The State of California Air Resources Board wants to terminate my car. I drive a Buick, a Buick Estate Wagon to be exact, an eight-passenger lead sled with a 455 cubic inch V8 coupled to a four-speed hydro-drive. It has a magic tailgate that disappears at the touch of a button. Its pale yellow topside and simulated wood-grain panels ooze domesticity. Its crested knobs and hood ornament exude a formality befitting the sacredness of the American road. People smile as it glides past on the highway, but when they see it parked, all they can say is, “She’s big.” She is that (we had to cut a hole in the garage to put her to bed).
And yet, although she carries as many passengers and cargo as a full-sized SUV, she’s literally a ton lighter. The other difference is that SUVs qualify for the Section 179 accelerated depreciation allowance from the IRS. That little bit of federal largesse is a life buoy for Detroit, ensuring that the big three will be able to sell plenty of high profit, low mpg behemoths. Why save money on gas when you can save much more by writing off the cost of that Hummer? Of course Section 179 of the tax code only applies to new vehicles and mine hasn’t been new since Gerald Ford was in office.
Meanwhile the State of California only wants to reduce the negative health effects of polluting older cars. Yet it fails to quantify all those smiles, that spreading of good will, my Buick creates! Surely the State of California is concerned that stress on the roads leads to heart disease—and they must know that all the alternative eight-passenger vehicles (read: SUVs) evoke not smiles but elevated blood pressure, bile, and rage.
Consider the 2004 Nissan Armada. (Nissan must have found that “Fleet of Warships” didn’t focus group as well.) The Armada stands six and a half feet tall, while my Buick barely makes five. Passenger car drivers can’t see into it. Pedestrians can’t see past it. More to the point, it is designed to strike fear and trembling into the hearts of all those foolish enough to face off against it on the highway. The front grill is the gaping mouth of a basking shark. Above that are two saber teeth hanging over what can only be described as a black grin. At the sides are bulging steroidal fenders to muscle through traffic. And running boards. Not the running boards of old, mind you, those automotive verandas custom made for joy riding. No, these are tucked in under the body, only for use by the peerage, sharp-edged to keep out the hoi polloi.
Okay, SUV’s are an easy target—a big one, anyway—but they started it. The Armada conceives of the highway as a deadly battle zone. The chassis, the working parts, roll down the road in the midst of hostilities. But the passengers (and it only holds seven) are carried aloft, above the well-defined belt line, above the fray, in a glass dome lined with crinoline air cushions.
A question for the age: what has happened to the venerable station wagon? Sure, Dodge just introduced the Magnum. (They didn’t name it after a weapon, just after the 1978 Dodge two-door coupe that was named for a weapon.) But like all the other wagons on the market—the Subaru, the Volvo, the VW—it holds only five people. We used to call such things “hatchbacks,” but that was when families had real, seven or eight person station wagons. Today you have a choice between monster trucks and birth control.
There are plenty of rational reasons for the automotive arms race. Tax breaks like Section 179 keep Detroit alive, and staying one pound or two ahead of the regulators gives you more for your money. The worrisome trend is that the Battlefield Highway has generated a generalized aesthetic. Even the little guys are trying the steroidal look. The latest Volvo wagon sports a bulging hood and the front end of the VW wagon looks like nothing so much as the business end of a mailed fist.
Time was when “longer, lower, wider” was the mantra of automotive designers. Each new model had to occupy more acreage than its predecessor. Certainly the philosophy had its absurdities: witness the 1973 Chrysler Imperial with a total of nine feet stretching past its axles. My Buick at nearly 20 feet overall is equally absurd. In retrospect, though, those brobdingnagian cars seem innocuous. They may have been dinosaurs, but they were of the vegetarian, gentle giant, brontosaurus type. Now tyrannosaurus rex meets you on the run for a quart of milk.
Hybrids and hydrogen may one day placate California’s Air Board, but only a change of heart will bring back the earth tones, the staid sheet metal, and the more modest tonnage of the 1970s. Until then drive carefully-or in a different country.