Special Report

SUV Rollovers

Did you know that truck-like vehicles don’t handle like sports cars?

By 8.11.04

Once again, the networks were atwitter with accounts of barrel-rolling SUVs -- but the reportage of the government's latest crash test data may have set a new low for uninformed journalism.

Almost all the news accounts and commentary began with something along the lines of what appeared in the Aug. 10 edition of the Washington Post: "The ground-hugging Mazda RX-8 sports car ranked best..." and then went on to luridly paint the SUV as tipsier than Boris Yeltsin with two quarts of Stoli sloshing around in his gut.

But what's the point of comparing such dissimilar vehicles -- a purpose-built high-performance sports coupe and a truck-based utility vehicle?

It's the equivalent of criticizing an orange because it doesn't taste like an apple.

Yes, it's true -- if you are dumb enough to drive an SUV as if it were a sports car -- hitting freeway off-ramps at 20 over the recommended limit, making abrupt lane changes at 80-mph, etc. -- it will indeed be more apt to turn turtle than something like an RX-8. But we would immediately (and rightly) label anyone who took their sports car off-road and got hung up on the first big rut an imbecile who got what he deserved. Why doesn't the same impeccable logic apply to the cattle-brains who expect their SUVs to do things they are just as inherently unsuited for?

Isn't the whole point of owning an SUV (or a sports car) the specialized capability each vehicle offers?

When you buy a sports car, you pretty much know (and are fine with) the reality that it isn't going to do too well if it snows -- and probably won't be very happy if you try and make it pull a trailer. But you accept these tradeoffs in return for the zippy handling and fun-to-drive experience that is the sports car's forte.

Similarly, when you buy a truck-based SUV, you're accepting a trade-off: superior traction in bad weather and even off paved roads at the cost of "trucky" handling on road.

There are middle -of-the-road passenger cars for people who want a more well-rounded vehicle.

The problem with SUVs is that many people who buy them somehow don't grasp (or haven't had it explained to them) that a heavy vehicle built on a truck-type chassis that rides higher off the ground is not the hot ticket for high-speed driving and aggressive cornering. Even though there are mandatory warning labels pasted on the sun visor (and additional cautions laid out in the owner's manual), many people still think it's okay to drive an SUV just like a car -- and expect it to behave like one. That's moonshine, of course -- as the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire debacle of two years ago should have amply demonstrated. Most of the wrecks involved Explorers that had been driven at continuous high speed in very high heat conditions on underinflated/worn-out Mud and Snow-rated (M/S) tires that were never designed for sustained high-speed operation in the first place. When a tire gave out at 80 or 90 mph, the sudden weight shift resulted in loss of control -- and in many cases, a rollover accident.

But had the trucks been driven at a lower speed within the safety envelope of their basic design (and that of their off-road style tires) the tire failure probably would not have happened -- and had it happened, the weight transfer would not have been as dramatic and the SUV likely would have remained controllable.

Part of the blame for the SUV debacle can certainly be laid at the feet of the automakers -- who have marketed SUVs as large cars, touting their roominess and comfort, downplaying their handling deficits. But that doesn't (or shouldn't) absolve SUV owners from exercising common sense.

And it doesn't excuse grossly unfair comparisons of purpose-built SUVs and purpose-built sports cars.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.