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SUVs offer so many disadvantages

By: Gary Magwood

Date: Wednesday, 09. January 2008

OK, I've stood by and monitored the Great SUV debate for a couple of years. I have been listening to folks explain the reasoning behind their purchase after pointedly asking, "Why did you buy an all-wheel (AWD)/ four-wheel drive vehicle (4WD)?" I've read the countless columns arguing the pros and cons. I've heard the call-in shows. I've read extensive excerpts from "High and Mighty: SUV's--The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way" by Keith Bradsher, to get the gist of his argument. I've quietly chatted with auto company types who can't figure out the phenomena. I've tallied the percentage of SUV's in ditches after snow storms. Overall, I think I have taken a balanced approach. I think they are Simply Unnecessary Vehicles.

I arrived at this conclusion by delving into what I've learned over the years about drivers and driving. First of all, AWD/4WD is not a panacea for all the ills of winter driving. Sure, you have instant traction when the light goes green. But, and this is a big BUT, braking and steering are compromised, particularly when the pavement's really slick.

Why, you ask. Surely with all four wheels driving the vehicle I have better all around traction. Therein lies one misperception: all four wheels driving or "pushing" the vehicle along tends to overpower the brakes and steering. This situation is compounded by the propensity to use all season tires that just plain don't offer the traction advantages of winter tires.

So, here's what happens. You stand on the gas and the vehicle leaps forward leaving the two wheel drive units spinning their drive wheels. Your immediate reaction is, "Hey, it's not so slippery."

False signal! The truth rears its ugly head when you've got the SUV up to a speed that might be too fast for conditions and you have to stop quickly or take evasive action. Or, out on the highway, you find yourself drifting along in your "safety" cocoon until a long sweeping curve appears on your screen and next thing you know the vehicle is not responding to steering inputs.

You're asking four little tire contact patches (combined area about the size of a sheet of stationary) to deal with speed too fast for conditions, brought about by a false sense of available traction, to gain enough adhesion to either slow a heavy vehicle or enable it to track around the curve.

You realize your vehicle is heading off the road. Your eyes lock on the ditch or guardrail and you stomp on the brake pedal. At this stage, ABS isn't going to help. Your vehicle will likely leave the paved portion of the highway at a speed higher than a lighter, two wheel drive vehicle. If you manage to get it stopped without being tripped up and tumbling over, you will be much further off the road.

I've only dealt with pavement conditions so far. What about gusty side winds combined with poor traction? SUV's sit much higher than a conventional vehicle and have higher centers of gravity. Plain old physics will demonstrate that a tall vehicle riding on less than sophisticated suspension will react violently to sudden wind gusts. Even as SUV's receive improved suspension designs, they cannot defy the physics. Let's take another of the major reasons for owning and driving an SUV: I sit higher therefore I can see better. Logic would decree that if you can see further you can deal with a potential problem. Two things:

First, we are a low-aim vision species. That means we tend to look down the hoods of our vehicles, regardless of how high we sit, unless we're trained to look up and look high/further down the road.

Second: Vision affects our physical center of gravity. Notice that racing drivers sit as low as possible-the closer our butts are to the road the more sensitive we are to dynamic shifts in the attitude of a vehicle. In other words the lower we sit the more likely we are to be able to detect and react to the initial stages of a loss of traction. In addition, the advantages of sitting up high are negated when following another SUV, pick-up truck, van or transport.

I've observed that drivers sitting higher tend to tailgate more aggressively, because when stopped or sitting in a jam, they can see over the tops of other vehicles. Once moving, the reality is we visually lock onto the vehicle immediately ahead. Sitting up high does not improve peripheral vision, the component of eyesight that guides us around obstructions.

Another justification made is load capacity. I suggest that most medium-sized wagons will out-haul most SUV's. The loading and unloading part must be easier with a wagon (or even van) than hoisting heavy gear against gravity.

Getting in and out of an SUV seems like hard work. Surely sliding into a drivers seat requires less effort than grabbing the steering wheel and hauling yourself up into position; not to mention buffing salt or mud off the rocker panel with your clothing each time. Those stains create a more rural look, however, which gives the impression that you are a real outdoorsy type.

