Saturday, October 25, 2008

Smugmobiles


This column first appeared in Citybike in April, 2006

Of all the car buyers out there, eighty percent of the herd subscribes to the “safety in numbers” theory and chooses to not be noticed. For the other 20 percent, the auto industry has stepped in with a solution. In the last 10 years, a small number of cars, trucks and SUVs have bounced onto the market with freakish body shapes designed to allow the consumer some pre-packaged individuality. The Volkswagen New Beetle was a pioneer, but it was followed by cars like the Mini, the PT Cruiser and the weird and ugly HHR from GM.

As offensive as some of these designs are, no vehicle advertises “I’m an asshole” in quite the same way as the Hummer H2. This hideous monstrosity is actually a fake, a Chevrolet Suburban with a fantasy body kit. Under the skin, it has about as much in common with a military HMMWV (nobody who has actually been in the military says “hummer” unless they are requesting oral sex) as Bruce Willis does with Mohandas Ghandi. It’s of limited value off-road and has less interior room than a lot of minivans. It’s also ridiculously expensive at $53,000.

What are Hummer owners paying a premium for? Image. An image that says, “look at me, I know this vehicle is making you angry, and I’m going to drive it anyway. Because negative attention is at least some kind of attention.” Usually with these rolling psychology experiments having three tons of ugly chrome and plastic isn’t enough; the subject has to add some kind of other touch to piss off anybody to the left of George Wallace. Look for “support our troops” ribbons, “Bush-Cheney ’04” bumper stickers and maybe even one of those fake chrome propellers in the trailer hitch.

They know how enraged their vehicle makes other drivers, yet they freely and proudly drive them around. The joke’s on them, of course; they depreciate faster than sushi and guzzle gas like Ted Kennedy at a scotch tasting. Only an inflated sense of smugness could explain such behavior.

This level of sanctimonious prickery is only matched by the Prius driver. Oh, Prius driver, did you think you would get off so easily? You’re just as smug and guilty of wasting resources in the name of vanity as Dittohead Hummer guy.

A hybrid car like the Prius uses an incredible amount of resources to manufacture. Bigger batteries, more plastic, more electronics; they all add up. Making stuff like plastic, aluminum and nickel-hydride uses billions of gallons of water and thousands of megawatts of energy. That takes fossil fuel – natural gas, oil and coal – and raw materials. In the end, building a Prius instead of a Hummer H2 might have a slightly smaller impact, but not much. It doesn’t matter if you strip mine for GM or Toyota, you’re still left with a big hole. Compare the total environmental impact — including mining the materials, shipping the car, driving it and servicing it for 10 years, and then dismantling and disposing of the waste -- of a Prius against a Honda Civic and you might not feel so green.


This kind of smug eliteism is akin to those advocates of organic farming who can somehow afford to spend six bucks for a pound of tomatoes at Whole Foods. Not everybody can afford a soymilk and boca-burger diet; just like not everbody can afford to spend an extra ten grand to save $400 a year on gas.

The militantly smug Prius folks know their purchases irritate those who buy less fuel-efficient vehicles. They rub it in by adding stereotypical bumper stickers exhorting us to save whales, harp seals, Tibet, or Al Gore. They drive with the smugness of one who is convinced that they have found their cake and can eat it as well. Too bad that when you factor in purchase price, depreciation, maintenance and other factors, a Prius owner will only save about $500 over the life of the car compared to the owner of a Corolla.

The worst thing about any smugmobile is that it is government subsidized. Hummers enjoy the equipment depreciation write-off that is reserved for heavier trucks and SUVs, and the Prius (as well as other hybrids) gets to take advantage of not just a generous tax credit, but also use carpool lanes with just a single occupant in California.

Of course, the smugness of Prius and Hummer owners pales in comparison to the smugness of the motorcyclist. Nothing stands out in traffic like a motorcycle does, and we’re so used to getting 40-plus miles per gallon that we actually do stuff to make it worse, like re-jetting carbs or changing our gearing. That’s why I don’t need a Prius to tell people I’m a hypocrite. From the sound of my open Remus exhaust they can tell from miles away.

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