Magazine November 11, 2019, Issue

The High and Mighty SUV

(Roman Genn)
On the road in the great American conveyance

‘Wisconsin Cheddar . . . Fried to Perfection!” The billboards promise all manner of exotic delights and profanities here on this blasted godforsaken stretch of I-45 in the middle of Texas, still sweaty hot and humid in early October, as I go rumbling up the highway between hideous knots of mosquito woods in the Great White Whale that is the GMC Yukon XL, which, at 224.4 inches long and with room for nine, 94.7 cubic feet of cargo volume, 8,500 pounds of towing capacity, a 26-gallon fuel tank, and a curb weight of just under three tons, is the biggest beast in the General Motors SUV menagerie, something that one keeps keenly in mind swerving between tanker trucks full of chlorine at 92 mph while drivers in equally large and beastly GMC Yukon XLs of their own career from lane to lane, heedless of little painted lines, yellow or white or double or single, Starbucks in one hand, iPhone in the other, oblivious to the promises of the highway prophets that “Demo-Rats Will Pay Next November Thank God for Trump and Abbott!” on the exurban edges of the “Jerky Capital of the World!” and the “Aggieland Safari Come Feed Our Friends!” and the ineffable promises of beef-themed Christianity at the “Branded for Christ Church” just off the highway amid the filling stations and “adult” bookstores and Cracker Barrels and kolache stands. With a 5.4-liter V8 making 355 horsepower, atop the Great White Whale, I am high above it all, borne like some kind of redneck Cleopatra in a flex-fuel palanquin, looking down on lesser SUVs, paltry wan little Nissan Xterra and Toyota RAV4s, with the even lesser little conveyances scurrying rodentially for the slow lanes as the mighty convoy in the leftwardmost lane, the fast lane, the passing lane, the conquerors’ lane, drivers not even bothering to lean on the horns, blowing right on through the herd and leaving behind only great long contrails of carbon monoxide and middle-class entitlement. 

Honest to goodness, I don’t know what this thing is for. Like a good sensible middle-aged conservative man with a mortgage and a navy-blue Brooks Bros. blazer or two, I normally drive a neutral-colored midsized European four-door sedan when I go from my modest home in a neighborhood with good property values to the Whole Foods to the gym to the airport to the dry cleaner and back home again, always careful to signal lane changes, neither heedless of nor excessively punctilious about the speed limit but more or less matching the speed of the prevailing traffic (telling myself this is a convenience born of experience rather than reflexive conformism), giving a wide berth to the dinged-up 1998 Buick Regals that kind of make you suspect that their drivers aren’t going to be just real careful about opening their doors with great gusto when parked next to you in your E-Class, your 5 Series, your A6, your cherished suburbanite kale-powered gluten-free Volvo, you, a man who once had so much promise and so many dreams of his own. 

What do you do with the GMC Yukon XL? 

It’s not for hauling stuff. Trucks are for hauling stuff. I grew up in West Texas. I get trucks. And if you need to haul stuff around in a professional to semiprofessional capacity — if you lug more than luggage — then you get yourself a Ford F-Series truck, regular or Super Duty, with a diesel engine if you actually tow something. The Ford F-Series is a modern design masterpiece, an American icon right up there with the Timex Marlin, John Browning’s M1911 .45ACP, and the Martin D-28. If you’re not transporting construction materials or agricultural implements but you like to go off-road from time to time, you get yourself a Jeep Wrangler, blessedly available in pickup-truck configuration once again. If you’ve got two school-age kids with lacrosse equipment and cellos and whatnot, you get a station wagon, a Volvo, or, if you’re feeling rich and sexy and need to go nearly 200 mph, one of those AMG station-wagon monstrosities from the Mercedes-Benz skunkworks in Sindelfingen, which, at 850 horsepower, has damned near two and a half times the juice of the Great White Whale. Outside of the outlier Mormon or ultramontane-Catholic family with eight kids — and more power to those lovely people! — what do you do with this thing, this ginormous Cracker Barrel Godzilla of a vehicle that corners like C-3PO and backs up like a beluga whale after a half-dozen happy-hour appletinis and whose so-called maneuverability is really, honestly, let’s face it, designed for the drive-thru, not the great vast wilderness up there in the pristine snowy Yukon? What is its telos? I know what it makes you want to do: chug an ice-cold domestic beer, go to Costco or Academy Sporting Goods or Home Depot, own a hobby ranch, watch a televised sporting event, get all worked up watching Fox News, awkwardly thank a soldier for his service . . . the American Way

