Tuesday, March 02, 1999

What does the latest road hog say about us?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        For years, I have been driving a mere car. A sedan. You know, four wheels, a radio, a back seat roomy enough for a couple of kids or a dog and the remains of three or four Happy Meals. A glove compartment filled with TicTacs and napkins.

        My car will get me where I want to go, but it doesn't really make a statement. It has been mute, silent, telling the world absolutely nothing about the inner me or my income or status.

Automotive chatterbox
        Now it appears that the Ford Motor Co. is offering a new opportunity to speak up, to careen around town in a bus disguised as a car. Available this fall, the Ford Excursion is the biggest-ever sport utility vehicle — the longest, widest, heaviest SUV on the market.

        Talk about making a statement. This baby will chew your ears off.

How Excursion compares
        It will say things like, “I am a big gas guzzler and I don't care who knows it. Do you have $50,000 burning a hole in your pocket? Well, step right up. The more, the merrier.”

        The Excursion can tote around as many as nine people and has 48.6 cubic feet of space behind the seats.

        “The vehicle is as big as it is for a reason,” Ford spokeswoman Marcy Evans says. “It has to be big in order to do heavy-duty jobs.”

        That's right. There is a lot of work to be done around most suburban rancheros. And when the ranch hands head for town, just think how much fun you'll have doing the orange barrel polka with something that is built to tow 5 tons of additional vehicle. It can be hitched to a boat, an RV or a horse trailer — maybe all three at once.

        More important, it has up to 10 cupholders, depending on the package. Billiard table, reflecting pool and powder room, I am guessing, are optional.

        This car-bus-tank will be shouting things like, “Move over, you little VW weenie before I squash you like a bug.”

        Although Ford officials brag about a new “crash-compatible blocker beam,” which bends and absorbs energy in a crash and is mounted about 18 inches from the ground, safety experts who do not work for Ford say the new SUV weighs about twice as much as a midsized car and still is likely to do monstrous damage in a crash.

        Even when it is at rest, just innocently squatting alongside the street, this Excursion will be blabbing its head off: “I'm taking up my space and a little piece of yours.” It is nearly 7 feet tall, 61/2 feet wide and 19 feet long, almost 9 inches longer than the Chevy Suburban.

        It is only a few inches shorter than the average garage.

Thirsty at the pump
        But it surely is a talker. “Slurp. Guzzle. All this conversation has made me thirsty.” Industry estimates put the Excursion's gasoline consumption at about 12 miles per gallon. The Sierra Club (those nervous Nellies) describe it as a “suburban assault vehicle,” which produces “as much global warming pollution into the air as two average cars.”

        They have given it the Exxon Valdez Award for excessive fuel consumption and potential for air pollution. Ford says the vehicle meets or surpasses all air pollution standards in the nation.

        Ford's spokeswoman Evans says, “It's the equivalent of two average-sized or full-sized sedans. Now instead of needing two vehicles, there's only one on the road.”

        Well, I don't know where she lives, but around here, it is very unusual to look around during rush hour and see automobiles loaded to capacity. No matter what size car it is, there's usually space for another commuter or two.

        So let's be honest. The point is not really moving people. Or boats. These are toys. They're big and flashy and they'll be all over the place. If you have a regular car, you won't be able to see around or over the top of one.

        But you can hear them talking.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com