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AND THE SUV ROLLS ON
DESPITE POOR GAS MILEAGE AND OTHER COSTS, REIGN AS KING OF THE ROAD LIKELY TO CONTINUE FOR ANOTHER DECADE

If you feel you're the only one on the road who isn't driving a sport utility vehicle these days, you're not.

It just seems that way.

From 1997 to 2002, registrations for SUVs -- from Ford Explorers to Chevy Trailblazers to Jeep Grand Cherokees -- increased 47 percent across the state, according to recently released census data. That means that, as of the last count two years ago, 1.3 million were on the road.

While some surmise that a tough economy and gas prices exceeding $2 a gallon may stunt the SUV trend, that doesn't seem to be the case.

In fact, make more room on the road, because the nation's love affair with the SUV -- often knocked as gas guzzlers prone to rollovers -- appears likely to continue for at least a decade.

"It suits me," Erik Torno, 19, of Orchard Park said of his SUV.

That's not to say Torno -- who recently was gassing up at the Delta Sonic in West Seneca -- doesn't grumble when he forks over $45 to fill up. His 1998 Jeep gets 14 to 18 miles per gallon.

"I like the four-wheel drive. I haul people around a lot. I'm comfortable in it," Torno said.

SUVs now account for more than 12 percent of the estimated 10 million registered motor vehicles across the state, according to the most recent data from the Census Bureau and the Federal Highway Administration. Local data wasn't available.

But, SUV sales in the United States went from more than 830,000 in 1990 to more than 4.5 million last year, figures from the National Automobile Dealers Association show.

And despite gas prices averaging $2.12 per gallon in the region and SUV prices, ranging from $20,000 to $50,000, automakers and dealers don't think demand has peaked.

"It hasn't missed a beat," Tony Helta, general manager at West-Herr Ford in Hamburg, said, adding that the Ford Explorer is still the dealership's best-selling vehicle.

Explorers, which sell for about $30,000, Chevy Trailblazers, which get about 15 to 21 miles per gallon, and Jeep Grand Cherokees were among the most popular sport utility vehicles selling new around the nation this year, according to industry reports.

"People will sacrifice a little bit of fuel economy for things that are more important," Helta said. "They feel safe in them; it meets their family needs; and it's the security of knowing they can get where they want to go no matter what the weather conditions."

But if any sales have slowed, they have been those of truck-based SUVs. While they drove the trend during the 1990s, sales have been flat for three years, even with incentives to help move them off dealer lots, said Paul Taylor, an economist with the auto dealers association.

The quiet revolution in the industry is the crossover utility vehicle -- like the Ford Escape, the Saturn Vue or the Honda CRV. They still are considered SUVs, but are built on car chassis, ride better, are priced more moderately, usually get better gas mileage and have lower centers of gravity to prevent rollovers.

Edward Kolz, for example, was looking for a vehicle with utility, but also with decent mileage.

"This one happens to be pretty good," Kolz, 53, of Orchard Park said as he filled up his Honda Element at the Delta Sonic. "You can't beat this when it comes to throwing in the groceries, boxes, the grandkids, whatever."

Kolz's Element gets 25 miles per gallon at best, he said, as the gas pump stopped at $26.35.

"I hope to drive this into retirement," Kolz said.

In fact, many of the crossover concept vehicles at the nation's auto shows -- most of which will go into production -- assure growth in this segment of the industry for the next decade, Taylor said.

Still, the SUV has its critics.

Nationally, deaths from vehicle rollovers went down from 2002 to 2003, but increased 6.8 percent to 2,639 among SUVs, according to latest figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

That's misleading, industry analysts said, because it doesn't take into account the increase in SUVs on the road. More accurate, analysts said, are calculations showing rollover deaths per 100,000 SUVs actually declined 4.6 percent.

And while environmentalists criticize the SUV for its gas-guzzling ways, the problem isn't just SUVs but the auto industry's failure to improve fuel efficiency across the board, said John DeCiccio, a senior fellow with Environmental Defense in Washington.

After the oil crisis of the 1970s, fuel efficiency of the U.S. car fleet improved by 60 percent, DeCiccio said. Since the late 1980s, however, the overall fuel economy of vehicles has rolled back 8 percent, in part because of the SUV boom, he said.

DeCiccio doesn't see fuel efficiency, and dependency on oil, getting significantly better despite the growth of crossovers and the hybrid vehicles, which switch between a gasoline engine and electric motor for better mileage.

"Consumers need to make the decision that fuel consumption matters," he said. "Until that is done, it won't matter what kind of technology is out there."

Kathy Martello found out fuel consumption matters.

As she pumped gas into her SUV, Martello longed for the days when she had her more fuel-efficient car.

"It's nice," Martello said of her SUV. "I like the height. And I have grandbabies, so I thought it would be easier."

"But I'm not going to get another one," she said, "because of the price of gas."

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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