Wisconsin cheddar. Fried to perfection. Branded for Jesus. 

Ye gods.

Come to think of it — I do need to go to Home Depot. 

This is the golden age of the SUV. The truly modern American SUV appeared in 1984 with the introduction of the Jeep Cherokee, which was preceded by the more straightforwardly truckish Ford Bronco and Chevy Blazer, among others, but the species’ genetic antecedents go back much further than that. Like wristwatches and khaki pants, the SUV has its origins in the military, which is probably why it still remains associated with a little jolt of virile swag, even as its main purpose is cocooning suburban mommies in aluminum and steel as they fetch a load of 2 percent and Honey Nut Cheerios from Albertsons. After the Great War and its muddy horror of trench warfare, the idea of mounting station-wagon bodies on four-wheel-drive chassis caught on around the world — the utility end of “sport-utility” was obvious enough. 

Chevrolet sold its first Carryall Suburban in 1935. It was a commercial truck with three rows of bench seats surrounded by a big squared-off body with windows, basically a cargo van for human cargo. As Dave Cole of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., told Automotive News, it was a people mover, “something to haul the miners to the mines.” All utility, no sport. It cost $675, or under $13,000 adjusted for inflation — not too bad, really. (No AC, no GPS, no USB port, no backup camera, no bumpers . . .) The pieces were all there: the passenger-carrying capacity of the station wagon, the off-road capabilities of the Willys military-derived civilian vehicles, the shape and utility of a pickup truck with a camper shell over the bed — that, and the great American delusion that we’re all just one split-second decision away from lighting off for the territories, that we need the capability to load up our vehicles with a half-dozen passengers and a whole lot of gear — and any gear will do, really; it’s not the hobby that counts, but the gear — and go off-roading to wherever it is we’re going on the other side of where the asphalt ends. 

The Jeep Cherokee quickly gave rise to that great delicious contradiction, the luxury SUV — rough-’n’-ready, rustic, rebellious, utilitarian, eminently capable, and swathed in fine Corinthian leather. (Ricardo Montalbán, the man whose eminently refined Mexican accent made Chrysler upholstery sound so very sexy, was a dedicated National Review reader.) The luxury SUV was inevitable: Land Rover’s association with the fancy English country-house set all but ensured its vehicles would end up with London-club interiors, and Toyota’s Landcruiser — which began as a knockoff Land Rover, right down to the name — was sure to follow suit, because that’s what it did. In the United States, both Jeep and Lincoln have a claim for pioneering the luxury SUV, though Bigasstruckus americanus as a species reached its apex with the Cadillac Escalade. This is America — it had to be a Cadillac. 

And once the big Cadillac showed what could be done — and how splendidly deep were the piles of money that could be made doing it — the luxury marques were all-in. And now you can spend the better part of $1 million or more on “off-road” vehicles you’d never dream of putting in a mall parking garage for two hours, much less driving through the sticks and twigs and thorns and brambles and ditches of an actual wilderness in. At the top of the current heap is Rolls-Royce’s mighty Cullinan (“cullinan” supposedly means approximately “handsome” in Irish), which boasts a twin-turbocharged twelve-cylinder engine and a base price of $345,000. (As of the first quarter of this year, no one had ever bought a base Cullinan.) The model first was unveiled at Villa d’Este, in case you’re wondering whom this particular truck is meant for. The carpet is lambswool, the standard leather seats are handpicked bullhide (cowhide is not quite up to snuff), and you can get it trimmed with everything from rare woods to diamonds. (Which people do.) Odell Beckham Jr. ordered one in Dawg Pound orange when he signed with the Cleveland Browns. Mini-refrigerator and champagne flutes? Of course. 

