Big wheels, bigger deals?


    If we are what we drive, and in California that’s pretty much the case, what does it say about us that in defiance of rising oil prices, we all seem to be moving up a size?

    Gone are the Miatas, Bimmers and Celicas that once lined Rodeo Drive while their owners spent their savings at Hermes and Gucci.

    Did we learn nothing from the gas crunch of the ’70s?

    Apparently. Sport utility vehicles proliferate. And if bigger is better, the Leviathan of the Year Award probably will go to Ford’s new Excursion.

    Standup comics are having a field day with one-liners like, “It can pass anything on the road but a gas station.” and “Know it as the Ford Subdivision.” Even L.A. Times car critic Paul Dean dubbed it the Excursion Valdez.

    It tips the scales at almost four tons — that’s more than the two horses and trailer I used to pull with my Oldsmobile station wagon.

    It’s as long as a Metrolink car and broader in the beam than a Hummer. Ford says it will fit in your garage, but don’t plan to walk around it or open the tailgate with the garage door shut.

    With a 44-gallon tank addicted to high-octane, you could probably run two Hondas for less.

    Ford marketing strategy hails it as the perfect vehicle for soccer moms, but dealers say mostly men buy them. I did see one very frustrated woman trying to park a brand new, white one. Her license plate (I’m not kidding) was PSYCO MA.

    Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against SUVs. My daughter, a real (if reluctant) soccer mom, drives a Jeep Cherokee, her sister has a new Dodge Durango. Their brother still pulls his horse trailer with an ordinary pickup.

    When they were still kids, I hauled them, their dogs, their tack and occasionally a friend in a station wagon, the kind only Volvo makes now. Then, Detroit dropped the durable, full-size station wagon in favor of smaller, more economical wagons, and we who needed to pull trailers switched to trucks — pickups with camper shells so the kids and dogs didn’t freeze.

    Then came Blazers, first of the SUVs, the main benefit of which was interior access to the rear seats (not an option with small camper shells). Sounded like a good idea. I priced one. Decided to hang with the pickup.

    But the Blazer grew up to be a Suburban – wider, taller, longer, the biggest thing on two axles. It could pull a trailer. It could break your budget.

    Somewhere along the way, I got smart. Contracted out the horse hauling, gave the truck to my son and bought an Audi. Front-wheel drive, manual transmission, rack and pinion steering. Suddenly, driving was fun again. I took the twisty canyon roads like Andretti, downshifting, accelerating through the turns. What a blast! And I could drive to Monterey on one tank of regular gas. In ’74, I only had to sit in the gas lines every other week.

    That was a sure cure for the “bigger is better” idea. Lots of other folks got back into sports cars. My sister had a VW Bug, then a Triumph. (Later, she became a soccer mom and switched to Volvo.) Friends bought the new smaller imports — compact became a car description and a parking space designation.

    Ah, yes. Did I mention parking? The Excursion comes with radar to let you know if you’re backing into a building or another car. Somehow I don’t find that reassuring. And it has dedicated controls for front and rear heating and air conditioning. That’s because the rear seat is in a different time zone.

    Ford is touting this stretch blimpo as environmentally friendly because recycled materials are used in its frame and interior. I’m all for recycling, but I’m not sure I’d want a vehicle made from used coffee cups. Particularly not one that stickers at three times what I paid for my first house. Apply for a 30-year mortgage before Greenspan hikes interest rates again!

    Anyway, I don’t think there’s a Ford in my future. Although I was blessed with another grandchild last month (I’m now three for three), the chances of my having to haul them to soccer games is slim to none. Even so, I know I could fit them all, and maybe the border collie, in my entry-level Saturn, for which I did not need a mortgage.