An article about sport utility vehicles in today's Magazine, which was printed in advance, identifies Rod Milstead as a Washington Redskin. Milstead has been released by the Redskins and is a free agent, though he may re-sign with the team. (Published 11/07/99)

It's been a couple of months since Nancy Arseneault bought her sport utility vehicle and still she's taking lumps from her employees.

Arseneault is in the middle of her daily suburban rounds on a recent drizzly weekday afternoon, picking up one son, dropping off another, ferrying kids and stuff in her 1999 toreador-red Ford Explorer XLT.

This stop is at a warehouse in a long, low Columbia industrial park, to pick up some wine. A small sign out front reads "The Wine Source"; it marks the wholesale business that Arseneault owns with her husband, Jim. Inside, Arseneault's employees ring around her. They are merciless.

"So," says sales manager Jim Hutton, beginning the ribbing, "you got one of those things that rolls over, eh?"

Before Arseneault can answer, office manager Bonnie Brewer tag-teams: "No, no -- you got one of those big things that completely blocks everyone's vision and runs over little bitty cars like mine, right?"

Arseneault fights back the best she can.

"One day you'll be in an SUV and you'll be eating the words you just said," she tells Hutton, who has retreated into his office, satisfied. He owns a tiny Dodge Neon, which he says is as big a car as he needs: "It holds me and three Italian wine distributors."

Finally, warehouse manager Bob Watkins piles on. "What do you get," he asks Arseneault, "12 miles a gallon?"

From offstage, Hutton interjects: "I get 40."

Back out on the road, behind the wheel of the Explorer, Arseneault, 45, is unfazed. Driving an SUV, she says, makes her feel safer and more confident than she used to feel in her minivan or in the sedans that preceded that. Especially when she's got her two sons -- Douglas, 12, and Marc, 9 -- with her. Jim Arseneault, 45, also has an Explorer, his second. It's practical enough to haul cases of wine and stylish enough to chauffeur big-shot wine clients.

Arseneault drives to Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Center in Beltsville to pick up Douglas. That accomplished, she steers toward a friend's house to get Marc. Now, both boys belted in the back seat ("Don't you two fight," she warns), it's time to head home.

But for a long moment, no one's going anywhere. Arseneault sits at a T-bone intersection. Rush hour has begun in Beltsville. She looks to her left -- an endless stream of traffic. To the right, the same. The sounds inside the Ford: the flap-flap of the Explorer's wipers, the well-modulated discussion of public radio's "Talk of the Nation."

Finally, a break in traffic: Arseneault stabs the accelerator and wheels left, summoning the four-wheel-drive traction to deftly cut across the wet pavement and merge into traffic.

"Yeah!" says Douglas, in the back seat.

"See?" Arseneault says. "We might as well have stopped there and just set up a tent and stayed for 10 days if we'd been in the van. I never would have tried that -- the back end would have skidded, the turning radius was too big."

Besides, Arseneault likes the visibility and feeling of security she gets riding way up high in her SUV. "It's scary to be down there," she says. "My mom has a regular car, and it's like being Fred Flintstone -- you step out, and you're on the ground."

The Arseneaults of Beltsville fit smoothly into the statistical profile of typical SUV buyers: They are white baby boomers who own their own home in the suburbs, bore two children slightly late in life and are college-educated professionals with an above-average household income.

And, as SUV owners, the Arseneaults are driving the vehicular phenomenon of this decade. There were 7 million SUVs on the roads in 1993, according to Polk Co., an automobile research firm. By last year, that number was closer to 20 million. Arseneault's Ford Explorer was the third-best-selling vehicle in the United States in 1998, following Ford and Chevrolet pickup trucks. Now, pickups, minivans and SUVs account for nearly half of all U.S. vehicle sales.

Just as each American age has adopted its signature vehicle -- the '50s land yachts, the '60s muscle coupes, the '70s rice-burners, the '80s luxo-sedans -- this decade has chosen its own wheels: the sport utility vehicle.

