for 17 October 1996. Updated every THURSDAY.

 

 

4-Wheel Drivel

 
 
"You are what you eat" may be fine
and good for kiddies in knee-pants,
but once most red-blooded kids turn
16, they quickly learn to repeat the
true American gospel: You are what
you drive. High-minded cultural
critics and hopeless urban
do-gooders may not like it, but it's
true. We love cars, and we tend to
mark important events in our lives
in relation to them, whether it's
losing our virginity or getting a
job.
 
And just like sex and taxable income,
anything is better than nothing when
you've just crossed the threshold of
legality. But, as we age and our
wages inevitably balloon in inverse
proportion to how hard we work, we
begin to look around and see what
other folks are driving. We catch
ourselves actually watching those
ridiculous car commercials, lulled
into a vegetative state by the
farm-league studio rock and sleek
sport-utility vehicles snaking down
a leafy single-lane.
 
There may be one less sport-utility
on the market when you emerge from
your stupor this week. Suffering the
worst condemnation a commercial
enterprise can undergo, Isuzu
recently announced that sales of
their flagship SUV, the Trooper,
have plummeted 83 percent since last
month's Consumer Reports article.
Seems research shows that recent
models have an unpleasant tendency
to roll over. The last dog to do
this trick and gain the attention of
Reports - the Suzuki Samurai -
subsequently did a pretty convincing
job of playing dead, too.
 
 
In fairness it should be pointed out,
as Isuzu has been trying to do, that
very few people would drive a
Trooper the way you'd need to drive
one to make it fall down and go
boom. After all, everyone knows that
less than 10 percent of all SUV
owners ever take their vehicles off
the stretch of pavement that
connects their executive stalls to
their heated garages. Strange fact,
given that an SUV is typically
defined by its four-wheel-drive and
exaggerated ground clearance -
presumably to accommodate whatever
form of sporty, utilitarian
off-roading you're susceptible to.
 
 
The fact of the matter - and, no
doubt, cause for some real pride in
American ingenuity - is that cars
are built to break the law. Why, for
example, any vehicle needs to drive
at speeds in excess of 70 or 80
miles per hour seems a no-brainer,
given near-universal speed limits of
55 or 65. Yet most American
automobiles have speedometers that
don't stop short of 100. And an
automobile that can literally go
anywhere - say, skipping across the
Canyonlands of Utah... well, all we
can do is urge you to go ahead and
buy that gun rack. And why not throw
in a couple of those sodium-filament
poaching lights?
 
Still, few people take advantage of
SUVs' best features. So why are SUVs
the hottest model going? Well,
that's a little like asking why
labor unions are doing so poorly,
given the fashionableness of
steel-toed shoes and flannel shirts.
 
Automobiles have always been about
freedom - or the appearance of it.
Never mind the hooey about this
country being too large to support
mass transit on a national scale. If
the sordid histories of Amtrak and
Greyhound have taught us anything,
it's that we're simply too selfish
and impatient - and, perhaps, too
self-important - for trains and
buses. Americans wanna be able to go
wherever they desire, whenever they
desire, preferably without having to
sit next to a drooling stranger
spouting Continental philosophy with
a chicken on her lap. While that may
be possible in anything that'll burn
gas and hold air, there comes a time
when an overly comfortable society
can pick and choose its battles - as
trivial and excessive as they might
be. After all, what would this
country be without trivia and
excess?
 
 
In a time where one geography
increasingly looks like the next,
where workspace is interchangeable
with homespace and playspace, we
want to have the freedom to
literally go anywhere we want,
including the western, roadless, and
more or less extinct frontier. Isn't
it strange that SUVs represent the
triumph of such abstractions? That
we are able to look like we travel
to a place that doesn't really exist
anymore?
 
But don't worry: We won't actually
try to go there. We'll be too busy
logging miles between home and the
office, putting in overtime to pay
for the damn thing.
 
 

[Zero Baud Archive]

courtesy of
E.L. Skinner