Show Me the Mileage

SUVs are engineered for serious offroading, yet less than 5% of their drivers ever dare to take them off pavement. Why have they been so popular? Until recently, they constituted the most profitable segment in the North American auto industry. Millions of suburbanites and city dwellers didn't buy Jeeps, Hummers and Range Rovers and then just forget to schedule weekends of wilderness boulder crawling.

SUVs are engineered for serious offroading, yet less than 5% of their drivers ever dare to take them off pavement. Why have they been so popular?

Until recently, they constituted the most profitable segment in the North American auto industry.

Millions of suburbanites and city dwellers didn't buy Jeeps, Hummers and Range Rovers and then just forget to schedule weekends of wilderness boulder crawling. They bought SUVs because they like feeling in control.

Instead of dreading the next day's commute the night before a snowstorm, SUV owners can envision themselves charging out of their snowbound subdivision with Patton-like authority, ready to conquer all who dare stand in their way.

As volatile gas prices make consumers feel vulnerable, they now crave another type of empowerment.

Driving a hybrid-electric vehicle is the new way of Sticking It To The Man. HEVs may not be as efficient as touted, but they still get commendable mileage and give drivers a feeling of command over their lives.

Gas prices may continue to drop, but just as the SUV owner no longer worries about the winter forecast, the HEV owner can take comfort in knowing he or she can weather a spike in gas prices.

A big part of Toyota's genius in marketing HEVs is its graphic dashboard depiction of their operation to the driver.

The Toyota Prius and Highlander, Lexus RX 400h and Ford Escape Hybrid all are selling more briskly than HEVs offered by Honda in part because they present a more obviously different driving experience.

Not only can they glide for long distances solely on electric power, but they also feature an imaginative display on the instrument panel that shows the system working and how fuel economy can be maximized.

All auto makers should steal this idea. Instead of spending millions on advertising that tries to educate consumers about the benefits of cylinder deactivation, 6-speed transmissions and how to drive more frugally, auto makers should install a graphical user interface (GUI) that does all that on the instrument panel in real time.

Many new vehicles display fuel economy or offer some feedback to the driver, which is a step in the right direction, but not enough.

Steven Jobs changed the world in 1984 when he introduced his Macintosh personal computer with a GUI that made a computer easy to use.

It's time the auto industry did the same by offering user-friendly and entertaining GUIs on all vehicles that help everyone maximize fuel economy. Ultimately, selling cars is more about giving buyers control than it is about mileage.

Drew Winter is editor of Ward's Auto World.

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