Ten years ago, the modest, practical Taurus station wagon was Ford's star; it could be had for about $16,000. Similarly priced Honda Accords and Toyota Camrys, from the late '80s into the mid-'90s, were the top sellers. At the time, the United States was absorbing glancing blows from recessions; no knockout punches, but just enough economic pummeling to preclude the widespread purchase of luxury vehicles. Everyone thought that the go-go '80s, with their Benzes and BMWs, were history. The '90s would be a reckoning, the sober cultural critics said, a penance for the decadent '80s.

But no. Instead, the median U.S. household income for married couples rose to nearly $55,000 last year.

That was up almost 4 percent from the previous year and was the fourth straight year of growth. Times are terrific now for a great number of Americans -- a $30,000 vehicle is within the reach of more people than ever before. And, as Americans, if we can afford a thing, we buy it.

Today, Ford's best-selling non-pickup is no longer the Taurus, but the Explorer SUV. Pricewise, though it's no BMW, it's also no Yugo: Even a two-door, two-wheel-drive Explorer costs at least $20,000. And since families have little use for two doors, they usually end up paying about $28,000 for their SUV. Despite the high prices, Ford sold nearly half a million Explorers last year. Even America's leaders have joined the craze: Washingtonians are accustomed to seeing presidential and vice presidential convoys of black, tinted-windowed sport utes screaming through town.

The public turned the corner on sport utility vehicles when the automakers started dressing up the insides. For years, the image of an SUV was a boxy Jeep or a GMC truck -- vehicles you could hose down on the inside after a day down at the stables or up on the strip mine. The 1954 Toyota Land Cruiser, one generation removed from the World War II U.S. Army jeep, is considered by many the seminal SUV. Even though these proto-SUVs could haul and tow the livelong day and handle any corduroy road, they had the ride of a buckboard and the luxury of a paddy wagon.

Now, goes the sales pitch, you can have the durability and hauling power of a truck -- and the security of four-wheel drive in bad weather -- and not have to give up the luxury of your sedan. The '90s turned out to be the I Can Have It All Decade.

SUV sales continue to rise, though the pace has slowed since 1996. Nevertheless, the SUV category is growing in both directions -- Ford, for instance, has just introduced the Excursion, larger in all dimensions than any other SUV, and next year will market smaller SUVs to compete with the tiny Japanese "sport cutes," such as the Suzukis and Kias. The Mercedes line has an SUV. So does BMW. In the next two years, Porsche will introduce its SUV. The Next Big Thing, automakers hope, will be the SUT, the sport utility truck -- essentially an SUV with a short pickup bed attached to the rear.

Armchair shrinks might read something into the exciting-sounding names given to the 60 or so SUVs on the market. Bob Casey, an auto historian and a curator at the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich., has categorized them. There are what he calls the Western names: Wrangler, Durango, Blazer, Cherokee. The Journey names: Expedition, Explorer, Excursion, Envoy. The Wilderness names: Yukon, Denali, Mountaineer, Tahoe. All richly evocative, each conjuring a rugged and romantic time and place, an adventurous lifestyle that most SUV buyers are happy to experience solely via TV ads.

The psychoanalysts examining all those macho names might easily jump to the conclusion that the market for these mini-monster trucks would be men who are attempting to make up for certain, um, inadequacies.

And yet, it is women such as Arseneault who have become the SUV makers' prime marketing targets. In part that's because they, not their husbands, spend the most time in SUVs, hauling children and goods. And in part it's because, when navigating modern suburban highways -- with their dense, fast-moving traffic, blood-boiling construction and angry, cell-phone-talking drivers -- a 5-foot-6 mom like Arseneault with two kids in the car wants a competitive advantage.

How influential is the female market? Next year, Ford will introduce extendible gas and brake pedals in its SUVs, solely for women drivers tired of eating the steering wheel because they have to slide the seat so far forward to reach the pedals. Arseneault has a friend who says she would have "really appreciated" extendible pedals when she was several months pregnant. Who knows -- perhaps to complement its "Eddie Bauer Edition" Explorer, Ford will introduce a "Laura Ashley Edition."

In the end, though, only one sport utility vehicle has an honest name, a name that accurately describes where most SUVs will spend almost all of their lives. It's astounding, really, that the name has not been changed to something sexier: the Chevrolet Suburban.

