Less Brute, More Ute

I love coincidence. Not that I'm into any of that Jungian synchronicity stuff, but there has to be something more than pure chance in the fact that exactly one week after chairman William C. Ford talked about the serious safety and environmental problems of large sport-utes, a Ford spokesman announced that the company would produce fewer Excursions in the next model year due to weak consumer demand.

Let's call it foresight rather than coincidence. Or maybe simply an accurate reading of a basic shift in public perception.

Large utes are now widely seen as rolling oxymorons. It's hard to call something either sport or utilitarian when it's difficult to maneuver in parking lots or round corners, when it guzzles increasingly expensive gasoline at the rate of a gallon every ten miles, and when its munificent three rows of seats usually support the backside of exactly one person the driver and on rare occasion, a front-seat passenger too. I've yet to see an Excursion or a Suburban (sorry, Yukon XL) with all the seats occupied.

And I'm noticing a peculiarly self-conscious expression on the faces of those driving these vehicles. They stand out in the crowd on the road, and they know it. And unlike drivers of PT Cruisers or new Beetles or smart little roadsters, they don't like it. At least Hummer drivers can hide behind the low windshield and high hood, and fantasize about using their non-existent military armaments to blow away any pedestrian or mere sedan driver who throws a dirty look their way. But Excursion and Suburban drivers are... well, vulnerable. To public opinion. As are their makers.

That certainly explains DaimlerChrysler's decision to forgo a full-size Jeep. And it most probably explains GM's decision to mask an increase in Suburban production with a name change. "No, we're not making Suburbans any more, we're making Yukon XLs," as though sport-utes were tee-shirts with a few extra inches for the "fuller figure."

At GM they're apparently unaware that fashions have changed and women aren't wearing extra-large men's T-shirts any more, but form-fitting women's ones. Or that the vogue for bodybuilding is done with.

Forget steroids. Gold's Gym is out, Pilates is in. The look is lithe and limber, not muscle-bound and bulging. In current automotive terms, that means a small car-based ute, not a large truck-based one. And in the future, it will mean a sports car that can transform into a pickup, like Honda's recent concept.

Remember guys: lithe and limber. Follow Billy Ford, and get with the program.

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