Where Have All the 4X4’s Gone?

Toyota FJ Cruiser
A disturbing trend is occurring in the automotive market and honestly it comes as no surprise. Auto manufacturers build cars that people want to buy, with features that people want to use, or maybe not use, but they want such things just so they can feel stylish, or cool. This desire to be perceived a certain way is driving the market and that’s probably as it should be but…

In the last few years the trend is, taking SUV’s that used to be solid four-wheel drive trucks and turning them in to big, tall, mall running station wagons for nothing more than trying to look good. The SUV craze of about 10 years ago has given way to the crossover (CUV) craze. These new crossover vehicles are the silliest things ever made, and are generally a direct reflection of the desire people have to be both stylish and practical at the same time (which usually never works out), and the desire to drive something that feels like a car but somehow looks tougher.

To the 4WD purists such as myself this crossover craze has been nothing but offensive. All of the rugged, tough, off-roading machines that started the migration from station wagons, sedans and minivans to machines of manliness, are now evolving into a bunch of tall fat station wagons that the minivans replaced back in the 80’s. Perhaps history is only repeating itself. A fine line exists between dopey old station wagons like the Ford Country Squire and the new CUVs like the Ford Flex. This leaves few options for the outdoorsy types such as myself who actually like to dip our four-wheels drives in the mud, and bang them on a rocks a bit just for fun, all the while having the capacity to haul kids and all of their stuff with you.
A wussified, dolled up Tahoe.
This evolution all began with vehicles such as the Chevy Tahoe becoming the Cadillac Escalade. The Escalade is one of the worst vehicles ever made because it is just a Tahoe with fancy wheels, trim, interior, and every whistle and bell ever installed on a vehicle. At the same time this abomination has been stripped of everything that makes the Tahoe a capable rig that it was when it was first introduced back in the late 90’s. The Escalade doesn’t even have a low range or even anything really in way of off-road ability. To make this thing even worse it is actually still truck based so it really offers none of the practicality of a regular crossover. I suppose that’s okay because maybe your neighbors will see you driving it and think that you are cool. Chances are that your neighbors don’t really care what you drive, and if they do, why would you want to be friends with them.

The original Ford Explorer
A different example of the same problem is the Ford Explorer. When this SUV first hit the market back in 1990 it was based on the Ford Ranger and came equipped with all of the same tough, truck like features that the Ranger had only it had a back seat and room to haul your gear and other things on the inside. This was the formula for just about every SUV ever made since the Suburban first hit the market back in 1935. A car company could take their tough and capable pick-up truck, put a backpack on it, an extra seat in the back, and some carpet behind that and voila, a new model to appeal to more buyers.

2011 Explorer. A Taurus station wagon
for the new generation.
The Ford explorer of today has none of the rugged features of the old Explorers. No ladder-frame construction, no live axles anywhere, no 4WD (all-wheel drive doesn’t count), no low range, no nothing. The new Explorer is only capable of exploring the mall parking lot. If you want to get rugged you might be able to explore the puddle on the far side of the mall parking lot. This thing comes standard with front wheel drive just like a Taurus, and all-wheel drive is an option. In fact the new Explorer is essentially built on the same platform as the Taurus.

The new Dodge Durango is pretty much the same way. Used to be tough, now it’s tough to keep it from getting stuck in the mud. It’s nothing more than a fat station wagon. The new Nissan pathfinder is going to get the same treatment. Once an icon of the SUV market now reduced to nothing more than a frivolous bit of inner-city transport that really offers nothing practical to its owners. Remember the Chevy Blazer, S10 or full-size? They are no longer around and the vehicles that are the most direct descendant represent nothing that that the originals did.
The new Dodge Durango. If you squint it almost looks like
an old Crestwood or Polara station wagon.
One of the tough old Nissan Pathfinders.
All of these cross-overs try to combine the best of several different vehicles: SUVs, minivans, sedans, but all they end up with is the worst of all worlds and for what? For the sake of blending in with the neighbors, or to satisfy some silly notion that if you don’t buy a minivan then you are still cool. Crossovers do not have the interior volume of a minivan, they don’t have the ability to haul kids as efficiently as a minivan, they don’t have the ability to tow heavy loads like an SUV, they don’t have the ability to go off-road like an SUV, they don’t have the good handling of a sedan, and they don’t have fuel economy as good as a sedan. What is the point?

Obviously the reason that so many of the classic SUVs are being wussified is that people buy them. Just because they are popular doesn’t mean that they are any good. Tobacco, and alcohol are also really popular but that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily worthwhile.

A few car companies still offer manly machines that remain true to their roots. Jeep still builds the Wrangler which might be called the original SUV. The Wrangler is still an excellent option for anyone who wants to do a little rock crawling once in a while or for anyone who wants to take a dip in the mud. Some of the other offerings from Jeep such as the Grand Cherokee and Liberty are still legitimate off-roaders, at least for now. Jeep has recently taken to offering some useless crossovers such as the Compass and the Patriot, but those are separate vehicles from the traditional SUV offerings from Jeep.
Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. Trail rated and ready to go
Toyota is another company that has not forgotten the off-roaders that made their trucks and SUVs popular. The 4Runner is as stout a 4X4 as it ever was. The Land Cruiser is still around despite the fact that it’s not a big seller, and even though it is a true luxury machine, it is still a very capable off-roader. The Land Cruiser also has enough room to haul a few kids with you on your adventures. The FJ Cruiser is a serious off-roading rig in the purest form. It’s probably the only real competitor for the 2 door Jeep Wrangler. The Sequoia is also still fairly off-roadable. Toyota has some useless crossovers as well but those have never been mixed with the traditional man machines.
2011 Toyota 4Runner ready for just about any trail.

As we cling to the hope that vehicles like the 4Runner and the Wrangler keep it real, and keep it tough, comfort can be taken in the fact that most likely the CUV craze will fade into something else at some point. Because people are always changing their minds, it is likely that CUVs will change into something else. As long as I can have a real 4X4, the masses can do whatever they want to do to seem socially acceptable pulling in and out of the mall parking lot.

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