But suburbia is not the place it once was.

Advertised as being a refuge from the howling, crime-ridden cities 40 years ago, suburbs today -- at least the inner ones -- are as crowded, frenetic and dangerous as cities used to be. Traffic in Tysons Corner is thicker and scarier than anywhere in the District. Shootings around the country are happening at suburban, not city, high schools. Many of us live inside gated communities, dependent on high-tech security systems and anxious neighborhood watch associations. And a recent study pointed out that you're more likely to be killed by a car in pastoral suburbia than in the city because, simply, the suburbs are where the cars are.

Which brings us to the perceived security of the tank.

Car buyers are still keeping up with the Joneses. But they're not doing it solely for prestige. They're doing it for sheer mass. If Bob on your left and Belinda on your right just bought high-powered, four-wheel-drive personnel carriers, then, jeez, what chance do you have out there in your little Accord?

So I'm out on Rockville Pike, rolling along in the nonstop traffic that makes the suburban six-lane road feel like a 24-7 rush hour. I've decided to see how it feels to be rich: I'm driving a 1999 Lexus LX470, a $60,000, leather-lined, 230-horsepower behemoth of a luxury sport utility vehicle. Inside, it is voluminous enough to have two climates -- one in the front, one in the back, each regulated by separate controls.

As I drive, I ride higher than adjacent minivans, higher than pickup trucks. I get a good look at the kids in the school buses alongside me. I'm ready to drive my Big Box vehicle to the Big Box store and make some Big Box purchases to take to my Big Box tract mansion in my Big Box subdivision. If suburbia is about expanding outward and getting Bigger, I'm feeling larger than extra-large. I'm feeling XXL, as in "Super Size me."

Despite the prowess of this dreadnought, I must nevertheless bend to the authority of traffic lights. As I'm waiting at the intersection of the Pike and Shady Grove Road, Lexus salesman Bernie Kitts -- in the passenger seat beside me -- points forward and says, "How would you like to be her?"

Two vehicles ahead of me is another SUV. Idling off my left front bumper is a panel van. To the right is a pickup truck. Directly in front of me, barely visible at the bottom of this vehicular pit, is a woman driving a purple Honda Civic hatchback. Penned in on all sides, surrounded by sheet metal and exhaust, she doesn't stand a chance. Her windshield is filled with the tailgate of a sport ute, her rearview mirror with a broad, black Lexus grille.

She is small.

"This is something of an arms race," says Kitts, a career luxury-vehicle salesman. "You need something to protect yourself on the road. To continue the comparison, right now, you're driving a vehicle with a throw-weight of 5,400 pounds."

Hmmmm. Yes, suddenly I can see myself as Slim Pickens in "Dr. Strangelove," howling with glee as I straddle a nuclear bomb plummeting to earth. The driver of the purple Honda hatchback is at Ground Zero below me, huddling helpless under an umbrella.

"You can't see anything once you're lost inside that cavern," says Kitts, as we cruise along, invincible. I scan the Lexus cockpit and check out the switches: One that raises and lowers the entire vehicle four inches to duck into low-roofed parking garages. One that remembers my seat position. One that folds in the side mirrors. The mirrors also automatically angle downward when the Lexus is shifted into reverse, so I can see if I'm about to back over anything. Like, say, a Miata.

The driver of the little purple Honda attempts to pull away from me. I stay close to her bumper, just for fun. The Lexus engine accelerates like a storm front. I know that her rearview mirror is filled with a huge, chrome, backward "L." I don't want to be an annoying danger, but I can't seem to help myself. Is it me? Or is it the vehicle?

Sunlight filters through the arcing mist of Rod Milstead's green garden hose, painting a low-altitude rainbow.

It's a recent warm Saturday afternoon. Milstead, an offensive guard for the Washington Redskins, is standing in the driveway of his sizable Waldorf home, hand-washing his white 1997 GMC Yukon Denali, as he does every week. Inside the garage are two immaculate Japanese sport motorcycles and a radio playing WKYS, the black hits station. On the apron of the driveway is an Acura Legend sedan, which just got its bath.

