Death to the S.U.V.!
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Nov 27 07:32:41 MST 2002
NY Times, Nov. 26, 2002
BOOKS OF THE TIMES | 'HIGH AND MIGHTY'
When Is a Car a Truck? If Uncle Sam Says So
By JAY ROSEN
This is one of the best books on American politics I have read recently,
although it's supposed to be about cars. Actually it's about "light
trucks," one of the many twists in the story of the sport utility
vehicle and its dubious rise on the streets.
Pass, say, a Ford Explorer on the roadway, and you might say, "Wow,
that's a big car," but you won't say, "That's a neat truck." According
to the federal government, however, the Explorer is a truck. It's a
truck for purposes of the Clean Air Act of 1990, passed by Congress to
update the laws limiting smog-causing emissions. The act has
less-stringent limits for trucks (local contractors need them for work,
you see), so getting S.U.V.'s classified as trucks is a political feat
worth quite a bit to the auto industry. It's also a tricky class
maneuver, since the exemption's benefits are passing from working class
to more affluent Americans.
Thus the Explorer's pricier cousin, the Lincoln Navigator, is considered
a truck for purposes of calculating the 10 percent luxury tax the 1990
Congress slapped on cars with price tags of $30,000 or more. That law,
like many others, exempted "light trucks," in this case those with a
gross weight over 6,000 pounds. The Navigator grew to that size as Ford
added luxury features but included in the price no luxury tax because
it's not a car, stupid, it's a kind of luxury truck. Thus does politics
make for strange markets, even though it's true that a market is
definitely there among ordinary American car buyers, a huge portion of
whom have found S.U.V.'s to their liking.
That liking and the way it was coaxed forward, manipulated by the auto
industry, is a further theme in Keith Bradsher's marvelously told book.
Mr. Bradsher, a correspondent for The New York Times, was the paper's
Detroit bureau chief from 1996 to 2001. "High and Mighty" is his study
in Washington politics and the ways of Detroit, but also the politics of
our roadways and the social psychology of Americans as drivers.
The S.U.V., it turns out, is a vehicle of aggression, a machine to
menace other people with. It was understood and marketed that way by an
auto industry that itself behaved cynically and aggressively in securing
loopholes and exemptions that made the S.U.V. so fantastically profitable.
The key product line in the industry during the 1990's, S.U.V.'s helped
revive the economy of the upper Midwest, including two states — Michigan
and Ohio — that are heavily contested in presidential elections. Mr.
Bradsher describes how a single Ford factory in Michigan produced $11
billion in annual S.U.V. sales (equal to the size of McDonald's global
sales) and $3.7 billion in pretax profits from one factory.
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