Just say no, to SUVs!

For those of you who have a teen who’s getting ready to get their license and get behind the wheel for the first time, what’s the most important thing to be concerned about? If you said safety, I’m guessing you’re in the majority of parents out there. My biggest concern is then, what type of vehicle do you put them in? A huge ol‘ truck with lots of metal and a big engine? Or maybe a little econobox with a zippy 4-cylinder? Or maybe something more mid-sized, like a standard sedan? All I can say is that if you’re thinking about the SUV, please reconsider! While the SUV might seem to be the safest choice with all that steel, I think you’re looking at an accident just waiting to happen.

I personally have spent most of my life driving small, little Japanese sub-compacts ranging from Mazda Protege’s to Acura Integra’s to Honda Accord’s. I’ve never been a huge fan of America’s obsession of bigger and taller SUV’s. Recently, however, I purchased a used Isuzu Amigo. The Amigo is a smaller SUV, 2-door with a short wheelbase but make no mistake. It’s all truck underneath and drives like a standard SUV. And as I’ve spent some time behind the wheel with it, have quickly come to see why a compact SUV could be so dangerous to a new driver. Some background on me, I’ve driven probably over 250K miles and haven’t been in an at fault accident for over 15 years. I’ve done the Boston to Florida run and SF to LA run several times. I even solo’ed across the country and have done a 16 hour stint behind the wheel. I consider myself to be a very experienced driver who has also spent time on motorcycles. I tend not to make mistakes because riding motorcycles, means you often don’t get another chance.

So why am I so scared about seeing an SUV in the hands of younger drivers? For many reasons outlined below.

* Overly soft suspensions: Most SUV’s are not meant for performance so there’s a lot of bouncing and rebound in the suspension. Going around corners means the car’s mass is moving and swaying a lot more than most vehicles. Couple those traits with a high center of gravity and a short wheelbase, tipability and rolling a vehicle over seems remarkably easy. Once the bouncing starts, an inexperienced driver can easily try to over-correct and cause even more problems

* Big engines and less effective brakes: Most SUV’s are matched up to a higher torque V6 or V8 which means pretty good takeoff from standstill. A younger driver who doesn’t control the throttle well can easily mash the accelerator and get those two tons of steel moving quickly. And with all that mass, it’s hard to come to a stop quickly even with the best brakes. So you have to plan ahead of time and new drivers are much less likely to anticipate.

* High center of gravity and huge tires: Going back to handling, a high center of gravity and large, wide wheels makes it hard to get around a corner with the wheels flat. Once you lift/tip the wheels up, the handling characteristics of the vehicle change quickly which means there’s no room for error. And let’s face it, young kids are going to make mistakes learning how to drive.

* Rear-wheel drive: In my experience, RWD is great from a performance standpoint but a drawback in foul weather and also a bit more complicated when it comes to driving dynamics. Sliding out the back of a RWD car is easy but a bit tricky with a tall SUV. One needs to be careful here. You have to be aware of traction and tire grip on both the front and back wheels, while driving a FWD car is simpler. There’s a lot more feel coming through the steering wheel on FWD in my opinion. You know when your wheels may break loose so you’re ready for it.

In summary, I just think a tall SUV with RWD is not a great vehicle to learn on. Far too complicated for most youngsters with little forgiveness. And you know what it’s like to be a parent, raising a teenage is a LOT about forgiveness. So please, if you’re looking for a first vehicle for your kid, think of the above concerns. You’re much better off teaching the child to avoid accidents, instead of increasing the likelihood of surviving accidents! Don’t let what seems like a “safe” SUV fool you into thinking otherwise.

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