People who tool around in hulking, big-ass sport utility vehicles have been getting dissed a lot
lately, but no one has raked them over the coals like the people who sold them the SUVs in the
first place. The multibillion-dollar auto industry does extensive research into its customers, and
lately that research has focused quite a bit on the people who buy SUVs.
Investigative reporter Keith Bradsher of the New York Times has looked into the SUV
phenomenon for years. He's read marketing reports meant only to be seen within the industry;
he's interviewed marketing executives from the car companies and from outside research firms.
The industry has come to some unflattering conclusions about the people who buy its SUVs. As
summarized by Bradsher:
They tend to be people who are insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their
marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their
driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little
interest in their neighbors and communities....
They are more restless, more sybaritic, and less social than most Americans are. They tend
to like fine restaurants a lot more than off-road driving, seldom go to church and have
limited interest in doing volunteer work to help others.
David Bostwick, the director of market research at Chrysler, told Bradsher: "We have a basic
resistance in our society to admitting that we are parents, and no longer able to go out and find
another mate. If you have a sport utility, you can have the smoked windows, put the children in
the back and pretend you're still single."
Bostwick says that compared to those who buy similarly large minivans, SUV drivers are selfish:
Sport utility people say, "I already have two kids, I don't need 20." Then we talk to the people
who have minivans and they say, "I don't have two kids, I have 20 — all the kids in the
One of General Motors' top engineers also spoke of the difference between minivanners and
SUVers: "SUV owners want to be more like, 'I'm in control of the people around me.'" He went
With the sport utility buyers, it's more of an image thing. Sport utility buyers tend to be
more like, "I wonder how people view me," and are more willing to trade off flexibility or
functionality to get that.
The executive VP for North American auto operations at Honda revealed: "The people who buy
SUVs are in many cases buying the outside first and then the inside. They are buying the image
of the SUV first, and then the functionality."
Jim Bulin, a former Ford strategist who started his
own marketing firm, told Bradsher: "It's about not
letting anything get in your way and, in the extreme,
about intimidating others to get out of your way."
Daniel A. Gorell, who also used to market for Ford
and now has his own firm, says simply that SUV
drivers are "less giving, less oriented toward others."
Defenders of SUVs have attacked Bradsher for
reporting these things, but they always forget the crucial point: Bradsher isn't the one slamming
SUV owners — it's the auto industry itself.