The Real SUV We Can’t Have

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Nissan just announced a new SUV they’re not going to sell here.

It’s called the Terra – and the Chinese (and other foreign markets) will get it beginning next spring. Nissan’s Ashwani Gupta says there is growing demand in China for “go anywhere SUVs built like the rugged SUVs old” – which apparently are no longer in demand here.

This, of course, is claptrap. There is plenty of demand.

The problem is Uncle.

It is becoming extremely difficult to sell “go anywhere SUVs built like the rugged SUVs of old” because they are heavy and heavy means big engines and that means a hearty appetite for gas. This however isn’t a problem for the people who buy such vehicles; they are – presumably – ok with paying more for gas in exchange for  the ruggedness and go-anywhere capabilities.

Else they would not buy them.

Just as people sometimes buy a bigger house rather than a small apartment – knowing the carrying cost is higher. So what? It’s their choice. And more to the point, it is their money paying the mortgage and the utilities. Just as the SUV buyer’s money – not the government’s money or anyone else’s money – is paying for the fuel that goes in the tank.

The market takes care of itself.

If a thing is burdensomely expensive for natural (market) reasons, then that thing becomes rare as a commodity for just that reason.

But never mind. Uncle – acting in loco parentis – believes we are using “too much” gas.

He therefore imposes taxes and other disincentives to artificially curb market demand for “rugged, go anywhere SUVs” – punishing you for daring to want what he thinks you ought not to have. As a result, “rugged, go anywhere SUVs” are already very few in number and mostly expensive models such as high-end Land Rovers.

Medium-small SUVs under $30k like the soon-to-be-here (well, soon-to-be-there) 2019 Terra are all but extinct in the United States.

We get crossover SUVs – which aren’t really SUVs because they are basically just jacked-up cars styled to look like SUVs. They are defined by not having rugged underthings, such as a four-wheel-drive system with a two-speed transfer case and low range gearing. They have all-wheel-drive (without the transfer case and low-range gearing) meant for light snow on paved roads; maybe wet grass.

Most of all, they are defined by not having their drivetrains and suspensions cradled by rugged and so heavy steel frames, onto which their bodies are bolted – as real SUVs do.

Instead they have car-ish unibodies. Frame and body welded together. It’s much lighter – which makes it feasible to use small engines in these things. Which in turn means they use less less gas.

But they are much less rugged – and you can’t “go anywhere” in these things – as a result.

It is also harder – and more expensive – to repair these unibodied crossovers when they are damaged. Including in particular lightly damaged, as occurs when a fender is bent.

You can unbolt most of the exterior sheetmetal bolted to the frame of a body-on-frame SUV. You have to cut – and weld – most of the panels on a unibody crossover, if it gets bent.

Also, the body of a body-on-frame SUV isn’t structural; if you hit a deer, you bend a fender – not the frame.

Because of this design difference, the real-deal SUV is much more able to take a hit without taking functional damage. If the frame’s not bent – and it is hard to bend the girder-like frame of a body-on-frame SUV – the thing isn’t broken. Just bruised. You can still drive it with a crinkled fender or a smashed-in grill. The damage is cosmetic. But if you bend the frame of a unibodied crossover, the thing is no longer drivable.

At least, it’s no longer safe to drive.

It’ll pull to one side, handle like a drunk staggers down the street. Not good – and not cheap to fix, either. And not fixable by you. It takes frame-straightening equipment and welding.

With a body-on-frame SUV, it takes a come-along.

If you don’t know what that is, you probably don’t know why SUVs differ from crossovers. A come-along is a heavy strap with a ratcheting mechanism. One end wrapped around a big tree. Hook the other to the bent fender. Now, pull it back into shape – more or less. Or just put the transmission in reverse and back up. It’s not body shop perfect, but its serviceable – and doable by you, for free.

Real SUVs also last longer because they are built tougher. A V8 that makes power (and torque) by dint of displacement and without much effort is an engine that will almost always outlast a turbocharged four that’s subjected to greater stress (being pressurized) and which has to work harder, more often, just to keep up.

And, of course, rust.

So long as the frame isn’t rusted, the body of the body-on-frame SUV is both expendable and repairable. The frame will rust through, eventually. Just as a railroad track will eventually rust into dust. But the thickness of the metal makes that a long-term proposition. The much thinner frame of a unibody rusts sooner – another hidden cost of Uncle’s interferences.

