The tale of my selfish urban vanity (SUV)


Light rain was spotting across the hood of my friend’s Alfa Romeo. The rain started coming in waves and might have even put out the fire flickering in the bush nearby – but considering what had just occurred, my friend wasn’t taking any chances.

He pulled my unconscious frame from the now burning wreck. All windows had been shattered and the windscreen was gone, allowing him to drag me over the dashboard and across the crumpled bonnet. The tree that had put a stop to our trip down the mountain was now skewering the back half of the car. I imagine I also looked like a wreck, bleeding from the ears, arm and with a serious seatbelt burn that had left parts of my neck skinless. The whiplash was severe enough to put me in a neck brace for a fortnight but it was the contusion to the side of my brain that would cause doctors the greatest concern.

My skull had made impact with the pillar beside the passenger seat. Ironically, this reduced the stress on my spine from severe lateral movement, the doctors told me some days later. Without that pillar, they believe my my neck would have snapped.

That was fifteen years ago. These days, some vehicles come with side (curtain) airbags.  Last month, I was in a used car dealership weighing up a truckload of factors; price, fuel efficiency, warranties, baby seat anchor points, cupholders, and curtain airbags, asking myself, “Am I seriously going to pass that up?”


suvs everywhere

The decision of what to drive sees personal responsibility ramming right into various measures of safety, convenience and economy.

That horrendous day I was in a crash was fifteen years ago. I can’t actually recall any of it – beyond getting into the passenger seat minutes before the accident – but it weighed on mind last month, I was in a used car dealership weighing up a truckload of factors; price, fuel efficiency, warranties, baby seat anchor points, cupholders, and curtain airbags, asking myself, “Am I seriously going to pass that up?”

As of December 27, three Australians have died in cars each day since Christmas Eve. This is appalling but it is actually less than the average for Australia  (3.5 deaths per day). On the list of countries by traffic-related deaths, we are 11th best. (By comparison, Canada is 22nd and Russia is 57th.)


The push for more safety features in vehicles has clearly helped reduce fatalities, as have road safety campaigns, for which our nation is well known. One five-minute montage by Victoria’s Transport Accident Commission has been viewed 15 million times.

So the message appears to be getting through. Yet, I am still baffled by the decision of many people to purchase larger cars. Larger cars are not necessarily safer than smaller cars. SUVs are more likely to rollover.

Clearly, owning a jacked-up road-hog is no big deal for many Australians. A high-riding soft-roader is now the choice of many people over the old 5-door monsters of the eighties with SUVs remaining the fastest growing segment of the Australian market in 2012, with sales up 25.3 per cent over the previous year, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

I have railed against these north-shore tractors for some time – even in this very blog – so the choice creates a contradiction in my life bigger than a 2.7 tonne Lexus LX.

Climate change is real, humans influence it, and these gas-guzzling leviathans are certainly a detour on the road to cleaner energy. Plus, this is an issue of safety – for those travelling outside your heavy-metal cocoon; your limited visibility, greater weight and longer stopping distance, doubles a pedestrian’s risk of death in an accident. The size of SUVs also make them a menace to smaller vehicles, bikes, motorcycles or scooters. What risk am I happy to put other road users at?


In many ways, the car industry pulled an enormous swifty on buyers with the marking of such high-powered battle wagons. Just as petrol prices jumped and we all began to ditch larger family cars, and manufacturers were finding ways to pull greater performance from smaller engines, we were all sold a new fantasy that SUVs (Stupid Ugly Vehicles) could help us escape the monotony of standstill traffic with the option to go off-road at any time. It was as absurd as it was successful.

The do-gooders yelling, “Wait! Didn’t we spend the nineties mired in a hellish war over oil?”, were easily drowned out by the aspirated rattle of new SUVs leaving dealerships all over the world.

Take a moment to consider that a car ctegory that did not exist in the 1980s, now has seven sub-categories: Compact, mid-size, large, crossover, hybrid,off-road, and 3-row SUVs.

Many popular small SUVs fail a critical crash test (link below)

I would have preferred a station wagon renaissance – functional, practical, five seats and room for a late-night romp at the drive-in theatre – but no, we had to have more mountain-range Tonka toys. Thanks, Detroit.


The stupidity of most SUV designs is clear; more people equals more stuff, but manufacturers seem to think fifteen cup holders will do the trick. It does not. As a result, many SUVs now carry luggage pods on roof-racks. It’s madness. While no middle-class mother needs a 3-tonne vehicle to carry their kids to soccer practice, they do need more space. Families are buying an increase in height and weight – and nearly always a loss of fuel efficiency – along with much less boot space than a traditional family wagon or even some hatchbacks would have provided.

