Personal vehicles aren’t efficient, that’s by nature. Most “purely mechanic” internal combustion engines sport efficiency ratings of under 20%. Electric cars also sport tons of problems, literally. Lithium extraction costs us valuable hydric resources, at a rate of around 2.2 million liters of water per ton, along with chemicals such hydrochloric acid leaking into the water table. You can’t really escape the environmental impact of owning a car, even if you pick out an electric.
Let’s not get too far away from the title of the article, shall we? I set myself out to talk about SUVs and I will. What do electric cars and ICE cars have in common? The lighter, the better. Colin Chapman couldn’t say it better: “to add speed, add lightness”. More often than not, the cheapest and simplest method of increasing efficiency in a vehicle is to reduce weight, an argument that I use to justify ripping off the back seats of my car.
If lighter is better, then why are cars getting heavier? Cars have gotten about 400 kg heavier from 1987 to 2011, yet you could argue that is due to safety and comfort improvements, which is partly true. However, the 1991 Toyota Corolla (E100) weighed, in its lightest form, 920 kg, while the 2012 Toyota Corolla (E160) weighs only 1050 kg in its lightest form. How could you explain that weight gain, then? Simple: an astronomical rise in SUV/Crossover sales. 1/3 of all cars sold in Europe are now SUVs or crossovers. Worse yet: even a “compact SUV” (if such a thing exists) weighs, on average, 500 kg more than a compact car. So, with that out of our way, what are the costs of fattening up our cars? Do we really need larger vehicles?
Let’s compare two cars with the exact same engine: The tiny-but-capable Up! and its heavier brother, the Nivus. The Up!, armed with a 1.0 liter turbocharged 3 cylinder gets up to 16.1 km/l while in highway driving, however, the Nivus could only max out at 13.2 km/l with the exact same engine.
How bad is that? The average Brazilian drives 12900 km per year, resulting in an astounding increase in yearly fuel consumption of 176 liters. Let me remind you: same engine. That spells out an additional 404 kg being spewed out into the atmosphere, just by virtue of being heavier. Isn’t it all worth it, though, since SUVs are much safer than a comparable small vehicle?
SUVs are safer… for whoever is inside them. For every 453 kg added to a vehicle (sorry for the weird numbers, Americans should use the metric system), there is a 47% increase in baseline fatality probability. That translates to an additional 27 deaths per 100 thousand vehicles, relative to small baseline vehicles.
The solution would be to make everyone drive SUVs, right? Since they’re bigger, they’re safer against static objects. Well, pedestrians, motorcyclists and cyclists cannot be made heavier (not that we’ve not been trying to, however), plus, you should factor in the environmental costs. It’s really not worth it.
But crossovers and SUVs appear to fulfill a specific demand, right? Families have gotten bigger and we need bigger cars to chauffeur our kids and their friends around, don’t we?
No, you do not need a SUV
Let’s take the country where I live: Brazil. Here, the average family size dropped from 6 to 1.77 individuals per household since 1960. Sure, Brazil might have had a fairly steep drop due to being a developing country, but a strong tendency for birth rate reductions exists worldwide. The reason SUV sales increased? Heavy marketing and a “size arms race”. Most people don’t realize they don’t need a large car.
Of course, you might escape the statistics and you live in a rural area, maybe you have a large family. That’s fine. However, the average person would do just fine with a compact vehicle. Hell, some SUVs are just poorly designed and sport smaller trunk sizes than their reasonably-sized sedan and hatchback rivals, such as the Jeep Renegade, which lost out to the much smaller and lighter Volkswagen Gol by 10 liters.
Small cars are also more practical for large cities. With parking spaces becoming a rare commodity, finding one that suits a massive Escalade could become a Herculean task. Most importantly, small cars require less space to turn and brake, resulting in more predictable behavior and less trouble with crashes and scrapes.
Instead of going for a bigger-is-better philosophy, search for a car you truly need. Most importantly, search for a car designed in a smart way, preferably one that makes the most out of the space it has.
SUVs should exist. I never said they shouldn’t. Nevertheless, they shouldn’t be as widespread as they are now, since these pavement monsters present environmental and physical risks to everyone around them when handled improperly.
Buy the car you need or want, don’t be coerced by marketing trickery into buying a behemoth that could trample over a small village to carry your kids to soccer or bring the occasional set of groceries home.