Saturday, June 12, 2004

Caution: French stereotypes ahead

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I drive a sensible, affordable, fuel-efficient vehicle. It's not a babe magnet or anything, but it gets almost 38 miles per gallon.

I fill up Quigley the Toyota -- that's its name -- about every two and a half weeks. Sometimes I do it sooner, when I miss the bewitching scent of gasoline fumes.

The other day, my wife and I were tooling around in it, kibitzing about the high price of gas like we just came from a clearance sale on kibitz.

"I wish I could ride a bike to work," my wife said.

"It won't work," I said. "The Saudi royal family is trying to corner the market on feet."

My wife drives a car even smaller and more fuel-efficient than mine is. You drive it by pulling it back until it clicks, then letting it go.

Lest you think that because our cars are gas-sippers there's no room inside, rest assured that we do not have to pack ourselves in oil and sit overlapping each other sardinishly. Riding with us that day were three oversized loads of freshly cleaned laundry, five bags of stuff we bought at the mall, four books I keep forgetting to bring inside, about 10 CD cases and various and sundry car tools, with plenty of room left over for about 17 clowns.

In front of us in traffic was a Hummer H2, an SUV adapted from the military Humvee. If all the SUV models had an arm-wrestling contest, the H2 would win. It starts at $51,000. It weighs 6,400 pounds, is 6 feet, 6 inches tall and almost 16 feet long from bumper to bumper. Its best feature is its ability to stop bullets. Under the best conditions, it'll get about 11 or 12 miles per gallon.

There was one person in the Hummer, and the rest of it looked empty. I looked around for bullets to stop, but found very few.

I don't drive an SUV, and I probably will never do so. Some horsepower-crazed SUV owner is probably going to run me over for saying this, but I think they're too expensive, impractical and inefficient, and hardly anybody honestly needs them. If you go off-road or carry tons of gear, then you're fine. But people who drive SUVs alone on pavement and haul around the occasional Happy Meal buy SUVs because they're chicken, frankly -- either scared of being in an accident with not enough metal around them to absorb the shock, or scared of not looking cool enough to the neighbors.

And their fear of accidents is misplaced. A New Yorker article a few months ago on the SUV industry showed that, because many SUVs are designed off truck platforms instead of car platforms, they're cheap to put together and much more dangerous than people realize. And filling one up with gas supports all the hostile, oil-producing countries in OPEC, so it's like sending checks directly to al-Qaida.

I'm not a nature kook -- I just don't want more than I need. By the same reasoning, when I buy a toaster, I get a machine that toasts bread -- its ability also to roast turkeys and steam mussels is unimportant.

So why would I want a car that's meant to drive over dirt roads if I never drive on dirt roads? Most people don't. We're pretty good about paving dirt roads in America. And I don't need to carry a lot of junk because almost everything, including groceries, can be delivered if it's too big.

We don't have kids, but when we do, we won't get an SUV then, either. Why would we need more room? Kids are primarily identified by their smallness.

Besides, I crunched the numbers from the manufacturers' information -- the Hummer H2 and my dinky midget-car have nearly identical front head room (40 inches), rear head room (38 inches) and front leg room (41 inches). My Toyota actually has more rear leg room than an H2 -- 35 inches to 27.

This week, Reuters news service reported that Paris is trying to ban SUVs from its narrow, accordion-choked streets. Yes, I know -- that is just like the French, but they might be onto something here.

"You have to wonder why people want to drive around in SUVs," Paris Deputy Mayor Denis Baupin was quoted as saying. "It's made for a family on vacation and usually they only have one person in them."

Even SUV enthusiasts would have to feel a little bit bad for Paris. Most European cities are filled with motor scooters and cars the size of wet-dry vacs. Unleashing an SUV into that crowd is like stuffing an elephant into a fish tank.

The story mentions that Paris couldn't legally ban SUVs outright, but doesn't say how the city would circumvent this issue. To that end, I have an idea, patent-pending and available to the Paris government at a reasonable price. Here's how I imagine the commercial:


Scene: A narrow lane in Paris. We hear a soft accordion playing in the background. The commercial is actually shot in the Flint and the guy on the accordion is actually my dad with a kazoo, but that's all I could afford.

There are two scooters parked along the sidewalk, and remnants of a third (along with remnants of the owner) are crushed under a Ford Excursion belching smoke from its tailllpipe.

Two POLICE OFFICERS enter. One of them is my wife wearing a false mustache, and the other is a mime.

OFFICER 1: Zut alors, Benny! Don't these Fronch drivers comprend pas that SUV are verboten in gay Paree?

OFFICER 2: [pretends he is stuck in a box]

OFFICER 1: Benny -- le fromage!

(Officer 2 produces a tire jack. Quick as a flash, they remove the Ford's tires and replace them with them with four 18-inch wheels of cheese. The axles begin to bend from the strain.)

OFFICER 1: Voila! Maintenant, les wheels, zey are immobilized, them. No go vroom-vroom, it! And ze air pollution from les fromages, she smells formidable!

OFFICER 2: [pretends he is walking in a high wind]

NARRATOR: Le Fromage-Boot. Available in Camembert, Gouda, et Swiss. C'est si bon!

(My dog wanders into frame and begins to nibble the tires.)


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