Everybody else is in on that game: Lamborghini has its Urus, Maserati its Levante, Bentley its splendid Bentayga. Mercedes-Benz has recently refreshed its deathless “G Wagon” and the far superior GLS (a relative bargain starting at $54,000 less than the cubic G Wagon but without the rock-star appeal). Jaguar has its F-Pace, a quick and lovely little thing that is great for, say, making a beer-and-fondue run in Verbier. (Unless there’s an unexpected blizzard that you decide to go driving right into, anyway, in spite of the whole blizzard-in-the-Swiss-Alps thing, in which case the “utility” in that SUV is non-obvious and certain surly judgmental eye-rolling Swiss types might shake their heads at your spinning the tires, cursing Hertz, blaming the weather gods, even though there might have been some operator error involved.) Prices have gone plumb nuts: You expect that big price tag on the Rolls or the Mercedes, but a top-of-the-line Lincoln Navigator now runs $100,000. The top-trim Escalade starts at $96,590. 

But all of those SUVs are, essentially, limousines. When your truck has lambswool carpeting, you don’t get in with muddy boots — you get in with suede Ferragamo driving slippers. On the fun end of the market — the sorts of SUVs you might take on a hunting trip more readily than to a three-day weekend at Villa d’Este — there’s all sorts of awesome stuff to be had. The Toyota Landcruiser has become a bloated luxury beast that starts at around $90,000, but the wilder spirit of the original lives on in the 4Runner, which is probably the closest thing to the classic off-roaders of the past as one can get today. Ford’s soon-to-be-reintroduced Bronco, based on the Ranger pickup truck, has great promise. The eternal Jeep Grand Cherokee, starting at just over $30,000, is tons of fun. Nissan’s Pathfinder remains a go-to for the REI set for good reason. The Ford Explorer soldiers on, the Honda CR-V holds its own in the budget market, and even Kia has a pretty solid offering in the Telluride. Dodge, being Dodge, has crammed a 485-horsepower Hemi into its Durango, which is what you want if you’re looking to take six people zero–60 in less than five seconds. 

That will get you to Home Depot most ricky-tick. 

Nobody needs the Great White Whale, or a Rolls-Royce Cullinan, or a Jaguar F-PACE, or even a Chevy Tahoe or a Ford Explorer. I made my trip to Home Depot, and loaded up my GMC Yukon XL with bags of grass seed and Scott’s Turf Builder, a couple bags of soil amendments, a couple of new 100-foot heavy-duty water hoses (because of course you get heavy-duty; I don’t even know why they make the lesser kind), a couple of sprinklers, some insecticide, a big plastic jug of Roundup for those weeds creeping in my neighbor’s yard and the alley. It was by far the biggest haul from Home Depot I’ve carted out in years, and it would all have fit pretty easily into the trunk of my respectable Republican neutral-colored midsized European four-door sedan, with room left over for a couple boxes of La Croix and the dehydrated self-respect of everybody fired by the Trump administration in the most recent quarter. In the Great White Whale, I could have had a pretty good go at smiting mine enemies and stacking them up like cords of wood in the back, with plenty of room left for the yard stuff. You can hear the little carping voice in your head: “Nobody needs that!” It’s always a voice like Rachel Maddow’s or that of some other $7 million–a–year busybody. “Nobody needs that!” 

Rich lefties love, love, love trains. Trains are for central planners, who decide where the tracks will be and when the trains will run. Everybody goes where they’re supposed to go, when they’re supposed to go. Orderly. Predictable. “Rational,” they’ll say. And rich lefties hate SUVs. 

