As a kid, I was furious about SUVs with a passion that now seems embarrassing, telling all the suburban adults I knew that their ugly, gas-guzzling tanks were going to end life on Earth. I didn’t come up with this idea myself: Anti-SUV discourse was everywhere. Mainstream organizations like the Sierra Club — which famously renamed the huge Ford Excursion “Ford Valdez” after the catastrophic Exxon Valdez oil spill — helped create a cultural backlash against these hulking cars. A TV ad campaign run by the Evangelical Environmental Network — “What Would Jesus Drive?” — urged Midwesterners to rethink their addiction to big cars. New York Times reporter Keith Bradsher’s 2002 polemic High and Mightysneered at the rise of “behemoths that guzzle gas, spew pollution, and endanger their occupants and other motorists.”
Twenty years on, international alarm about climate change may be higher than ever, but the SUVs have won. The crossover, a generally smaller, more modern kind of SUV, has exploded in popularity since the Great Recession. Their better gas mileage compared to earlier SUVs combined with car industry greenwashing and the widely held perception that big cars are safer — even as they’ve made the streets more dangerous for pedestrians — have helped make crossovers America’s biggest car segment, displacing sedans as the default choice for many drivers.
Also known as crossover utility vehicles or CUVs, crossovers were barely on the scene at the turn of the century, but they now make up more than 40 percent of the American market for new cars. Sedan sales have plummeted over the same period: Where passenger cars represented half of car sales just a decade ago, according to aWall Street Journalanalysis, they fell to less than a third by the end of 2018. At the end of 2019, while Australia was ablaze, Honda closed its best year ever for its CR-V crossover, now its top-selling car in the US.
“Car companies kind of neutralized the critique of SUVs when they introduced crossovers,” says Angie Schmitt, a former reporter for transit publication Streetsblog who is writing a book about the pedestrian safety crisis. “I think crossovers are definitely not as bad as full-size SUVs, and people get that. A lot of people who would never buy a full-size SUV have bought these crossovers, otherwise they’d probably be in sedans.”
American carmakers are all but divesting from sedan production (with some exceptions) and going all in on light trucks, a class that includes big cars like SUVs, crossovers, pickups, and vans. “We’ve seen that both Ford and Fiat Chrysler are pretty much out of the passenger car market,” says Dave Kushma, a retired senior editor at the trade journal Automotive News.“If you’re a patriotic American consumer and you want to buy a new vehicle from a Detroit Three manufacturer, and your preference is for a passenger car, whether that’s a family sedan or a compact or whatever, you may not have much choice.”
Because crossovers are more profitable than sedans, they’re aggressively marketed for features like more cargo space, to which Kushma says: “Why do we need to be hauling around all this shit in our cars?”
While the American shift toward SUVs and CUVs has largely become, as Kushma puts it, a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” it’s hardly been limited to the United States. Globally, the recent rise of SUVs has been even more dramatic: In 2010, there were 35 million SUVs in the world’s car fleet. Now there are over 200 million. SUVs were the second greatest contributor to the world’s increase in carbon emissions from 2010 to 2018, according to a recent International Energy Agency report, threatening to undo all the gains made by electric cars and better fuel efficiency.
There’s no one definition of a crossover, and the line between SUVs and crossovers is fuzzy in practice. “SUV and CUV are kind of the same thing for a consumer right now,” says Stephanie Brinley, principal automotive analyst at research firm IHS Markit.
Traditional SUVs are built on a pickup truck platform, while crossovers use a unibody construction like those in passenger cars, so they drive more like a car than a truck, handle better, and tend to have limited off-road capabilities. CUVs are also thought of as smaller, but that’s often not the case. “You can get a BMW X7 that’s every bit as big as a truck-based traditional SUV,” Brinley explains. “If you look at a Chevrolet Traverse ... it’s every bit as big as a Chevrolet Tahoe.”
A handful of crossovers, like today’s top-selling CR-V and Toyota RAV4, have been around since the ’90s. As consumers bought more of them, carmakers introduced more options, from the bulky Buick Enclave to the subcompact Nissan Kicks. Fuel economy across all car segments has improved in the last few decades, which has meant that, from a consumer perspective, a non-hybrid 2020 CR-V’s combined 30 miles per gallon is not that much worse than a Honda Accord’s 33 — and certainly better than the subterranean gas mileage of the now-defunct Ford Excursion or non-electric Hummer.
On aggregate, however, these differences matter. On a warming planet, the 21 combined MPG in a Chevy Traverse or 23 in a Nissan Murano is still, well, bad. “The gains that car companies have made in fuel efficiency have completely been undermined by the size and weight of the cars that these efficient engines are now pushing around,” says Doug Gordon, a pedestrian safety advocate and co-host of The War on Cars podcast.
