The Dark Green Off-road Vehicle Phenomenon

In the early 1990's, i lived in Mill Valley, California, a quiet, clean, beautiful little town, nestled in redwood trees. It's one of the wealthiest areas in the country; all the homes cost millions of dollars, the cars are luxury vehicles and the people are often snobby.

While i was there, i noticed something strange - the roads were filling with Dark Green Off-road Vehicles (DGOVs). The auto industry calls them SUVs, for Sports Utility Vehicle. You can't drive anywhere without seeing several of these dark green beasts. Every parking lot has at least 2 or 3. I went to Marin Outdoors (a store for camping gear) and was literally surrounded by them. It's creepy.

Faddish buying habits are nothing new to the yuppies that live there. It seems that ideas catch on like wildfire and no yupster wants to be left behind. In the early 1980s it was hot tubs and BMWs. More recently, Interplak high-tech toothbrushes, golden retrievers, and black Saab 900S turbo coupes.

The DGOVs, however, are truly a sign of obsessive consumerist status warfare. The majority of the owners probably never leave the paved road, and are unlikely to carry more than 2 kids and a bag of groceries. DGOVs tend to have 5-liter, 8-cylinder engines guaranteed to produce abysmal mileage. And why Dark Green?

For years, the only off-road status symbol was the Range Rover from British company Land Rover. There is now an explosion of popular vehicles that are basically the same: Honda Passport, Isuzu Trooper and Rodeo, Mitsubishi Montero, Ford Explorer, Plymouth Navigator, Jeep Cherokee, Subaru Outback, Toyota 4Runner, Nissan Pathfinder. The competition is thick at the high end (>$50,000) as well, with the Acura SLX, Lexus 450LX, and Toyota Land Cruiser all costing and performing like a Range Rover. Even Mercedes has a model they're trying to bring to the market.

Maybe the yuppies need the DGOVs to traverse their steep driveways. Maybe driving an off-road vehicle projects the impression that you have the time to go out into nature... even though you never do. Maybe it explains why "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" was originally written about Mill Valley - they're all programmed Pod People.

Besides their basic shape, all these vehicles have one thing in common: they're available, and selling like crazy, in Dark Green.

A History of the SUV Backlash...

The folks at suck finally noticed this phenomena in Four Wheel Drivel on May 26, 1997. Guess i was 8 months ahead of the cutting edge in smug, cynically commentary. As they put it, "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..."
By the end of 1997, the phenomena had spread from a few wealthy suburbs to the entire nation. The "SUV effect" has been covered by lots of major media like Newsweek, and there are even proper backlash sites, like the Ultimate Poseur SUV Page, which points out some pertinent SUV facts:
  • Poorly designed for high speed corners, they have no weight over the rear axle, poor braking performance, and the jacked up bodies make them top heavy and prone to tipping over - The Safety Myth
  • The stopping distances of SUVs is lengthened by their excessive weight and primitive brakes
  • They're just cheap pickup trucks with back seats for an extra $10,000 - $20,000
  • SUVs now account for 15 percent of sales (rising every year), but they yield a whopping 60 percent of industry profits!
An essay on FEED tries to get at the psychology behind the SUV phenomenon:
"The rise of SUVs has nothing to do with necessity and everything to do with lifestyle and identity ... what SUVs signify is this: I believe I'm capable of veering at anytime from the smoothly paved trajectories of my middle-class life."
It doesn't tackle the dark green mystery.

see also the detailed pages: I'm the Changing the Climate! and Why do SUVs suck?

A humorous page at Slate: The Godzilla SUV:
"Dangerous.  Gigantic.  Wasteful.  Just what you're looking for!"

By 2002, the anti-SUV movement is in full swing.  The book High and Mighty: SUVs: The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got that Way has 464 page of detail.  The The Detroit Project - by Americans for Fuel Efficient Cars targets SUVS in pointing out how the bad mileage of American vehicles causes horrors around the world, including destabilizing governments and funding terrorists.

Feedback... (send me some?)

Adam Rakunas wrote:
"I have to deal with off-road vehicles that have never seen dirt as well. I live in Santa Monica, and all of the yupsters from Brentwood and other trendy parts of the Westside drive those damn things. Huge, gas-sucking beasts of utility vehicles that will never get muddy. It's almost as bad as the yupsters who ride $4000 full-suspension mountain bikes that are spotless..."

Robert Haines wrote:
"I used to live in Mill Valley, and know exactly what you mean about SUVs.   By the way, did you know that SUVs are exempt from the emission restrictions that, say, an identically-engined/weight/size sedan would have to conform to?  The "utility vehicle type" can by law emit up to four times as much pollution as its equivalent passenger car.  Furthermore, the auto industry is fighting any future compliance requirements tooth and nail.  Yet another reason to despise SUVs and their owners."

Mariva Aviram wrote:
You know, your term "DGOV" has become part of my everyday vocabulary.   My friends use it a lot, too.  It's a very funny term.  I use it for all SUVs, regardless of their color.  Sometimes I play a "count the DGOV" game when I'm taking a walk.  There are so many of them!  And they seem to be breeding.   I often preface the term with the epithet "big fat," as in: "That big fat DGOV nearly ran me over!" wrote:
I have a feeling people like these things because of the increased height afforded the occupants. Ask somebody who drives one why they like their SUV, I'll bet height is in the list somewhere. If the person you ask attempts to use logic in their reasons why they have purchased a SUV, please take them to task, as this is an indefensible position on logical grounds - for the vast majority of SUV drivers.
Perhaps the desire to gaze down on others plays an unspoken part in most SUV purchases. I don't think it would take Freud long to assess the likely reasons behind such a purchase. I don't think it would be flattering either.