19 March, 2006

Why this guy won the Pulitzer

A lot of us thought it odd when a car reviewer won the Pulitzer for criticism a couple years ago. Today, Dan Neil shows us how it's done:
THERE'S something peculiarly egregious, something antagonizing about the 2007 Mercedes-Benz GL, the company's new full-size, 15-mpg sport-utility vehicle, which might be described as a Cadillac Escalade with a hankering for Czechoslovakia. For one thing, it goes to show that, even though the full-size SUV market has fallen off dramatically in the last year, there are still sufficient numbers of selfish rotters out there to constitute an appealing market segment.

Mercedes-Benz executives offer this wholly meritless defense: Many of its customers leave the brand because the company does not offer a full-size SUV that meets their needs, which is to say, a seven-passenger, 17-foot 4x4 with a 9,300-pound towing capacity. At this point in the presentation in Napa Valley last week, execs showed slides of the GL pulling a 30-foot boat. So there you have it: Mercedes' audience of water-skiing polygamists is underserved.

Needs? Did the man say needs? OK, then. I propose needs testing for the purchase of such a vehicle. You must have a Chris-Craft and three or more school-age children in the yard to qualify. Your vehicle must do double-duty as, um, a bookmobile.

Need has very little to do with it. This segment is about want, naked and unquenchable, I-got-mine-you-get-bent appetite. It's well established that the vast majority of these vehicles never touch gravel, never carry more than a couple of people, and never tow anything heavier than the weight of their owner's childhood traumas.

Most people who buy the GL won't know a Class IV hitch from a Mark 48 torpedo. And I, for one, am not going to congratulate some Bel-Air singleton for his wise vehicle purchase when it is so patently purblind and morally retrograde.

Plainly, I'm disappointed that Mercedes-Benz — the company of Gullwings and 500Es, of elegant engineering and F1 cars — has decided to get into delivery van business. And yet I cannot fairly blame the company, which being a corporation is doing what corporations do in the absence of governance: Make as much money as is within its ken to do....

Why, in the midst of a slow-rolling energy crisis, an unpopular war in a region of the world made strategic only by its oil, and the globe's climbing mercury, should precisely the wrong kinds of vehicles remain so popular?

One reason is surely the tax breaks associated with 3-ton SUVs: business owners get a $25,000 tax break on the purchase of full-size SUVs (scaled back from $100,000 in 2004) and five-year depreciation schedule. For people taking advantage of this cozy corner of Section 179, the GL — with a base price anticipated to be about $60,000 — will be virtually free. That makes your $4,000 hybrid tax break look pretty punk, doesn't it?

The tax code is the most obvious point of inflection between vehicle choice and public policy. Another knee-point is CAFE — that's Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, in case you forgot, and who could blame you?

....We have been told recently that we are addicted to oil, but we seem to be unable to do much about it. California's clean-air bureaus are trying to regulate carbon emissions from vehicles and are being sued by manufacturers and the federal government for their trouble....

If we were serious about oil dependence, we would dramatically raise fuel economy standards, impose gas-guzzler taxes on noncommercial light trucks and lower the national speed limit.

None of that is going to happen.

So, in the face of this enormous governmental and regulatory inaction... SUV owners are mocked. Late-night comics have become scolds. Evangelicals have enlisted Jesus Christ himself in the "What Would Jesus Drive" campaign....

The cultural opprobrium that afflicts SUV owners — often overheated, occasionally misdirected, frequently ignored — is virtually the only disincentive in the market, the only defense the rest of us have from these rolling hot tubs of avarice. People feel slightly embarrassed, even a little ashamed. Good.


In a marginally related note, I'd like to point out this rather silly pro-SUV group's blog , which by some miracle still has comments enabled. Sometimes there's some angry red gems there... 

Posted by saurabh

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