How did we end up in a position where, instead of rapidly decarbonizing, Americans are buying more SUVs than ever? Since the early aughts, environmental activism has moved away from what Shane Gunster, a media studies professor at Simon Fraser University, sees as “green consumerism” — encouraging drivers to avoid SUVs — to an emphasis on the structural causes of climate change, like the fossil fuel industry. “I think that’s a good thing,” he says, but it can also discourage consumers from imagining how their lives will have to change to confront the climate crisis: “Insofar as there’s been this backlash against talking at all about that kind of individual consumerism, I do think...there’s a little bit of loss there too.”
Gunster presaged the age of the crossover in his 2004 paper on the use of nature in SUV marketing, by noticing the emergence of greenwashing in car ads. At the time, ads for traditional SUVs reflected a social Darwinist image of car culture: “Survival of the fittest” ruled the road, and SUV drivers became the apex predators with a natural right to bully everyone else, both in the city and out in the wilderness. This created an opening for carmakers to sell the idea of a smaller SUV that could square consumers’ eco-consciousness with a desire for a rugged, adventurous, get-out-to-nature car.
Subaru, Gunster writes, “reinvented its all-wheel drive Outback station wagon as a kinder, gentler SUV in a series of 2002 television commercials that present its drivers as the real nature lovers compared to the blundering insensitivity of those with larger vehicles.” In one ad, “a couple quietly observes a group of deer in the woods from the comfort of the Subaru Outback. All is well until the tranquility is shattered by a lead-footed SUV driver racing through the forest to catch a glimpse for himself.”
“One of the fascinating ways in which advertising works is it needs to create differences,” Gunster tells me. “The more that you can magnify and multiply those differences, the more effectively you can sell and you can dramatize the appeal of those products to different constituencies. And so crossovers were ideal in terms of enabling automakers to appeal to a gentler, natural sensibility that could be set against that super rugged, kind of primitive, very patriarchal, masculine, almost misogynist domination of nature type.”
Crossover marketing has proven so successful that consumers may not recognize the fallacy of pushing cars for their ability to quietly blend in with nature. In a commercial for the 2008 Ford Escape Hybrid, writes Brock University sociologist Dennis Soron, a young family drives right up to admire a group of deer. Just like the Subaru ads before it, this crossover was meant for the crunchy consumer who is concerned with human impact on our planet.
“Because of the quiet hybrid engine, the otherwise skittish deer remain unperturbed,” Soron continues. “Ironically enough for Ford drivers, not only are deer the large mammal most often killed by auto collisions, but all animals vulnerable to road traffic are likely to be put in greater danger by quieter vehicles that are harder to hear in advance.” Cars kill more than a million vertebrates in the U.S. per day, he points out — so many that cars are second only to animal agriculture (and ahead of hunting) as the largest killer of animals. Yet because cars and the ever-expanding infrastructure that accommodates them have come to be seen as a native part of our environment, road kill is assumed to be inevitable, rather than a political problem.
If you ask a car industry analyst to explain the shift to crossovers, they will say it’s all about supply and demand. “Consumers want them, so automakers have delivered them,” Brinley says.
That may be true on one level, but I would propose that SUVs/CUVs are a social contagion. The more of them there are on the roads, the more everyone else wants one, especially when consumers view them as safer. “You don’t want to be the only sucker in a small tin can when everyone else is driving a tank,” Gordon says, adding that he sees SUVs as part of “a highly militarized American culture” where it’s everyone for themselves.
Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, stresses that it’s misleading to assume SUVs are safer than sedans: “There is a perception that simply because something is bigger it is safer. The data doesn’t actually back that up on a class level.” SUVs are no longer as prone to fatal rollovers thanks to electronic stability control, but their high center of gravity can still make them less stable.
Perhaps the most dramatic safety risk posed by SUVs is their danger to pedestrians. Between 2009 and 2016, pedestrian deaths increased by 46 percent, and much of that is almost certainly attributable to the rise of SUVs, says Schmitt.
“When a pedestrian is hit by a moving vehicle, the taller that vehicle is, the more dangerous it is,” says Levine. “All other things being equal, the taller the vehicle, the harder it is for the driver to be able to see pedestrians and to stop themselves from hitting pedestrians, and that is a problem that you see day after day.” In a collision with a sedan, a pedestrian can roll onto the hood and get away with serious injuries, but when hit in the chest or higher by an SUV, a person is much more likely to die. Crashes can be mitigated by new technologies like automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection, but whether these can do enough to neutralize SUVs’ danger to people is unproven.
All these factors explain why big cars’ implicit promise of safety is not really about safety. Much as gun advocates assert that more AR-15s will protect Americans, when all indications point to the opposite, there is every reason to believe that SUVs and CUVs are at odds with human (and nonhuman) life. From a climate perspective, their threat is obvious. But even if we could run every SUV on decarbonized electricity, we can’t invent our way out of the monopoly they’ve claimed on public space. Car companies, by explaining away the ascendance of crossovers as consumer preference, have shifted the blame for big cars onto their customers. But for most Americans, whose transit options are constrained by corporate priorities and a lack of viable alternatives to cars, our dependence on ever-bigger cars is a decision that’s largely been made for us.
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