It's hard to tell that the Denali is dirty. It gleams in the sunlight, as bright as a tone from a trumpet.

Milstead got a good deal on it -- he bought it at a little over dealer's cost, in late 1996, for $35,000. Then he sent it to the customizers, who went to work. They installed a sleek "billet" grille on the front; alloy wheels, running boards and chrome exhaust pipes underneath; fender skirts on the sides; a 12-disc CD changer inside; and a sunroof on top. Adding, all told, about another $6,100 to the cost. The truck is thoroughly tricked out, though not garish.

"I put the miles on the Acura," Milstead says, soaping the roof of the Denali. Mostly because the Acura gets more than 20 miles per gallon, while the Denali is lucky to make the high teens. "That's the car I drive to Redskin Park."

"This," he says, spraying the hose on the Denali's hood, "is my prestige car -- the one I take when I go out, go to a good restaurant, to church."

Milstead, 29, was born and raised in the Southern Maryland car culture; a race track is not far from his home. That's part of the reason for his auto affinity. But another is this: He is a professional athlete, a member of an extraordinarily concentrated group of SUV owners.

As NFL players go, Milstead is a yeoman laborer, a backup lineman making $425,000 a year -- just a little more than the league minimum for veterans such as himself. He's direct and respectful, believes in dealing man-to-man. And he's a sensible fellow, planning for a life after football, hoping to coach at his alma mater, Lackey High School in Indian Head, so he can stay near his family. Unlike teammate Michael Westbrook, Milstead didn't get a multimillion-dollar bonus to sign a contract with the Redskins.

All this being said, though, if you play in the hi-glam NFL, you have to sport a measure of personal style. You do not arrive in training camp in a beat-up Datsun.

One recent weekday afternoon, in the parking lot of the Redskins training complex in Loudoun County there were 136 vehicles. Fifty of them were SUVs. That's 37 percent. Nationally, the figure is 15 percent. You'd see the same high proportion of SUVs in the Wizards parking lot underneath the MCI Center, or the Orioles garage underneath Camden Yards.

Milstead pointed around the Redskins lot: Over here was running back Brian Mitchell's new Lexus LX470 (suggested retail price: $55,905). Over there was coach Norv Turner's Cadillac Escalade ($45,875). There -- how could you miss it? -- was wide receiver Westbrook's SUV. It started life as a Lincoln Navigator, but who could tell anymore? Westbrook lowered it, coated it with paint that changes colors as you view it from different directions and installed a stereo system that could shake down the birds from the sky. Milstead told me Westbrook's paint job and alloy wheels cost nearly as much as my entire 1997 Acura coupe.

Professional athletes and entertainers are the style makers of popular culture. They frequently commingle: Witness the rap recording success of Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal or country singer Garth Brooks's attempt to make the San Diego Padres during spring training this year. And they share symbols of wealth.

A decade ago, a rapper might appear in his MTV video driving a luxury sedan. Now, he might just as easily be filmed driving an SUV. Arnold Schwarzenegger persuaded the U.S. armed forces to sell him a Humvee after the Persian Gulf War. Soon, it was Hollywood's must-have vehicle.

When Milstead was drafted in 1992, he immediately knew what he wanted: a Nissan Pathfinder sport ute. "All the athletes had it," he says. "It had a great name -- `Pathfinder' -- it was, like, if you didn't have a path, it would find one. And it had a good design, very masculine."

The Pathfinder was fine for a while. But the longer Milstead stayed in the NFL, and the more weights he lifted, the bigger he got. One day, after a workout, he and a buddy stepped into the Nissan at the same instant. Like a Three Stooges sight gag, they smashed shoulders over the center console.

"I told him, `That's the last damn time you and I are going to hit shoulders,' " Milstead says.

Shortly after that, though, came the humiliation.

Milstead and another buddy found themselves idling alongside each other at a stoplight. This time, Milstead was driving his Mercedes S500 sedan, which sported a 321-horsepower engine. His buddy was revving the V-8 of a battleship-class Chevrolet Tahoe SUV.

The light changed. They peeled out.

Milstead watched the Chevy's taillights pull away from him.