Now, some observations from the drivers seat. It's interesting to go back a few years to the bumper height debate. The thinking by the "safety/insurance" lobby was to standardize bumper heights to reduce the damage in collisions. I sat at a traffic light the other day and realized that the bumper on the SUV sitting next to me would impact my vehicle about chest height. Ahead of me a pick-up truck with a trailer hitch was aimed directly at the bridge of my nose! Not a comforting thought.

Sure, an SUV might emerge less damaged in a crash with a lighter vehicle. But, by extension, will not fare as well in collision with a larger SUV, truck or transport. If the size and weight of your vehicle provides a sense of security, however false, why stop at a lightweight Honda CRV-why not go for a Hummer?

I live in a small rural community and drive on two lane highways. I see fewer SUV's out here than in the city! Obviously we have more 1/2 tons (pick-ups for you urban dwellers). The headlights of SUV's and pickups are, in most cases, almost a foot higher off the road. Guess what? Their low beams are damn near as dazzling as a standard vehicles' high beams. Night driving has become more difficult for many of us as a result.

I will leave the conservation consequences to the experts in that arena. My concerns pertain to the driving task. We have the right, as pointed out in newspaper articles and radio shows, to purchase and drive the vehicles of our choice. If you are looking for "sport" or "utility" and are really concerned about your own "safety" there are other options. If you own or are planning to purchase an SUV please think up other reasons to rationalize the decision.

Given that the biggest challenge for most SUV's is to struggle up the golf club driveway in a rain storm, AWD/4WD is absolutely unnecessary for day-to-day use. I humbly suggest that lighter, more nimble vehicles fitted with four winter tires provide adequate traction, stopping and turning capabilities for the majority of winter conditions. The traction argument is really undermined by the popularity of SUV's in southern climes.

Asked whether AWD/4WD is necessary in the Canadian climate, I answer, "Just make sure when you have to call a tow truck to haul you out of the ditch that it has an extra long cable. Why? Because your heavy, superior traction SUV will be much further off the road when it finally stops!"

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All Comments (10)

Showing 1 - 10 comments


i agree with thomas. you are not saying any of the advantages of suv's your sayin all the neagtives.

Thomas Bonifacio,

I do not agree. This article is totally biased. Your trying to convince everyone that smaller more economical vehicles are better for the environment which is true to a point, but winter tires are not going to help you in deep snow, and regardless if you have winter tires or you don't, if you do into a skid you ain't stopping it. It isn't going to be so economical if all of us are in Toyota Corrola's with about 70 tow trucks pulling us out of ditches, while they burn gas by the gallon. This article makes me laugh...

An Anonymous Person,

I completly agree. There is barely anything to gain from driving a SUV, especially with the higher rollover risk.


There are hybrid SUVs, performance SUVs, off-road SUVs, family SUVs, luxury SUVs, cute-ute SUVs, monster SUVs, etc. They're the perfect answer to a question never really asked. :)


i do not agree


Your arguments don't extend beyond driver attitude. As with any car, you need to be aware of the shortcomings of your vehicle, and drive accordingly. SUVs are appropriate for a number of drivers, and your categorization of these drivers as being nothing but overconfident city-folk is your opinion, nothing more. Please do more research on the vehicles themsevles, rather than basing your argument on how you have observed people to operate them.


You are 100% correct!!!!
I agree with u..........


Dear sir,
Thanks for your elaborate article.

I do know that this is not a discussion forum, but please kindly understand...

At the moment, all I can say for now is that I am already a victim in a mess of SUVīs problem. I was just wondering if you OR ANYONE could kindly advice me on the current hitch I now have with my ssang yong musso, a 1996 model.

I was towing a small car on a trailer down hill on a 5th gear and the transmission got hooked up and cannot engage in any gear for now. (By the way, it is a manual 5 gear, gearbox). Vehicle can only be pushed forward and backward only when the clutch pedal is depressed as the gear leaver cannot engage in any gear. not even on free (neutral).....

What could be wrong? please kindly advice.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Lots of regards,


hp carte son

john from lou,

man i was thinkin about gettin one f**k

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