Getting Hooked On S.U.V. Junk

The sporting world is shocked and appalled to learn that a high-school basketball player who lives in a housing project in Akron, Ohio, is the proud owner of an expensive new automobile outfitted with three televisions. The sporting world has devised many safeguards to make sure that high-school basketball players receive no gifts, cash or compensation for being high-school basketball players. So when a player from a housing project is spotted tooling around town in an expensive automobile outfitted with three televisions, much tsk-tsking follows.

Ah, but this story has such a warm ending! It turns out that the player in question, LeBron James, did not receive the vehicle from some sleazeball sneaker company, agent or big-time alumni organization. No, it was a present-an 18th-birthday present-from his mom, who bought the car with the help of an apparently hefty commercial loan. Not everybody in the Akron projects might qualify for such a loan, but since LeBron James will soon become a professional player with a multimillion-dollar contract, well, his mom apparently didn’t have too much trouble with the credit department.

They’re still talking about this transaction in the sports pages, but for all the wrong reasons. Purists, bless their hearts, seem to think that the car deal somehow violates the sanctity of young LeBron’s amateur status. I’m more upset about his -er, his mother’s-choice of vehicular transportation. Young LeBron is the proud driver of the self-indulgent monstrosity known as the Hummer, a planet-violating piece of junk designed to transfer money from the pockets of suckers to the coffers of General Motors.

The Hummer ought to be a parody of our suicidal obsession with sport utility vehicles. Instead, it apparently is coveted not only in the projects of Akron, but on Park Avenue and in the suburban subdivisions of New Jersey. I’ve seen middle-aged men talk about the Hummer in tones they might once have reserved for their wives or, in some special cases, their golf clubs. Not a one of them mentioned that the Hummer gets about 10 miles to a gallon. Nor did anybody mention the Hummer’s price tag of 50 grand, which suggests that sport utility vehicles have replaced cocaine as God’s way of telling some people that they have too much money.

Actually, the Hummer resembles an S.U.V. only in the sense that both have four wheels and both might well have been designed by a terrorist organization determined to keep American consumers hooked on Persian Gulf oil. The average S.U.V. is built to give drivers a fine sense of social and economic superiority over the little people in their little sedans. The Hummer is built not for class war but real war-the shooting kind, the kind that broke out in the Persian Gulf a dozen years ago and may yet again in a matter of weeks. The Hummer is a knockoff of the HumVee, a military transport vehicle that did fine work transporting soldiers during Desert Storm.

The geniuses at General Motors-i.e., those executives who long ago lost the battle for the American car consumers’ hearts and minds-decided to put this military vehicle on the American highway. And now it shares the road with all those lighter and smaller imported sedans that are no match for the Hummer. No, sir: The Hummer’s bumpers are positioned higher than those puny Hondas and Toyotas and oh-so-earnest Saturns. The Hummer, or most any other S.U.V., will come smashing through your windshield if you’re not careful, or maybe even if you are. So you don’t mess around with the Hummer. You get out of its way. You pay it deference on the road. You hope the person behind the Hummer’s wheel understands that it needs extra time to brake, that it can’t maneuver with the agility of a sedan.

And despite all that, aspiring millionaires dream of getting one of these monsters as a birthday gift.

Unfortunately, the S.U.V. has become entangled in talk-show politics, with conservatives bellowing about freedom of choice and the amazing profits that American companies have made by giving consumers what they want. (How would they know what they want? When was the last time you saw a commercial for a mid-sized American sedan?) Liberals yammer on about how much of the world’s energy America consumes, that global warming would be reduced by X percent if only, etc. etc.

Not until recently has anybody linked oil-gulping S.U.V.’s to national security (thank you, Arianna Huffington). And some conservative-libertarian types, like my friend Paul Mulshine at the Star-Ledger , point out that S.U.V.’s are not a particularly good example of dynamic American manufacturing and, in any case, represent the kind of self-indulgence that cultural conservatives claim to loathe.

For now, all a sedan owner can do is stay in the slow lane. And hope.