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Click & Clack

CLICK & CLACK : Ditch That SUV Marketing

Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page G02

QDear Tom and Ray:

I recently drove from Mississippi to Oklahoma to visit my family for Christmas. I made my trip one day after a winter storm had moved through the area. I saw several vehicles off in the ditch, which I presumed were accidents that happened the day before, when driving conditions would have been much more hazardous. After seeing a few of these unfortunates, I noticed something strange. Many, or perhaps even most, of these vehicles were sport-utility vehicles. Were they equipped with four-wheel drive? I didn't slow down enough to notice, but it got me thinking. You would think these vehicles would be the least likely to lose control on slippery roads. Were the drivers of these vehicles overconfident? Are the marketing departments of the car manufacturers overselling the "go anywhere, do anything" aspect of these vehicles (think of all those TV commercials showing SUVs bursting through snowdrifts, climbing steep trails, etc.)? I guess what I'm asking is if you've had reports of similar occurrences from elsewhere in the country. -- John

A RAY: You nailed it right on the head, John. The manufacturers sell these SUVs as invulnerable, unstoppable behemoths, not subject to the laws of nature or physics.

TOM: So when your neighbor Fred plunks down 35 big ones for his 4,000-pound Chevy Compensator, what do you think he's dying to do? Try it out! As soon as there's a snowstorm, he thinks it's a great time to race out and stock up on light bulbs.

RAY: Not only that, but he fundamentally misunderstands the capabilities of his vehicle. Four-wheel drive will help you go in the snow. It won't help you stop.

TOM: And it's limited in what it can do to help you turn. SUVs, despite what you see in the ads, cannot repeal the laws of physics. When you exceed the limit of the tires' grip in the snow (which is easy to do), even eight-wheel drive won't help you -- because there's not enough for any of the wheels to grab onto.

RAY: Think about what happens when you walk in the snow. If you have dress shoes on, you have to be pretty darn careful and walk slowly. If you have on some big waffle-stomper boots, you can walk with a little more confidence. But if you try to run, even with the boots, you could easily slip. And if you run and then need to turn or stop suddenly, get ready for a face plant!

TOM: Similarly, when there's snow on the highway and everyone else is driving carefully at 35 mph, and Fred goes barreling down the passing lane at 70 mph, when the highway turns left he keeps going straight. And into the ditch.

RAY: If this were simply a case of Darwinism, where people who act like morons get eliminated from the gene pool, we'd be fine with that. But sadly, these overconfident knuckleheads often take the lives of innocent people with them when they spin off the road in their 4,000-pound trucks. Dear Tom and Ray:

I've got a peculiar problem. My 1999 Mercury Sable's heater has been putting out less and less hot air for the past few years. This year, there was no heat. I flushed the cooling system; still nothing. Then I flushed the heater core, and now I have heat, but only at highway speeds. At idle, you can feel it cool right back down to nothing. Any thoughts? I'm thinking it's the water pump. Can you help out? My wife and kids refuse to ride with me anymore . . . on second thought, maybe that's okay! -- Mike

RAY: My brother got his wife and kids to stop riding with him, too. But he didn't have to give up his heat to do it. Giving up his reflexes and judgment seemed to do the trick.

TOM: I think it's your heater core, Mike. Flushing won't help once it's really plugged up. I'm going to guess that the water pump is okay. It's turned by a belt that runs off the engine, so, at idle speed, it's supposed to pump more slowly than at highway speed. At normal idle speed, it just can't overcome the gunk that's clogging up your heater core.

RAY: The good news is that the heater core is easy to get to on this car. The bad news is that it's only easy to get to once you remove the entire dashboard.

TOM: So, you're looking at $600, Mike. A big chunk of that is labor. You have to make a decision here: Do you want to be frozen out by your car, or frozen out by your family? Good luck deciding, brother.

Got a question about cars? Write to Click & Clack in care of The Post, or e-mail them by visiting the Car Talk Web site at www.cartalk.com.

©2005 by Tom and Ray Magliozzi

and Doug Berman

© 2005 The Washington Post Company