"I said, `Omigod, I can't believe this,' " he says. The Mercedes cost almost twice as much as the Tahoe, a fact not lost on Milstead. It wasn't long before he test-drove his first big SUV.

We have to give Milstead the benefit of the doubt. He's a big guy: 6-foot-3, 290 pounds. So he needs a big vehicle for the room inside.

But one day at Redskin Park, I buttonhole Brian Mitchell, who, despite the fact that he is a star professional football player, is generously listed in the Redskins media guide as 5-foot-10.

Why does he need such a big ride?

"Maybe you're a 5-8 guy," he says, surely not referring to himself. "But if you put 20-inch rims on [the SUV] and install your [expensive stereo] system, then, all of a sudden, you've got prestige," he says. "All of a sudden, you step out of a $60,000 car and people know that." Metaphorically, you're not so short anymore.

Told this, Milstead agrees.

"Even if a guy's not very big, when he gets up in the SUV, he'll feel big, big, big," he says. "Guaranteed."

Or, as Bob Casey, the auto historian, puts it: "It's not for nothing that kings sit up on those thrones above the rest of us."

In his office at the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village, Casey spends a lot of time thinking about vehicles. It's his job. Lately, because they're so prevalent, he's been thinking about SUVs. To him, they are the quintessential American vehicle, in exactly the way that 1970s cars like Pacers and Vegas and Pintos were not.

"To some degree, [SUVs] are a reaction to the whole oil shortage business of the '70s," he says. "Given their druthers, Americans will drive big cars rather than small cars. During the rising oil prices of the '70s, we all collectively tended to rush into small vehicles -- it wasn't really by choice.

"As soon as things eased up and inflation caught up with the price of gas, and the real price of gas went back to what it was, we began to happily drive vehicles that were sized the way they were in the '50s or '60s," he says.

True enough. In late September, the Environmental Protection Agency released its annual vehicle gas mileage ratings. The bestsellers -- SUVs -- got the worst mileage. Conversely, the cars with the best mileage ratings were the poorest sellers. Nowadays, apparently, we're wealthy enough to spend $30 to fill up the Explorer's tank; we drive enough to have to do it twice a week.

"Somebody once said that sport utes may be the tail fins of the '90s," Casey says. Just for fun, he did a comparative study between two automobiles emblematic of two American ages: the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado -- one of the largest, pointiest batmobiles ever welded together -- and the 1999 Chevrolet Suburban, one of the bigger sport utes around. He noted some eyebrow-raising similarities.

The two vehicles have the identical wheel base, or distance between front and rear axles. The Caddy weighed 5,060 pounds; the Suburban weighs 5,170. The Eldo was 225 inches long; the Chevy is 219.

But tail fins were more than just a design flourish. They identified the cars and the car buyers of the '50s. They said: opulence, mastery, power, aggression. You didn't watch out when an Eldo was backing up, you'd get a tail fin in the ribs.

Note also that tail fins were wholly useless. Absolutely unnecessary for any conceivable aerodynamic or structural purpose.

Are SUVs as unnecessary as the tail fin, except as a symbol? Even though potential buyers today are lured into showrooms by TV ads featuring SUVs climbing mountains and fording streams, the truth is that virtually no one uses a sport ute for its ostensible purpose. Lexus research tells its salespeople that 99.9 percent of all Lexus SUV buyers never take them off-road. Folks who sell lesser-priced SUVs report the same. One Dodge salesman said, quite without irony, "You don't buy a $30,000 sport utility vehicle to take it off-road."

What, then, are SUVs telling us?

Let's tick back a few years with the Arseneaults.

They were married in 1984. He was an ex-college football player who delivered kegs of Pabst beer to liquor stores in the D.C. area. Along the way, he started to learn about wine. She worked for a publisher and was a part-time photographer. He owned a Honda. She had company cars -- a Chevy Celebrity, an Oldsmobile sedan.

Jim was something of a car horse: He went through a Renault Fuego, a Ford Thunderbird and a Ford Crown Victoria. Eventually, he got a Ford Explorer for his wine business. But the family needed a second car, once the kids started getting big. This would be Nancy's car.

