Have you read this new Insurance Institute for Highway Safety report about the crashworthiness of "SUVs"? Apparently, not many of the reporters who've been covering it have. More likely, they just don't know much about cars -- or SUVs.
Because even though most of the news coverage I've heard touts the safety of the latest-generation SUVs, ostensibly due to government mandates such as electronic stability control as well as major redesigns by the car companies to make them less top heavy and tipsy -- the first two vehicles on the IIHS list are the Audi A6 and the Mercedes Benz E-Class.
Uh, well. Ok. But these are both passenger cars. Not SUVs. Heck, they're as far from being SUVs as it gets. Both the A6 and E-Class Benz are large luxury-sport sedans.
Ur. Uh. There's something else. IIHS describes these two as being "4WD."
Apparently, IIHS doesn't know much about passenger cars either. The A6 and E-Class do offer all-wheel-drive. But AWD is not 4WD. AWD is a car-based system without a two-speed transfer case and Low range gearing. It is not designed for off-road work. Many modern passenger cars offer some type of AWD system, but real SUVs are based on trucks -- not cars -- and offer 4WD, with a two-speed transfer case and Low range gearing. Capice?
Which brings up another item.
Other models listed by IIHS and touted as "SUVs" just look like SUVs but are in fact cars where it counts. For example the Ford Edge -- number four on the IIHS list. Its chassis and other underthings are sourced form the Ford Taurus sedan. Which is -- you guessed it -- a car.
The Edge is technically a crossover -- a car-based wagon that offers AWD. But it is fundamentally a passenger car and not an SUV.
Ditto the Honda CR-V and the Acura MDX and the Lexus RX (the latter being an ES350 in drag; the latter of that being a Camry in drag).
And the Toyota Sienna? Number three on the IIHS list? That's a freakin' minivan, for crying out loud.
Someone throw me a bone here -- please.
I'm not sure what the point of the IIHS report -- or the media coverage of the "new safe" (cough) SUVs is supposed to be. Perhaps it's more catchy than just saying, bigger and heavier vehicles tend to be more crashworthy than smaller, lighter ones.
Because that was true 10 years ago, at the apogee of the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire debacle.
And it's just as true today.
The only real change that's happened in the interim is that real-deal SUVs have become less popular while a new class of looks-like-SUVs-but-aren't has become the new In Thing. These are crossovers, the aforesaid vehicles that look sort of like an SUV but are built on a passenger car chassis (almost always a front-wheel-drive-based passenger car chassis) that offer some form of light-duty AWD, but not truck-style 4WD with Low range gearing.
Crossovers have become popular because they have the macho-sporty SUV look people want, and also the larger, roomier interiors that originally ignited the SUV boom back in the early '90s, when the typical passenger car was small -- downsized by federal edicts such as CAFE that penalized the automakers for building the large sedans and wagons that used to be the American standard. At the time, CAFE standards were tougher on cars than "light trucks," a government category of vehicle that included pick-ups and SUVs. This "loophole" allowed the automakers to dodge CAFE and build the bigger/heavier vehicles that many people wanted but could not get in the form of a car. The automakers built large SUVs instead.
Crossovers also handle better than truck-based SUVs. They have a lower center of gravity and suspension systems and tires designed mainly for on-road driving. The true problem with the first generation of SUVs in the '80s and '90s was that they had been conceived as special purpose vehicles, designed to tackle rough off-road trails. They rode high and didn't handle as well as cars at high speed on paved roads, but the people who bought these specialty vehicles understood this -- and drove accordingly. Widespread trouble cropped up only after these purpose-built specialty vehicles became mass market vehicles for suburban Moos and Duhs who didn't realize a Bronco or Explorer or Discovery II isn't set up to corner like a BMW or be driven at 80 MPH for hours on end in the middle of summer on under-inflated M/S-rated tires.
The thing to know about the IIHS report is not that "new SUVs" are safer. It's that bigger/heavier vehicles are almost always safer than small, lighter ones.
And thank the Motor Gods, the average new vehicle -- whatever you want to call it -- is now a lot bigger (and thus safer) than the average new vehicle of 20 years ago.