The question is – why do we allow Uncle to interfere?

This isn’t a criminal matter. No one is victimized by someone else’s decision to spend his money on a “rugged” SUV – or the gas which goes in its tank.

It’s very interesting that so few people seem to object to the fact that the government is now in the business of punishing people who’ve not harmed anyone but only on account of some decision of theirs which others do not like.

And that’s something even the Chinese aren’t doing.

. . .

Got a question about cars – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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    • Hi TDI,

      Thanks for the heads up on this. Subaru is being disingenuous, too. It’s not about saaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety. It’s about ekeing out better CAFE numbers.

  1. I left this comment on a youtube review of 2019 VW Touerag (which is NOT voming to USA)

    “here, here, screw imaginary ‘lines in the sand’ emission rules! Governments are killing cars. Neighbor (in N America) just bought an XC 90 4 cylinder, turbo and super charged. That engine will never last. I wonder if it has stop/start ‘technology’? Why not turn the motor off at a stop light in 90 deg F temps, no oil through the turbo etc! Lovely. 1100 nM torque you say? (Commenter’ car to whom I was responding to) Wow! I thought my 238 ft pounds of torque on my B7 tdi passat was.. ha just kidding.”

  2. Unfortunately, the reason we “allow” Uncle to interfere is because Uncle fills a vacuum the way a six-pack of beer fills the stomach.

    We have long passed the point of no return, where if some government weenie sees an action that isn’t regulated (oops…restricted), that weenie (or one equally reprehensible but with the ability to commandeer authority over the article in question) will just issue a fatwa against that which offends him/her.

    I yearn for the understanding that “regulate” does not mean “restrict,” but reverts to its original meaning of “making regular.” But, alas: Uncle has already put up too much of a roadblock.

  3. Eric, I love you like a brother but sometimes I wonder what you put in your coffee.

    I seem to recall a time in the previous century, around the sixties, when the term SUV was coined to identify import trucks that were shipped here with the beds detached so they could be “assembled” here avoiding tariffs. By your definition they weren’t SUV’s either because few were four wheel drive. Anyone I know who has owned a Land Rover will tell you that the only thing it does well is sit at the dealership waiting to be serviced.

    The real off road vehicle is alive and well, it’s called a truck and it’s diesel powered. I’ll leave the rant about what the EPA has done to it for another day but improvements to fuel injection and turbo charging have greatly increased power, drive-ability and economy.

    I personally own a Chevrolet 2500SD Diesel with Four Wheel drive (you’re spot on with the low range four wheel). With a little help from the aftermarket folks it puts out 600 hp at the crankshaft gets and/or 18 mpg on the highway (it has 5 performance/economy levels). I can’t imagine driving anything else and I have an 04 Mazdaspeed Miata in the garage.

    • But I bet you don’t go banging through the woods with that monster like I did with my old (new, then) 1973 K-20 Chevy.

      • On the Chevy site I just “built” a 2017 Sivlerado 2500HD 4×4 Crew Cab WT. I was over $50,000 before I even looked at trim options. I don’t believe I will see him banging through the woods either.

        Fifth does make a good point about the Land Rover, the only off roading they will do in America is if the owner happens to have a gravel driveway.

        • I own a 2006 Land Rover LR3. It’s spent a lot of time off road in NH. I’m currently looking at picking up a slightly older Discovery for off-roading, not because the LR3 isn’t extremely capable, but because it’s so damned expensive to fix.

          I fully intend to keep my wonderful gas-guzzler as long as I can. Because I like to drive. Not be driven.

          • Hi Hugh,


            I plan to keep my Nissan Frontier (old model) for the duration, for the same reasons.

            And if it gets to brass tacks, the orange Barchetta is always ready to roll!

      • Or try to pull a Ford van up a clay soil hill that its driver thought he could ascend. Except that the clay was wet. A heavy duty chain, hooked to an old Dodge 4wd truck with a 360 saved the day and made a wreck of the soil on the slope, but who cares? Wonder if you could do that with a new truck?

    • Personally I would like an suv with a climate controlled body that is about half the size & weight of a 2500 pickup. Its rare that I haul bulky stuff, and typical that I get groceries or haul around a couple of frens/fam. Also, I like being able to maneuver around on tight trails.