Enter the minivan.

They bought a silver 1992 Ford Aerostar. Unlike many moms and dads, Nancy says she had no hesitation about passing through the Minivan Portal into irreversible parenthood. "Originally, I wanted to be a soccer mom," she says. "I had been in business, and I was persuading myself -- after I had Douglas -- that this was what I really wanted to do now. The minivan was a reaffirmation of that."

She became president of the Laurel Moms Club and her son's elementary school PTA. "You get absolutely absorbed into your kids' lives," she says.

Maybe a little too absorbed. Maybe she started to feel her identity slip away, just a little. Soon, she became a mom with a minivan, conscripted into hauling neighborhood kids around. "It's like, `Oh, my mom has seven seats,' " she says. "You start feeling guilty if you don't volunteer when you've got a minivan."

Arseneault is a can-do woman who can't stand wasting time. She has a graduate degree and dresses comfortably. She's a native New Yorker, and still has a hint of the old neighborhood accent in her voice. She's wise, in that big-city way, but not brusque. She likes to chat, though it's better if conversations have a point.

She had the capacity to convince herself that it was just as important to her self-esteem to be a good housewife as to have been a successful businesswoman.

For a while. Eventually, it hit her: "I got sick of being a soccer mom."

Which brings us to this past summer. Jim and Nancy huddled and decided that the minivan had served nobly -- it wore more than 100,000 miles. Plenty of American families reach this point each year.

What would be the new vehicle in the Arseneaults' driveway?

Nancy Arseneault knew what it definitely was not going to be: another minivan. She just couldn't bring herself to it. It didn't represent who she was anymore, to her way of thinking. If vehicles are symbols to most Americans -- representing power, freedom, individuality and so on, as closely linked to our personalities as our choices of clothing and spouses -- then she was no longer a minivan person.

She and her kids are minutes from home now. The rain is letting up. A jazzy Spyro Gyra disc spins in the CD player. Arseneault glances up into the rearview mirror. Shamelessly, she appeals to her sons in the back seat for help justifying her purchase.

"Hey -- tell us why the SUV is better than the van," she beseeches.

"It's cooler to have a mom driving an SUV than a minivan," says Douglas.

Marc, only 9, is still shaking off the symbolic associations of being the baby. "It's better to step out of an SUV than a minivan 'cause you mostly see [child] car seats in a minivan," he says. In the Explorer, he feels more grown up.

Everyone laughs. But Arseneault thinks for a moment.

There's one more key difference between the minivan and the sport ute, at least for her. It is a difference her youngest has foreshadowed. Perhaps it is the most powerful one.

In an SUV, she says, "you actually feel more like an adult instead of just a parent."

Around the offices of Car and Driver, the monthly auto magazine, employees joke that sport utes "have no sport and not much utility," reports editor-in-chief Csaba Csere.

For years, Csere has chronicled the American love affair with the car with a wry and witty pen. He's seen gull-winged De Loreans, turbocharged Dodge Omnis, diesel Chevy Chevettes and other jokemobiles disgorged by Detroit. But the SUV fad is different. To him, it is the height of superficiality.

"They are all about style," he says. "We are a very affluent society, rolling in dough. We are well beyond simply buying things we need. Almost everything we buy is for some other market reason."

Indeed, take a look at another consumable, an everyday necessity that has been turned into a personal statement via branding and advertising: shoes. Go into a men's shoe store. What are the hot sellers? Loafers? Wingtips? Nah. Boots. But not old-school construction boots, ones that might actually save your big toe if you drop a hammer on it.

No, these are the new urban assault boots: thick, sportily molded rubber soles with gravel-gripping treads, coated in plenty of weatherbeating Gore-Tex and nylon, secured with Velcro stays and cinched with thick, striped laces. Nobody buys these boots for climbing glaciers or hanging drywall. They cost $100; why on earth would you wear them out in the mud? They are the sport utes of footwear.

Like the designer boots, SUVs are big and sturdy-looking and make the people in them feel prepared for anything.

