we do and the impact we have on the world. You can have the biggest boat that you want and the heaviest truck as long as their operation doesn't harm me or my family.

  2. Michael, perhaps you are unfamiliar with living in a free society that at least for the moment portends to be a democracy. Freedom to choose is a fundamental criteria of living in that kind of world.
    If you wish to dictate to everyone what they are allowed to own and what they can spend their disposable income on, then you are living in a totalitarian state.
    My great grandparents did not come to this country, nor did my grandfather fight in WW2 to live in a country where some government or intellectual elite decided what was best for them. That's why they came here, the freedom to choose.

  3. very rational and well presented EXCEPT for the obligatory shot at Texas. treating that one as if it's some mass of people who are all the same simply because their governor makes a snide remark is akin to what MSNBC does all day / all night / all the time vis a vis inserting 'sarah palin' into every conversation. it's a bit too easy. in a way, it can detract from otherwise, sober, objective reporting and analysis. of course, great for getting the "piling on" going.

  4. @Eric.Tryko The freedom to choose comes with the responsibility you have to your fellow man.

  5. Michael, the attempt to say that the use of the earth's resources means - by definition - you / government are immediately empowered to regulate and/or decide how others can choose to spend their time/money is a really slippery slope. Perhaps taxing the use of said resources is one way to try and address these issues. But your statement seems to suggest going quite a bit further than this. I don't want governments/majorities necessarily telling me who to like, who to hate, what to eat, what to watch, etc because it could hurt the greater good as defined by you.

  6. @ModerationIsBest It's why I say 'I', me, we. I don't presume to speak for others. I apologies if that's how it sounded.
    What I can't do, as an individual is endorse any kind of leisure activity that will impact our shared environment. I can't stop it, nor, in principle should governments in an ideal world; they wouldn't need to, everyone would have a perfect social conscience & only do the things that benefit society.
    Governments have their place, IMO, to gather resources and apply them to projects that individuals alone can't accomplish. But individuals can make their own decisions about how to live. It's that sentiment that I wish to engage, as individuals we shouldn't pat each other on the back for buying a new boat.

  7. You only need an economic recession / depression to change mass societal behaviors. The national savings rate has gone way up. Coal consumption is way down.
    Personally, I prefer to work on the supply side, inventing sustainable models of production / consumption that allow us to live as we please and not suffer draconian restrictions, which elites always manage to absolve themselves, because, they proclaim, as advocates of the people, they deserve their luxuries - like Nancy Pelosi's personal military plane service while Speaker of the House.

  8. Michael, re Post #6, very fair points and much appreciated. Get a little irritated with some (obviously not you as you walk the walk) who "preach" and then buy mansions in Montecito (Former VP Al Gore), use private jets (Minority Leader Pelosi and many, many others), etc. They epitomize the old description coined, I believe, by a Brooklyn Congressman in the 70's complaining about Manhattan'ites "preaching" - Limousine Liberal. I too hope that individuals start to see the light and begin behaving more rationally when it comes to sustainable lifestyles.

  9. Your freedom stops when you harm others. Using other people's fuel and polluting the air we all breath harms others. Blocking visibility in parking lots and on the highways causes harm. Hitting smaller vehicles and killing people causes harm. Sending troops to die to get oil causes harm.

  10. The entire world OUTSIDE the US knows Americans have been brainwashed into buying SUVs. They are cheaper for Detroit to manufacture and because they're 'BIG' dumb yanks can be convinced to pay more for less.
    The entire subject of "green" cars is about energy efficiency not size.
    20,000T trains and 400T mine trucks use electric drive because it's more energy efficient. By comparison an SUV running on petrol with mechanical transmission is primitively inefficient.
    So long as US fuel is artificially cheap then there is nothing to stop Detroit selling these stupidly over sized vehicles to a gullible US public. One thing is certain, fuel prices will not 'stay' cheap forever so the days of 2.5 ton private vehicles that run 100% on gasoline are defiantly numbered.

  11. Total nonsense. The SUV trend resulted from shortsighted C.A.F.E. legislation. Cars could no longer perform the function Americans had become accustomed to. Bear in mind that the U.S. was an oil exporter into the early 1960's. Oil was always plentiful and the products of the big 3 reflected that. Small cars had been tried (Crossley, Bantam and others) and had failed. And to say that SUV's are cheaper to build shows your ignorance. The classic SUV is more expensive than a 3 box unibody FWD design typical of modern cars. Do you really think that a separate body and frame is cheaper? Modern cars dispense with the frame altogether. How is US fuel artificially cheap? Crude is sold on a world market with supplies controlled largely by OPEC.