      As for the rest of the truck, I like my cars simple. Manual transmission, lever shifted transfer case, stupid climate control and a basic infotainment system. Zero need for electronic tcs or stability control. Heavy duty pickups fill a role, but no new vehicle can match a basic 90s suv with an upgraded stereo. For that matter, a modern N/a 4 cylinder can outperform the v6 engines they came with. A diesel and or hybrid option would be nice too. I looked up cars available in europe a few years ago.

  4. 1997 Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer V-8 Love it. It sounds like what an engine should sound like. Wife has a 2016 Jeep Patriot with a shitty 4 cyl. Going up the slightest hills with the whole family in the car you have to floor it and the faggity little engine makes this awful whining sound. Give me the Rugged Man sounding V-8 …..but that might be to much for todays SNOWFLAKES, that much raw power they’ll need a SAFE SPACE.

  5. Had a 1990 Bronco II with the Dana 42 front axle that could go just about anywhere. We’d take it to the beach on the BI on some of the roughest lava trails imaginable, come back Sunday afternoon, wash it, and my wife (it was her car) would drive it to work on Monday morning like nothing happened. That was one tough little 4×4.

  6. I love my 2001 Ford Expedition, and would never give up this beast. I have 450,000 on the original engine, a 5.4L Triton V-8. Let’s see a four banger go half that far.
    My question is who in their right mind goes out and spends good money on a new SUV, then takes it off road? You buy a used one so you don’t mind so much if it gets damaged off-roading.
    You can still buy a body-on-frame passenger vehicle for off road use, BTW. I mean, if you have the money to toss around. The Jeep Wrangler is a perfect example of that. However, who has a spare $40k to spend on an off-road vehicle?

  7. That’s why our current “SUV” is a 1988 Jeep Cherokee, which incidentally has a uni-body and a straight six engine. I’m surprised somebody doesn’t make a tube-steel cage body for them the you can just bolt the engine and running gear to, like the old VW bug dune buggies…?

  8. I wish we could stop calling these vehicles “SUVs” and “crossovers,” especially the latter. They’re nothing more than glorified station wagons. And I’ve got no problem with those – I have a ’95 Caprice myself. But the denial is just silly and embarrassing.

  9. What would happen if somebody tried to buy a vehicle in China, or Europe, for that matter, which is not available in the U.S., and ship it here? I understand that it would be expensive, but would it be possible?

  10. True story:

    Driving my then-new 2016 Toyota Land Cruiser on a long trip to the northwest and back. Hit a mule deer buck while on a mountain highway in Northern California (knocked him clean off the mountain). Hit driver’s side grill/headlight/bumper. Took out the left third of all the plastic bits, headlight, washer fluid reservoir underhood, and jammed the driver’s side front fender into the driver’s door. Had to force the door open to get out. Drove the thing all the way back home to Arkansas some 2,000 miles doing full speed limit no problem. Kept the driving to daytime only (didn’t want the police ticketing me, so kept a low profile). Made it back and drove it around for another week before getting it into the repair shop.

    Had I been in a lesser crossover, or a car, the deer would have gone through my windshield. The car likely would have been totalled, and I would have been stranded. As it was, the LC shrugged it off like a large bug splatter and kept on humming like a top. Kind of expensive to repair, but proves your point. No frame damage. No bumper damage. All cosmetic.

  11. In China the interference is different. Many people are restricted in their vehicle choices, it’s just different how it is gone about and varies from place to place. What I remember of it is that it is a system that makes what the government there considers undesirable more expensive.

    The USA is unique with its CAFE law, the busybody control freakism which aims to eliminate choices from the market. Why? Because uncle knew back in 1976 that if people got to choose between a high mpg tin can and their full size chevys, fords, and dodges most people would still choose the later even with a cost penalty. That is raise the middle finger to uncle. And they did anyway and started driving enclosed trucks.

  12. And if the frame -is- damaged or rusted through, on many SUVs it’s a matter of swapping out frames. If you have something to lift the tub from the frame (assuming the tub isn’t also shot), then this is something a shade tree mechanic can do. And when the tub rusts, you can often buy replacement tubs. Look at web sites dedicated to Land Rover Defender, Jeep CJ/Wrangler, or International Scouts.

    You can keep ’em going pretty much forever. I’d guess that’s another reason uncle is against ’em.


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