Bootspace in SUVs:

  • Volkswagen Tiguan (SUV): 395L
  • Mazda CX-5 (SUV): 403L
  • Subaru Forester (SUV): 422L

Bootspace in Non-SUVs

  • Mazda 3 hatchback: 430L
  • Commodore Sportwagon: 895L

This left me with three remaining issues.


The Honda Odyssey, The KIA Carnival, the planet-sized Mercedes Vito all offer at least seven seats but in the case of the Honda and KIA, the bootspace is sadly lacking and bizarrely, access to the Odyssey’s third row is restricted if you have kids in the middle row. This is akin to buying a bigger TV with an immovable sticker in the middle of the screen. Great… but, c’mon!


So you want five seats AND a boot big enough for five people? I decided the best way around this dilemma was to get an extended SUV that has a large boot when you lie a third row of seats flat. I wish it were a seven seater station wagon but such models usually include after-market seats that face backwards. If your kid is blind, this is perfect. If they are not, they soon will be. I like to think of it as more of a people mover.


I love diesels. They have less parts, travel further on a single tank and will last longer than your average petrol engine. Annoyingly, I am pretty sure that the week i bought my first diesel, the price of diesel fuel began creeping above the cost of unleaded and it ids often 5% above it.

Thankfully, How Stuff Works says “the diesel is hard to beat, delivering as much as 25 percent more mileage (on diesel fuel) than a gasoline engine of similar size” – something I have found to be true even when driving a car in the inner suburbs 80% of the time.

Diesels also offer our best chance of bio fuel becoming a viable option. There are some concerns about carcinogens in diesel fuel you should know about. If you think the smoke is brown, there is turbo lag or the engine noise is much worse than petrol engines, modern diesels have done away with all these.

More reading:

Your SUV uses more fuel (per person) than a Boeing 737

How to Buy A Fuel-Efficient Car

Diesel Emissions Spark Health Fears

American Gun Deaths to Exceed Traffic Fatalities by 2015 – Bloomberg

Bicycle sales overtake CARS for the first time ever in Europe

Popular small SUVs fail critical crash test

Cutting your car use

National holiday road toll falls by nearly half on last year


Larger cars are not the future

Lately, when various people have mentioned to me they are considering buying a new car, two things are apparent;

1) Kids have prompted the decision

2) The default choice is a four-wheel drive

(aka SUV – Special Utility Vehicle)

Now, I won’t deny the first item on the list.

But I am afraid the second point must be addressed. (And I will attempt to do it with all the civility I can muster.)

This should be fun.

But first, here are a few reasons i think we should ignore the boom in SUVs and keep cars small.

  1. Economical
    Smaller = cheaper to run, cheaper to produce and cheaper to maintain. You need the money.
  2. Environmental
    The world needs us to consume less. No surprise there. And this is potentially the biggest purchase you will make – in regard to carbon – so why not make it with the world in mind. Generally speaking, larger cars are heavier and require larger engines demanding more fossil fuels and expelling more climate changing gases. (With some rate exceptions like a Lexus Hybrid 4WD) They demand more resources to produce and represent greater waste when they are eventually disposed of. They require larger tyres to support the weight that is, at the same time, doing more damage to roads than a lighter vehicle. Lose-lose.
  3. Safety
    Larger cars and taller cars, especially, are a threat to all motorists in lower cars who receive reduced visibility on the road when a SUV pulls along side or is parked on a corner where you intend to pull out. Due to the reduced rear visibility, there is the obvious threat to small children that news reports continue to remind us of. Reports that they roll over more often than sedans were exaggerated. I do think the invincibility some drivers of large vehicles feel could influence their driving.

    A child has to be about 12yo or 1.5m tall before you can see them from inside an Audi Q7.

  4. Space
    Ever tried to see past an SUV in your lane? Or a car park? More smaller cars mean more parking spots on every street. Yes! And when street amenity is preserved, suburban clutter is not made worse by larger cars eating up the already pitiful open space in urban areas.

If you are single and/or kidless, why drive anything larger than a vehicle that can get up hills and won’t disintegrate at freeway speeds? This, to me, is the sweet spot for a small car. See Corollas, Hyundai i20s or VW Golfs. Two doors can be awkward so thankfully even the compact Honda Jazz comes with the option of five doors.


If you have one or two children, how does the equation really change? More than one seat per child is superfluous.