  12. Safety of my children is also a major concern. Unfortunately my father’s 1977 Plymouth Volarie was T boned by a pickup truck and my little brother suffered brain damage and has been disabled ever since. As a precautionary measure we drive our kids around in a SUV and will continue to do so until they are older. Unless we go into a depression or experience high gas prices that cause a change in the vehicles sold. Where we live the majority of people have trucks and SUV’s and no it’s not Texas.

  13. SUV/CUV's are no safer than regular passenger cars.
    The world of automobile safety has progressed somewhat since 1977...

  14. I really appreciate the balanced tone of the article. One additional point might have been clearer. Most green vehicle people don't seek to have 100% green vehicles, they are looking for a shift in behavior towards greener vehicles. In other words, if the smaller SUV will do, then please purchase it. I spent enough time in Utah to appreciate that some Families "need" a Suburban. In fact, if your choices are driving one Suburban or two smaller cars, the Suburban is more fuel efficient.
    But if people just pay attention and buy the 1.8L Corolla versus the 2.4L, the fuel saving would be significant and their quality of life unaffected.
    Also, as long as anything is coming out of the tailpipe and getting into the air that we all share, regulation is appropriate. If you can make a battery electric Hummer using electricity from solar panels on your property, that is fine. (Come to thing of it, I think I might buy a Hummer in that case.)
    John C. Briggs

  15. Some car makers, GM in particular, get around CAFE by making their large trucks and SUVs FFV. Most of those vehicles never run E85, but they are rated for mileage as if they do.

  16. I think gas guzzlers are and should be a thing of the past. Not only are they fuel hogs the emissions they put out is pathetic. So while the masses go green there will be still these idiots that think they need a big vehicle that blocks the view of on coming traffic and spits out choking fumes.

  17. There are Tahoe and Silverado hybrids that get 20 mpg in the city, but they cost a lot and I am not sure that the folks in Texas look kindly towards them. They do not sell all that many to make much of a difference anyway.

  18. Having lived in Texas, I'd say the author's assessment is basically correct. I now live in Wyoming where there are a lot of trucks, but most people drive realistic cars according to what they need. Mostly because here, neighborhoods are defined in tens of miles. :) I live 90 miles from Walmart, for instance, and we have a Honda Civic.

  19. You all have some very good points. Depending on the needs of a family may decide on the vehicle they drive. I have several vehicles and also a few toys, boat, snowmobiles and a camper. We love to go fishing and to water ski. We also love camping. We have a truck to tow with and also a smaller vehicle for around town and short trips. I will not give up my truck, it's great and gas mpg is very good. I hope we don't end up in a country that will tell us what we can drive. I did the down size thing a few years back and got worse gas mpg so back to the truck I went. I know that gas prices will continue to increase, why I don't know but until the day I am forced to rid myself of my things I will continue to use and drive them and have fun.

  20. It's too bad that a great article has to be ruined by shameful stereotyping. I am not here to dispute that Texans do not own more trucks and SUV's than the rest of the nation, but to go so far as to say they do it on purpose is ignorant at best. Saying, "You almost get the sense that Texans take a perverse pride in using as much gasoline as possible" really brings-out you true colors I guess. Since it seems that you have resorted to hasty generalizations, I'll go go ahead and continue the trend. Having grown-up in the San Francisco Bay Area and now living (and loving) Texas I can tell you that this is not the case. Unlike the city dwellers of SF, urban Texans work their entire lives to live as far away from cities as possible (i.e. on a ranch). Not to mention that a large number of Texans and/or their relatives currently live on ranches.
    If you really want to chose someone who is hurting the environment then point the finger at very Prius and hybrid driver who will be disposing of their toxic batteries in coming years.

  21. There are 2 other scenarios you didn't mention. People who own small vehicles ask their friends with pickups to help them move furniture. On a more serious note though, small business has always been the biggest employer of Americans. Pickups and SUVs represent production capability for an aspiring small business owner. There are many Americans who moonlight by using their vehicles as part of their service or as a key part of their production. The brilliant elite simply can't design a perfect system that doesn't choke the inventiveness of Americans. Thus we either have unused potential or no potential to go it on your own.

  22. (We welcome Texans to weigh in with opposing viewpoints, by the way....)

    As a Texan, I would have to say I do not fall within the generalized picture you paint of us. Albeit, I know I am in the Minority. Yes we love our trucks, and many of us actually use them for their intended purposes (myself included). However, I just want it said, not ALL Texans follow the Creed of His "Holiness" Soon-To-Be-Ex-Gov. Rick Perry. I regularly reference this site to my fellow Texans when they try to boast or defend "their right" to drive their Suburban or F350 when they're going to the grocery store. As well as my Fellow Pretentious Dallas-ites who claim they're "greener" for driving a Prius(Pious), but refuse to consider the impact of their lifestyles.

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