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Some SUVs come fully loaded with claims of super-car feats

Sunday, July 15, 2001

Stopped by a red light from entering a busy North Hills intersection the other day, I noted with minimal interest that the driver of the vehicle behind me was demonstrably unhappy, apparently with me.

As I watched his gesticulating snit in the rearview mirror of my reliably sluggish Buick Oldfarte, it grew clear that my position was preventing him from making a right turn on red. His pantomime flared until he was madder than Joan Rivers sharing a first-class cabin with the Charlie Daniels band, and it was conveyed that were I to just drift forward some distance, happy days would be here again. Or something.

There were three problems with this silent entreaty, however, one being that I was already a bit too far forward in the intersection, two being that I'm not sure you can legally make a right turn on red when you're not technically at the red light, and three being that the vehicle behind me was a Jeep, which is no small consideration.

From the Jeep commercials I've seen, his vehicle routinely romps through thick forests like a white-tailed deer and ascends rocky outcrops like a big-horned sheep on amphetamines. Most Jeeps I see on TV and in print ads, in fact, are not queued up in traffic but perched on some prohibitive plateau overlooking a world where primitives like myself are content to drive on streets and highways.

Checking my right sideview mirror then, I noted that what was somehow preventing Mr. Apoplexy from his desired if quasi-legal maneuver was not me at all, but what looked to be, adjacent to his right wheels, about a 1-inch curb bordered by a muddy rut the approximate depth of a salad plate.

"Go for it, pal!" I yipped to myself. "Or have the ads possibly overstated something?"

Obviously, that might be just it, after all. The advertising for Jeeps specifically and sport utility vehicles in general has been so preposterous that their drivers have to know they're being duped. Don't they?

The latest slice of slick nonsense is a print ad for the 2001 Nissan Pathfinder, in which the big SUV is shown moving smartly out of the path of a charging bull in a vacant bull ring, a blood red cape flapping dashingly from the driver's side window.

"NOT THAT YOU WOULD. BUT YOU COULD" says the ad.

I guess this is the next installment in the Pathfinders Play Polo initiative, the commercials in which the vehicles zip between thundering polo ponies, much the way, by an amazing coincidence, they're driven along McKnight Road. Even if a Pathfinder could outmaneuver a polo pony, much less a bull in a confined space, it might have to stop for gas before the animals got tired.

"You'll have the surefootedness and responsiveness of a professional matador," the ad goes on to say, "all the while seated in a luxurious leather-appointed cabin with a Bose audio system."

You can crank up "Wooly Bully" if you want to for this experiment, I suppose, but I didn't know that the surefootedness of the modern professional matador had ever been called into question like that of the Pathfinder. At least one critic has called the 2001 Pathfinder's high-speed cornering "problematic," and its rollover rating is decidedly mediocre, although not as grim as those of Chevy Tahoe and Yukon, Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator. Sixty percent of the fatalities in SUVs are the result of rollovers as opposed to 22 percent in cars.

SUVs are generally not crash tested into massive bovines bred for courage and ferocity, but when they are analyzed by conventional means at the Insurance Institute for Highway safety, Pathfinders generally rate a "marginal," lower than even the vaguely reassuring "acceptable." I don't see that in the ad anywhere, but why would I expect to?

Anyway, when the light finally changed and we pulled out, Jeepboy made a hard right and accelerated dramatically toward the Home for the Hideously Delayed. Of all the SUVs on the road, it seems to me that Jeep Grand Cherokees get driven the fastest. I used to think it was because their drivers were so tired of plowing through bogs and forests all the time they were just kind of adrenalized by roadways, but apparently they're just in a big hurry.

It's very confusing, really. Like it says in the matador/Pathfinder ad, "It's just you vs. the bull."

It sure is.

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