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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 September, 2004, 07:29 GMT 08:29 UK
Money-spinner born from a truck

By Stephen Evans
BBC North America business correspondent

SUVs in New York
'Big beast' SUVs can be seen prowling the streets of New York

Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs) do not get a good press.

In America, they're the bete noire of green activists. Christian environmentalists ask "What car would Jesus drive?" - "Not an SUV" is the answer, lest you wonder.

In Britain, they've been called "bitch wagons" because their disparagers allege they're driven by aggressive women with more determination than charm.

The Mayor of London called SUV drivers "complete idiots".

In France, the government has considered a special anti-SUV tax. In Sweden, the vehicles are called sneeringly "Montessori jeeps" after the posh nursery schools to which the well-heeled drive their children.

We may conclude that SUVs or 4 by 4s are not the most popular vehicle of the chattering classes.

They are, however, one of the most popular vehicles of pretty well everyone else despite a strange psychology to ownership: people think SUVs are safer for exactly the wrong reason.

Looking down

Psychologists say that the great appeal of the SUV is that people feel safer in them because of the height above the road and other drivers.

The driver of the SUV can literally look down on other vehicles and so feel more in control and less vulnerable.

The difficulty is that height actually increases instability. The higher the centre of gravity of a vehicle, the more likely it is to roll over. Low-slung sports cars, for example, are much safer despite this common perception - they have the speed and agility to avoid trouble.

The latest figures in the United States show deaths in crashes involving SUVs were higher than in those involving many other vehicles.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that there were just over 16 deaths of SUV occupants in crashes last year per hundred-thousand SUVs compared with just under 15 for passenger cars.

Transformation

Now, there's no doubt that many of the newer SUVs are much safer than the older ones. And different makes of SUV have different records. And a stupid driver of a safe car turns the vehicle into a dangerous car.

But there's also no doubt that the wide perception that big and high means safe is simply wrong. Which perhaps is not surprising when you think of how SUVs got invented.

They started out basically as pick-up trucks with the back covered over for passengers.

In 1996, Ford had the bright idea of converting its F-150 from a truck to what it would call the Explorer, its first real SUV. In the Michigan Truck Plant in Detroit, the great transformation started and a marketing phenomenon was created.

New frills

Ford expected modest sales but a goodish profit from its new product. Trucks are very inexpensive to make compared with cars. They are basic vehicles.

What Ford thought would be a bit of a money-spinner in a niche market turned into one of the most profitable products of all time.

Soon the Michigan plant was just making the Expedition.

New shifts were added as the orders flooded in. A luxury version of the Expedition was added, with new frills and a new grill.

The Michigan Truck Plant had become the most profitable of any Ford plant anywhere, turning a staggering profit of $3.7 billion in 1998.

And the motor industry has not looked back.

SUVs are increasingly popular year after year, taking a bigger share of the market.

Their success, though, may be as much to do with psychology as engineering.




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