Robert Carter, a Land Rover salesman in Alexandria, remembers an Army colonel who once came into the dealership and bought his son a Discovery. He said, "This is my only son. If I could, I'd put him in an Abrams M-1 tank, but I can't. So this is the next best thing."

The biggest safety concern, not surprisingly, comes from non-SUV owners, who worry what will happen to them if they're hit by a sport ute, which outweighs them in the proportion that a heavyweight boxer outweighs a flyweight.

Physics offers up a simple formula that governs how the entire world works, when it's in motion. It can be applied equally to an incoming mortar shell and to a speeding SUV:

p = mv

p is momentum, m is mass and v is velocity. The equation means: The heavier an object is, and the faster it is moving, the harder it hits. If you're smashed into by an Explorer moving at 50 mph, it's going to do more damage to your car than if you're hit by a VW Beetle going just as fast.

Large vans, pickups and SUVs cause the most deaths in vehicles they hit, according to crash research. That's to be expected. But even small SUVs are more deadly to drivers of other vehicles than small pickups and large sedans.

So your best defense, it would seem, is to shield yourself in more armor -- buy a bigger car.

But recent crash test research, compiled by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety from federal government tests, shows that only the very largest SUVs (weighing more than 5,000 pounds, such as the Lexus LX470) protect occupants better than large cars, such as Jim Arseneault's old Crown Victoria. Large SUVs, such as the Arseneaults' Ford Explorers (those over 2 tons), scored only slightly better at protecting occupants than mid-size cars, such as the Ford Taurus.

What's more, U.S. government research shows that SUVs and pickup trucks are more likely to tip over than other vehicles. That issue dates back at least to 1988, when Consumer Reports published the first of two particularly critical articles, one on Suzuki Samurais that year and another on Isuzu Troopers in 1996, that put the vehicles through hazard-avoidance tests -- a quick left-right-left steering maneuver designed to determine how the vehicle reacts in emergency situations, such as a child running into the road. In both cases it found the SUVs likely to roll over; a huge headline on the Isuzu article screamed, "UNSAFE."

SUV owners thought: I bought my SUV to protect my kids, and now I find they roll over?

Both Suzuki and Isuzu sued the magazine, saying the results were caused by shoddily performed tests, and the trials are pending. But consumers have short memories, and old rollover scares haven't kept SUVs from selling.

One morning I find myself clutching at the passenger seat of a Land Rover Discovery, tilted 35 degrees to the left. Carter, the salesman, has parked the vehicle sideways on a hill, slid out of the driver's seat and is now hanging on the roof, bouncing up and down, his feet off the ground, trying to pull the 4,500-pound, $35,000 vehicle over on top of him.

"I'd like to see other SUVs do this," he shouts, suspended in air.

At most Land Rover dealerships, there is a "test track" like this one. A carefully sculpted mountain trail of boulders rises up to about 12 feet, forming a 32-degree incline. It peaks sharply at the top. Then, it descends about 18 feet at about 40 degrees. Then it banks sharply up and to the left, at the aforesaid 35 degrees. Then it levels off.

Now, it's my turn to drive the Discovery.

"Trust the vehicle and trust the teacher," Carter tells me.

I steer the growling, nearly three-ton beast over the rocks. In a moment we are just about sideways. I look up at Carter, now in the passenger seat, looming a good foot above me. He looks like he's on the stern of the Titanic as it sinks. Yet we do not move. I look left out of my side window at the ground, which is about two feet directly below me. I notice that the vehicle's knobby tires are flawlessly gripping the bone dry, gravel-free, high-friction rocks and wonder to myself how stable we'd be on the side of a muddy incline.

Sometimes, there's trouble for SUV owners even before they start the engine. SUVs have consistently placed high on the "most stolen" vehicle lists. The irony: The kid-hauling SUV has eclipsed the luxury sedan in criminal appeal.

As manufacturers have devised new security systems, the thieves, in response, naturally ratcheted up their end. After 1997, Lexus introduced an "immobilizer chip" embedded in its vehicles' ignition keys. It meant that a Lexus could no longer be hot-wired. Which meant that criminals now needed the key, which they could procure by confronting the driver. Such a crime happened to a local Lexus salesman a few months ago: He went on a test drive with a customer, only to be forced out of the SUV and have it stolen.

