Making the Controversial Case For the Full-Size SUV

GM and Chrysler marked the end of an era this week, scrapping plans for 2010 versions of their biggest SUV’s and shutting down the factories that produce them. Yes, the full size SUV is now a pariah but for some (like me), the beefy behemoths still serve a purpose.

Vehicles are emotional purchases

On Memorial Day 2006, my wife and I leased a new Jeep Commander. The contract on our 2002 Acura MDX was up and the Hummer-esque Jeep was its replacement. The MDX had served us well and was stylish and capable but I wanted something more rugged and manly. The Big Jeep was a limited model, loaded with a chrome grill, perforated leather seats, an insane Boston Acoustics sound system and parking sensors. We skipped the navigation system, thirsty Hemi V8 and regrettably, the DVD player.

Mid-Size SUV, full-size fuel economy

Two months into the lease, it was clear the Commander was a poor choice. It was gorgeous, but the Big Jeep was wrought with shortcomings. Like many SUV’s, its’ third row was like a medieval torture chamber and when deployed, left room for little more than a pair of sneakers behind it. Its’ second row was only slightly better, turning routine family trips into cramped, uncomfortable odysseys. The mid-size Commander didn’t just look like a Hummer – it wallowed in full-size fuel economy numbers of close to 13 mpg. Finally, the Big Jeep suffered from a disconcerting stalling problem that despite an official NHTSA investigation and thousands of complaints, had yet to prompt a recall.

A second chance

After learning of our rights under the Motor Vehicle Warranty Enforcement Act, we sold the Commander back to Chrysler, pocketing a substantial refund. Its’ replacement? A 2004 Ford Expedition, Eddie Bauer edition. Why would we replace our gas-guzzling Commander with one of the largest SUV’s on the road? It’s no Prius but surprisingly, the real-world fuel economy of the Expedition was significantly better than the Commander’s and from a space perspective, we all had room to breathe again. Moreover, sliding SUV prices made the mint condition, low mileage Expedition a relative bargain compared to other vehicles we were considering.

Why a big SUV works for us

For us, the Expedition is an excellent vehicle. We can comfortably haul our two young children and frequent family visitors, including my parents whom we regularly visit 180 miles away in Philly. We also do lots of work on our home and the Expedition provides ample cargo space for furniture, two-by-fours and almost anything else you care to toss in it. More importantly, my wife and I each work less than 5 miles away, can telecommute, and are within walking distance of most local retailers. Our hybrid-driving colleagues beyond the beltway travel 60+ miles per day round trip. We sometimes don’t travel 60 miles a week.

We love our guzzler and despite high fuel prices, don’t regret its purchase. But like other recent SUV buyers, we better be prepared to hang onto it for more than a few years. Just as some homeowners are finding themselves “upside down”, owners of recently purchased SUV’s are in the same boat. Since January large SUV sales have plummeted, along with their market values. In May of this year, values of big SUVs were down 17% from 2007 and continue to slide, even amidst recently retreating fuel prices. We’ll probably look to replace our Expedition in a few years and perhaps we’ll consider something smaller.

But then again, an Expedition might be able to be had for a few thousand bucks by then.