Arianna Huffington, way back at the turn of the century, when she was just very rich and not very famous, launched an anti-SUV campaign on the theory that SUVs encourage terrorism. (Oil, don’t you know; this was before the economic and geopolitical effects of the fracking boom were understood; presumably, they’re still not understood by Arianna Huffington, who is a world-beating top-shelf by-God champion at not understanding stuff.) Do you remember the ads? “I helped hijack an airplane” . . . “I helped blow up a nightclub” . . . “I sent our soldiers off to war” . . . “My life, my SUV.” 

These pudwhacking busybodies not only failed to foresee developments in the oil industry — for example, the United States’ becoming a leading producer and exporter of petroleum products — but they also failed to foresee developments in the SUV business: The Great White Whale, relying on cylinder-shutoff technology that turns the big breathy V8 into a squiddly little four-banger when maximum horsepower is not called for, got just under 20 miles to the gallon over the course of one inter-city trip of about four hours, a trip to the airport, a couple of Home Depot runs (because you always forget something), and some general about-town stuff in the usual sprawling ugly toxic mess of urban American traffic. That’s not a lot worse than a Toyota Avalon (22 city, 32 highway). It’s two Priuses, basically. Is that so bad? Not what you’d call efficient, but pretty impressive, all dimensions considered. And it’s flex-fuel, which means that if you really hate America, Jesus, bald eagles, rock-’n’-roll, fun, babies, the ghost of Elvis, and everything that is cool and wonderful and awesome, then you can fill the thing up with a tank full of goddamned E85 ethanol, you monster.

I put in half a tank on the way to docking the land-yacht. Yeah, it costs 50 bucks. For half a tank.

 “Nobody needs that!” 

Of course nobody needs that. This isn’t about need. They say that about everything. Got an AR-15? “Nobody needs that!” Nobody needs a giant wobbly American-made SUV, or a high-capacity semiautomatic rifle, or Lucchese boots made out of bright-blue sueded hornback alligator, or a box of 20 Chicken McNuggets, or the Ramones, or an in-ground swimming pool in the back yard, or a billion dollars, or a country house on 40 acres of rolling woods, or model trains, or baseball cards, or nonstop service from DFW to Hong Kong, or a miniature dachshund, or a couple of grass-fed strip steaks sizzling on the grill. Nobody needs Mark Twain or Tom Wolfe or Hunter S. Thompson, or Brian Wilson or Jack Kerouac, or Texas or Alaska. Nobody needs to shoot an elk, to climb Pikes Peak, to have six children, to fly to the moon, to do a flawless Yurchenko vault. We could all just put on our silver-colored unisex sci-fi onesies and quietly eat our amino-acid soup like we’re those poor bastards who escaped from the Matrix only to join another equally dreary one. We could get on the trains and go wherever the central planners decide the trains are supposed to go. We could eat our vegetables and our fiber supplements and be grateful for them.

Or we could go where we decide to go, and tell those scheming busybodies to stick it right in their ears. 

Maybe we’re just going to Home Depot. (Maybe we’re doing the great American thing of running as fast and as hard as we can in both directions at once.) Maybe, no matter what it says on the back of the SUV, we’re not actually going to the Yukon, up there where it’s all pristine and wide open and free and maybe technically Canadian but basically really oorah U.S.A.-American in spirit, in its soul, there, where the Porcupine caribou roam. Maybe we’re not just turning left and turning hard in this mutant product of the General Goddamned Motors Corporation, bailed out and limping and moribund as it is, and steering the Great White Whale into the real and true wild and going off road, off the grid, just off — way off, as off as we can get — and doing something else, anything else, starting over, even if that means being out in the lonesome wilderness and sleeping in the back of this SUV that is, like the United States of America itself, a little bit ridiculous, maybe, but awfully roomy, and lighting out and aiming for the point on the compass labeled “Further.”

But we could. 

This article appears as “High and Mighty” in the November 11, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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