Last Updated Jun 16, 2011 8:12 AM EDT
High gas prices have an almost immediate effect on America's car-buying habits -- for the better. SUV sales always dive, and this spring full-sized pickups aren't moving, either (down 12.7 percent in May).
Although it may not seem like it, these unintended consequences are actually blessings in disguise for consumers. The pain at the pumps shocks people out of bigger-is-better bad habits, and introduces them to the myriad benefits of smaller cars and trucks.
Here are five surprising reasons big is bad and small is beautiful:
- Big vehicles are a handful. I test cars, so encounter all manner of big SUVs and pickups on a regular basis. I find them much harder to drive, because a) I can't see out of them well; b) they're difficult to maneuver in tight spaces, like parking lots; c) the steering effort is either really high or artificially light, d) I can't reach anything while driving -- even the glovebox is a big stretch away.
- You don't need four-wheel drive. This add-on increases your car's weight, complexity and cost, and unless you live on a long, steep and unpaved driveway in Alberta, it's probably way more than you need. A front-wheel drive car with traction control and modern safety features can handle any road conditions you're likely to encounter. State troopers tell me that SUV drivers often develop overconfidence, which leads to many accidents. Contrary to popular belief, four-wheel drive is no help on ice. It's great for plowing through deep snow, but unless the town public works department is on strike these conditions are rarely encountered on the beaten path. As my colleague Matt DeBord points out:
For most drivers, front-wheel-drive can deal with pretty much anything, outside of 100-year blizzards and monsoon-induced mudslides.
- The cargo space is often compromised. Nothing aggravates me more than having a full-sized pickup so big it barely fits in the driveway, then being unable to carry a load because it's raining and there isn't room in the surprisingly small cab. Minivan layouts are far more efficient for hauling people and cargo than big SUVs, but we don't want to be seen as "soccer moms," do we? People don't believe this, but I can move big stuff better in my tiny but tall Honda Fit, which offers really innovative cargo configurations, than in many mid-sized SUVs with smaller load openings, wheel wells in the way and seats that don't fold flat.
- Big vehicles are an expensive habit. SUVs are really costly. A 2011 Chevrolet Suburban 1500 LTZ with four-wheel drive starts at $56,170. When you add the huge gas bill to the equation, it's no wonder that the reddest states with the most trucks and SUVs are the most vulnerable to gas price shocks.
- SUVs are top-heavy. Rollover risk is a real problem in larger vehicles. The usual scenario is running off the road, hitting a guardrail, curb or a soft shoulder, then flipping. According to JD Power, "Statistics indicate that SUVs are three times more likely to be involved in a rollover accident than passenger cars." As SUVRolloverNews.com points out:
Since SUVs have a higher center of gravity than other vehicles on the road it makes them top heavy--More weight increases the chances of an SUV rollover accident occurring, despite the belief that added weight will add stability [emphasis in the original].