Unless, that is, we are to follow the same societal pressure that declares kids need their own bedroom.

Let’s face it, in cars, you can’t get away from people altogether, so everyone has to get along (if nothing else it’s good practice for CityRail. And besides, children are now in car seats until the age of seven.

(Kids will fight over space regardless. As my siblings will attest, I was the one most likely to lash out when someone’s leg touched mine.)


Two kids often means a bunch of attendant belongings and – if you like Fisher Paykel’s products – possibly a bunch of sizable, moving, musical apparatus. For me, this is not enough reason to buy a larger car. Leave the third and fourth toy at home! Play eye-spy – It’s one of those ye olde games without a screen but the kids will be thrilled to learn it is in 3D.


Got three kids? When did a family car stop doing that job? They’ve certainly got bigger – compare the 1980 Commodore with today’s Commodore. Didn’t we all grow up in a sedan or station wagon that survived ok until the oldest kid could drive or started pashing someone with a car?

There’s much to be said for packing smarter not larger.

Speaking for myself, if we have three kids, we’re sticking with our Mazda 3. And you can hold me to that.

It fits three child seats across the back and it has a good size boot but if we were going away for a week, it can take a pod on top or we’ll attach a borrowed trailer to the towbar.

You don’t know the satisfaction it brings a man to be pulling a trailer.

Now I know why men love driving around with one and reversing it unnecessarily into tight spaces.

There’s also much pride in delivering the perfectly packed boot.

However, the car companies clearly want to get us into larger cars and are eager to push even families with two or three children into SUV territory. Look at the reduction in the number of station wagons available (gone are the Falcon and the trusty Magna which I enjoyed for a while). Commodores stopped for two years but ‘due to popular demand’ it has returned.

That said, the Mazda 6 station wagon is a goer and Mondeo has a European-designed number worth a look. The boot on these cars is bigger than any you will get in an SUV.


If you have four kids, I get it, a sedan or station wagon won’t cope.

Of course, you could also get a people mover. It’s not like you are going four-wheel-driving and most have more boot and seat space than an SUV.

There are still the issues of visibility but less environmental concerns as they don’t weigh nearly as much.

Here’s a comparison that shows a popular SUV is 600kg heavier than a similar-sized people mover with more seats:

Toyota Kluger (7-seater)

Height………. 1730mm


Weight……… 2720kg

Kia Carnival (8-seater)

Height……… 1760mm



Here’s an idea – let’s bring back the Tarago! Why did people stop buying Taragos? Was it due to the naff factor that it makes you look like a soccer mum and a SUV is beefy and therefore you drive around with more purpose than a simple ferry service?

Lastly, I think the choice to buy a large vehicle thinks less about all drivers than it does about just yourself. When I have asked three people why they like driving in an SUV, they say ‘because you are higher’. Higher somehow equates to safer, in people’s minds. Greater visibility? Well, only until the person beside you decides to get one too because they can’t see anything anymore.

And here’s how that feels from a small car:

I took this photo while trying to pull out onto the Princes Hwy, Hurstville, Sydney. Thanks for risking my life, Mr Pajero, so you could feel safer.

So the future will look different one way or the other.

We either all get a larger, higher car – please no – or, as is now looking more likely, a carbon tax is brought in that will at some point add a premium to larger cars and reigns in these vehicles unless their efficiency rockets up in coming years.

Following is a list of 7+ seaters currently available, showing there are many options in both SUVs and people movers, and hopefully some you are not aware of.

Audi Q7
Dodge JC Journey
Ford Territory
Holden Captiva
Hyundai Santa Fe
Jeep Commander
Kia Sorento, Rondo
Land Rover Discovery 3
Mazda CX7, CX9
Mercedes GL Class, R Class
Mitsubishi Challenger, Outlander, Pajero
Nissan Dualis 2, Pathfinder, Patrol
Peugeot 308 Touring, 4007
Ssangyong Rexton, Stavic
Subaru Tribeca
Toyota Kluger, Landcruiser 200, Prado
Volvo XC90
People Movers
Chrysler Voyager
Citroen C4 Picasso
Honda Odyssey
Hyundai iMax – Flash
Kia Carnival
Mitsubishi Grandis
Renault Grand Scenic
Toyota Avensis, Tarago
Volkswagen Caddy Maxi Life, Caravelle, Multi Van


Related reading:

Ten small cars you can live with — an Cars Top Ten

Fords Small Car Problem A European Perspective – Motor Trend Blog blog: Are luxury small cars a rip off?

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