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The only way an SUV (sort of) makes sense

Behold the Four Horsemen of the Ecological Apocalypse: The monster house, the private jet, the Dubai indoor ski resort – and the SUV.

Yes, the SUV. The human race has been hard on Mother Nature, and the SUV is one of our egregious blows. Last year, I drove one that sucked down almost 24 litres of premium fuel every 100 kilometres.

The rise of the SUV is one of the most unexpected developments in the history of the car business. They exploded onto the marketplace in the mid-1990s, becoming the must-have vehicle for a range of drivers from soccer moms to action-film hero Arnold Schwarzenegger (who helped launch the genre by piloting a military Hummer on the streets of LA.)

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I never liked the SUV, except as a tool for the tiny subset of the population that actually needs them (forest rangers, Montana ranchers, etc.) But lately I've driven a few that have changed my mind (at least a bit.) Last week, I drove a Lexus RX 450h hybrid SUV from Toronto to Manhattan and back again. The entire trip (over 2000 kilometres, including side excursions) took three fill-ups, and the fuel economy averaged between 8.5 and 9 litres per 100 kilometres. Amazing, considering that we had four grown-ups and a full load of luggage aboard.

This was my second SUV eye-opener. In March, my wife and I drove a BMW X5 diesel to Georgia and back. We were carrying a lot of luggage, including a 300-pound air compressor, but the X-5 used just 9.4 litres of fuel every 100 kilometres – not much more than our Honda Accord.

So is it time to reconsider the SUV? Can alternative power plants save a vehicle genre that was destined for extinction? I am going to say yes, but with a qualifier – the SUV is still the wrong vehicle for most people. Hardly anyone actually uses four-wheel drive, and efficient transportation is based on using the lightest, smallest, most aerodynamic vehicle that will carry out your mission (in other words, not an SUV.) But hybrid or diesel power certainly improves the breed. First, the diesel: the BMW X5 diesel I drove was about 25 per cent more efficient than its gasoline-powered brother. The reason? A litre of diesel fuel contains about 14 per cent more energy than a litre of gasoline, and a diesel engine produces its power at low rpm - the X5 I drove had only 245 horsepower, but its peak torque was a massive 425 foot-pounds.

The bottom line – the diesel BMW was a very efficient SUV. So I was curious to see how the hybrid Lexus would do. By teaming gas and electric engines with sophisticated computer controls, a hybrid power plant can yield much better fuel mileage than a standard internal combustion engine. For example, during six weeks of testing with a Toyota Prius hybrid, I routinely achieved 5.5 litres per 100 km, and got down below 4 when I worked at it. The Lexus 450 H power train is conceptually similar to the one in the Prius, each with two electric motors, a gas engine, and a large battery. Braking and decelerating turns the electric motors into generators, feeding power back into the battery. Brilliant.

When I drive hybrids, I tend to watch the instant-readout fuel-efficiency monitor, and this time was no exception. Our consumption ran between zero (when we were cruising on battery power alone) and about 14 (during heavy acceleration in a highway merge lane.) We averaged just over 8.5 litres per 100 km overall, which included about 1600 kilometres of highway driving, and numerous side excursions.

We went up a mountain in the Finger Lakes, hunted for hotels, and spent an afternoon navigating Manhattan traffic so we could see the Dakota (the building where John Lennon was assassinated) and Harlem's Apollo Theater (where James Brown and the Jackson Five got their start.) The hybrid was a great power system for the Lexus SUV. Our friends were impressed at its near-silence, and how far we went between fill-ups. The gas gauge moved at a glacial pace, which is always good. By the time we got back to Toronto, our friends had decided it was time to trade in their gasoline SUV for a hybrid.

When gas was cheap, fuel economy wasn't very high on the agenda. Now it is. In the next few years, we will see a lot more small cars, because when it comes to saving gas, there's no substitute for mass and size reduction.

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But there will always be some drivers who can actually use an SUV – like my friends John and Yvonne, who schlepp two kids, four hockey bags, and go outside the city in snow season. Then there are my flying buddies who tow 10-meter glider trailers – a Prius isn't going to cut it.

The shortcomings of the SUV genre have been well documented in works like Keith Bradsher's High and Mighty – The Dangerous Rise of the SUV. Bradsher's book shows how SUVs conquered North America thanks to an odd confluence of consumer demand, flawed government regulation, and short-sighted corporate policy (SUVs were hugely profitable for car companies).

Engineers were confounded by the popularity of SUVs, which are designed around an odd set of parameters – they're too heavy, they have too much frontal area, and their height makes them unstable. But automotive purchase patterns are determined by a number of forces, and the strangest one of all is human nature. Author Malcolm Gladwell noted the psychology of the SUV market in a 2004 New Yorker story: "... internal industry market research concluded that SUVs tend to be bought by people who are insecure, vain, self-centered, and self-absorbed, who are frequently nervous about their marriages, and who lack confidence in their driving skills."

Couldn't have said it better myself. But if you need an SUV anyway, consider a hybrid or a diesel.

For more from Peter Cheney, go to (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

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About the Author
National driving columnist

Peter Cheney launched his driving column after 25 years as an award-winning feature writer, investigative reporter and news correspondent. His writing steers clear of industry jargon to focus on human experience and the passion of driving. More

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