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“High and Mighty”: On or Off-Track? (9/11/2002)
High and Mighty: Just That (9/11/2002)

High and MightyLet’s get this out of the way right up front. I think High and Mighty: SUVs: The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way, the new book about sport-utility vehicles by former NYT Detroit Bureau Chief Keith Bradsher, is a pretty good book. It has some flaws but then journalism, even journalism between hard covers or from the New York Times, is hardly perfect.

The strength of High and Mighty is in its broad overviews. It shuttles between Detroit and Washington D.C. to show how some often bluntly applied political pressure opened the door for SUVs to move into the mainstream 1990s. Bradsher, who worked in the Times’ Washington Bureau before moving to Detroit, uses his experience in both the nation’s capital and Detroit to explore this part of the story in considerable detail.

The Big Three worked throughout the 1980s to neutralize the influence of federal safety and environmental regulators. By the 1990s, the loopholes had widened enough for a full-sized SUV. In addition, the industry and all of its various factions — domestics, imports, dealers and unions — united to help pave the way for the SUV breakout. The federal tax on luxury cars costing more than $35,000 but not including SUVs also helped.

The book is virtually a case study of how a mature industry like the auto and truckmaking industry can flex its political muscle.

Tactical brilliance

Another strength of High and Mighty is its critique of the industry’s marketing tactics.

Many of the shortcomings of SUVs, such as their inherent instability, undersized brakes and poor handling, have been well understood for a long time and written about in both the enthusiast press and publications such as Consumers Reports.

In fact, the dust-ups between journalists and carmakers date back to the 1970s. In 1987, one of the biggest hurdles to the Chrysler takeover of the old American Motors was a huge pile of unresolved rollover claims from AMC sales of the World War II-vintage Jeeps for civilian use.

Nonetheless, the marketing campaigns built by Chrysler, Ford and GM stressed the unfettered freedom brought by owning an SUV — and during the 1990s consumers bought the image and largely ignored the niggling criticism that cropped from the driving purists in the press. The ethics and morality of advertising are a subject debated in academic circles but out in the world where money actually changes hands, it’s still pretty much “buyer beware.” No manufacturer is going to tell a buyer, “Oh by the way, your new $30,000 vehicle has lousy brakes.”

In the case of the SUV, though, the federal regulators whose job it was to police vehicle safety and warn consumers had been beaten into submission, removing a critical check from the system, Bradsher notes. For all practical purposes, the NHTSA, the ostensible guardian of highway safety, played the same role that Arthur Andersen did at Enron. It didn’t audit. Instead, it aided and abetted and, right up until the Ford-Firestone scandal in 2000, helped the industry hold off tighter safety regulations.

Astute drivers will compensate for an SUVs shortcomings. But unwary or inexperienced drivers dazzled by the fluff in the ads more often will find the vehicles fail rather than protect them, particularly if they try to avoid a crash.

One of the book’s big flaws is its preachy tone, which I suspect emanates from the author’s frustration that more people didn’t share his disdain for SUVs. Critics also are certain to challenge his use of statistics.

Bradsher, however, can take some comfort from recent developments which seem to be tilting against the SUV. As of last month, SUV sales were still running at record levels but sales are now driven by expensive incentives for the first time. Meanwhile, Ford plans to kill the Excursion next year, and California has adopted tighter environmental regulations aimed at vehicles that are forcing automakers to pause and think about future strategies.

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