Kitts, the salesman who allowed me a brief taste of the high life during my own Lexus test drive, tells a story about a Chevy Chase family he knows that had a Toyota Land Cruiser stolen from their driveway -- after the thieves hot-wired and moved the Acura Legend blocking in the Toyota. The thieves drove off in the Land Cruiser and left the Acura behind.

"People hate us?" asks Nancy Arseneault, in her Explorer, tooling south toward Beltsville on Interstate 95. She sounds incredulous.

It's true, I tell her. Lots of folks feel intimidated by SUVs, get frustrated when they block the view of the highway, hate having their headlights glare in nighttime rearview mirrors.

Lots of folks think you drive a bullymobile, I say. What I don't tell her is that there are at least half a dozen Web pages devoted to bashing sport utes and their owners.

"Well, it does make you react to it," she allows. "It is a power car."

Sure. Rod Milstead knows it, too. Sometimes, he'll be driving his Denali on the Beltway, trying to change lanes. He dutifully puts on his turn signal and patiently looks for an opening. But they rarely come.

"Eventually, you just say, `Forget this. I'm going over,' " he says. "And you start easing over to the left." He thinks SUVs can metamorphose typically mild-mannered drivers into aggressive ones. It's all that metal around you, he says.

"Why do you think SUV drivers will cut you off in a heartbeat?" he asks.

Earlier in the day, while Arseneault was trying to pull into traffic, the view to her right was blocked by an SUV. She noticed it and, for a moment, was upset. But that's part of the bargain of driving these days. There's no going back to low sedans. It takes a revolution or an economic collapse to stop an arms race, and neither seems to have happened just yet.

She's having trouble with this animosity concept. After all, she's a nice lady; she's a mom. She drives an SUV to haul wine. To protect her kids. For a feeling of confidence on the increasingly dangerous, crowded suburban roads. Suddenly, she finds that her vehicle choice has made her an object of some social scorn. That there may be underlying truth to the good-natured ribbing her employees administered.

She considers it for a moment. Something very primal kicks in. It's a dangerous world out there. Isn't protecting her kids worth a little public scorn?

"So, they hate us?" Arseneault repeats. She is resigned, but defiant: "Oh, well."

An overcast Thursday afternoon, about 1:30. George Washington Parkway. Traffic heading into the city is spare and speedy, proceeding smartly along the green-lined blacktop, as it curves past Spout Run and heads toward the Potomac bridges. Traffic moving the other way, however, is not moving anywhere. Construction on the lanes heading out of D.C. and into the Virginia suburbs has created a bottleneck near the Key Bridge exit. Lines of idling vehicles stretch out of sight toward the city.

Suddenly, the driver of a black Jeep Cherokee decides to break from the pack. He punches the gas and yanks his steering wheel hard left. He mightily climbs the six-inch concrete curb. He fearlessly blazes through the ankle-high grass. He heroically fords the 25-foot-wide median strip.

The Cherokee winds around a stanchion holding up the Roosevelt Island walkway, lurches off the opposite curb and plunks down in the traffic-free opposite lanes, presumably searching for an alternative westward route. He speeds out of sight.

The driver may have purchased his sport ute to haul his kids to soccer practice or lug groceries from the supermarket or for a thousand other prosaic tasks that could be more efficiently accomplished in a minivan or a large sedan. But could a minivan have done this? Episodes such as this are the stuff of cul-de-sac folklore.

Any SUV salesperson will tell you, hand patting a high fender: You'll probably never need to take this vehicle off-road but, if you have to, isn't it nice to know you can?

Isn't it nice to know you can control your environment? Even if the concept itself may be delusion and/or hubris?

On this day, this SUV driver decided he had to go off-road. He didn't take a Saharan trek or go on a Namibian hunt or lead an Everglades rescue. He made a dangerous, highly illegal tactical maneuver to escape from stopped traffic on a divided urban highway and change his destiny.

He didn't have to do it, but he did.

Because he could.

Frank Ahrens is a staff writer in The Post's Style section. He'll be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at Post researcher David Barie contributed to this report.