Hello Dear CEP Blog readers. Last week, you got a little taste of the fact that I am the off-road expert among the hosts of the Check Engine Podcast. Expert is, of course, comparative. I have gone on a road trip exclusively to use my Jeep for its intended purpose. I subscribe to the newsletter for Expedition Portal. I do, from time to time, like to live “Like The Poors” (thanks, Andrew, for that adorable phrase) and go camping. Anyway, we’ve mentioned that I’m the resident “Jeep guy” at CEP, and, more generally, the off-road guy.
Now, earlier in my life, I would have questioned why anyone would even need such a host on a car podcast. In my high-school mind, all trucks and SUVs were dumb. Now, that wasn’t such an outlandish claim as I did grow up in semi-rural Wisconsin and every bro drove a truck because we lived “in the country”. Never mind that most of those trucks rode on STREET TIRES and never put so much as two wheels off-road. I also grew up near the beginning of the SUV boom. My elementary and middle school parking lot looked like the United Nations motor pool in some dusty country somewhere. Well, except for all the dirt. And scratches. And off-road tires. Yes, much like the trucks of my high school days, those NEVER went off road. I thought that SUVs and trucks were dumb, and thus bad. Where did the opinion change? What was my path to the “dark side” of embracing trucks and SUVs? Well, it started, as most voyages of acceptance do, with getting to know the one you hate. Here, is that tale:
I have ridden motorcycles for some time, as has Andrew. Any time I needed to move said motorcycle in the winter, when it was laid up, or for various other reasons that prevented it from being ridden, it was always the huge chore of unpacking the family RV and using it to tow a motorcycle. Which seemed dumb and horribly inconvenient to me. So, after the demise of my poor B5.5 4Motion Passat wagon, I decided to give SUVs a try. Now, not being one to (often but not always, see my Outback as an exception) do anything halfway, I decided that a real, honest to goodness SUV, was the only way forward. I wanted to tow my motorcycle, go camping, and try my hand at some off-road driving. So, I sought out a used Toyota 4Runner. It had the sliding rear window, manual 4WD transfer case lever, GIANT tires, and was impossible for my dad to get in and out of. The real deal. I got it just before winter… and I loved it. I blew through deep puddles, I crushed piles of snow with abandon, and I crammed a TON of stuff in the back. It was bulletproof, started in the deepest cold, and seemed ready for anything. I suddenly found the appeal. You have a certain feeling of invincibility in an SUV that you don’t get in other vehicles. Now, I’m not so dumb as to buy the “It’s bigger so it’s safer” line. My current WRX is one of the smallest cars I’ve ever owned and every bit as safe as my Outback was. Both are IIHS Top Safety Picks PLUS (whatever that plus means (EDITOR'S NOTE: Headlights, you Huguenot, HEADLIGHTS)), and the WRX is half the size. It is, quantifiably, safer than my 4Runner was. But the 4Runner made you feel like a god, laughing on-high at any petty nuisance Mother Nature might throw at you. Water? Snow? Mud? Big rocks? HA! You sneer at them. And that is one facet of the appeal of SUVs. They tow things, they carry things… and they make you feel invincible. However, that is just a trick of the mind. It’s one of the reasons they’re popular… but still a trick of the mind. What I realized next is FACT, and no less a reason people buy SUVs.
They CAN be used for their intended purpose. My current car gives me ultimate driving pleasure, even on my daily commute. That’s why I purchased it and not another SUV. Day to day, a good car will get you a lot more dopamine out of a good car than an SUV day to day. It makes you WANT to drive it. All the time. However, the lure of the SUV is that, given the right environment, it could actually perform to the limits of its performance envelope, and do so legally. Anything that pushes the envelope on my WRX that happens on a city street is, by definition, illegal. It is reckless driving because I COULD fail terribly and hurt or kill someone. Anything like that has to be done on a track. However, if you get all stoked for MOAB!? Go try to crawl over rocks your Jeep can’t handle. You’ll get stuck. You’ll have to turn back. You might even get embarrassed and have to go learn something. And the same goes for overlanding that we described in our most recent episode. Or the pastime of “muddin’” that is popular near me. You, my friends, are now privy to the deep, dark secret attraction of SUVs. Now, that term is spread around liberally. Neither the god-like power or dreams of tackling the Rubicon or MOAB are why someone buys a CRV. When I say SUV, I mean SUV. Not crossover. Not CUV. To that end, that is why, after the untimely sacrifice of the 4Runner to save me from a hurtling semi, I went out after another true SUV. A Jeep. Now, some hardcore people that even I make fun of will say a Grand Cherokee isn’t really an SUV. The sand on the Outer Banks and fire roads in Virginia beg to differ. But I digress. I went for something slightly more civilized that still kept that feeling of invincibility…. And able to handle the kind of offroading I was looking at. I don’t care to rock crawl. I want to go places to see things. And there are some things you can only see if you don’t take a road to get there. According to Tristan’s Deep Thoughts™, that’s why SUVs are popular and you see so many things with light bars driving around Milwaukee. It’s that secret appeal. Now, to retreat up to the top of a mountain for 30 years to contemplate the popularity of crossovers… Actually… it might take longer than that. If you don’t hear from me again? Assume I died pondering the meaning of life, the universe, and crossovers.