K Paoletter 24: Compact Crossover

A woman pulls up to an overlook in Northern New Mexico. She unloads a tent from her trunk and settles in for the evening, holding her camera ready to capture the sun as it sets behind the distant mesas. At some point during the night, she returns to the car from her tent to admire the night sky through its moonroof. She wakes early the next morning, driving further into the mountains as day breaks. She disembarks at the Rio Grande Gorge, hiking down one slope in order to frame a shot of the canyon’s high basalt cliffs. She strings up a hammock and perches there, gazing across the gorge, before embarking again in her trusty vehicle: the 2022 Volkswagen Taos, the latest in a long line of oversized, greenhouse-gas-spewing automobiles with names meant to evoke the romance of the West. 

Hyundai has the Santa Fe and the Tucson, Kia the Telluride and Sedona. Dodge makes a Durango and a Dakota, Chevy a Tahoe and a Colorado. GMC looks a bit further afield for inspiration, to the Yukon and Denali. Every one of these models is either a truck or an SUV, but unlike the similar but unsubtly named Landrover, Expedition, and Odyssey, their monikers are meant to evoke specific places such that the cars be understood as machines that might make the continent’s wildest reaches accessible. 

When Volkswagen announced the introduction of the Taos last October, a white-haried executive named Scott Keough who heads the automaker’s operations in the United States recorded a video that began with him describing the need for the company to introduce a “compact SUV” into the market, as research suggested that more than 5.5 million in annual sales for the tautologically named class of cars was on the horizon. While Volkswagen already made a compact SUV, the Tiguan, Keough stated that there was now rising demand for an entry compact SUV— which is to say, an SUV meant to persuade those of us who still drive sedans or hatchbacks to upgrade so that within a few years we’ll be trading up again for a personal vehicle the size of a Triceratops. 

Enter the Taos. “William Shakespeare asked, ‘What’s in a name?’” Keough continues, not at all facetiously. “Well, when it comes to the Taos… everything. We wanted a name that would resonate with our customers. A name they could actually pronounce and which really captured the essence of this little SUV. So we looked to New Mexico, and the town of Taos. It’s a little city of 6,000 people offering big things, from adventures— the spectacular Rio Grande Gorge— to world-class skiing in the Sangre de Christo Mountains, to artists carrying on the spirit of the Native American community that has called the area home for nearly a thousand years. So Taos is the perfect name for a little SUV ready to do big things.” Queue the footage of an independent young landscape photographer putting her Taos through its paces. 

More telling of the actual way buyers will end up using the Taos is an advertisement that’s been airing all summer, wherein a couple finds their garage being ransacked by raccoons, but breathes a sigh of relief as they drive through their suburban neighborhood that their Taos has “a lower cost of maintenance than its Toyota, Honda, and Subaru competitors.” Same goes for the recent Kia Sedona commercial that begins, “We set out to create a minivan with the most unique exterior styling,” as the bulky car motors around a leafy city, or for the old Chevrolet spot that finds a couple using their SUV to transition effortlessly from work to a football tailgate to picking up dinner at a drive-in, all before the voice-over announcer intones:  “Chevy Tahoe: an American revolution.” 

The mismatch between the heady adventures gestured at by these car’s names and the drudgery of their actual, everyday use is striking in its own right. More dismaying, though, is the way the natural splendor evoked by names like Dakota, Yukon, and Sedona serves to justify the perpetuation of a lifestyle that threatens those same places. 

All of the trucks and SUVs I’ve mentioned so far burn around a gallon of gas for every 28 miles they drive — on the freeway. That’s way out of whack with the goal the Obama administration set back in 2011 to get average mileage for consumer vehicles up to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Keough is right that there is a robust market in North America for SUVs of all shapes and sizes—they now represent half the consumer car market, having doubled in popularity over the past decade. But the rising prominence of the SUV is terrible news for the environment. As Forbes put it earlier this year, “The SUV’s popularity is effectively negating the annual fuel efficiency gains from better technology and tightening fuel economy standards.” 

Getting the fuel economy of cars under control is vital because they’re responsible for 17 percent of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than the entire agricultural industry. When you factor in 18-wheelers and box trucks, total vehicle emissions rival national electricity generation. But because of the rise of SUVs, fuel economy standards are now only increasing by a little over one percent every year, while a rise of three percent would be necessary just to keep global emissions from cars at a stable level. Electric cars, of course, are the only emissions-free option on the market, but they represent only two percent of the vehicles sold every year in the United States.

Over the course of the summer, wildfires in the West have choked Lake Tahoe with smoke and forced park rangers in Arizona to limit access to the forests near Sedona. Meanwhile, Tucson suffered four days in a row of record heat this July, while Old Crow, a settlement in the Yukon that is north of the Arctic Circle, set several new highs in June. Nevertheless, the Chevy Tahoe remains one of the best-selling SUVs on the market, the Kia Sedonas and Hyundai Tucsons continue to prowl the suburbs, and GMC just introduced a new version of the Yukon with a diesel engine. 

Taos, for its part, remains in the grip of the megadrought that has throttled the entire Southwest for over two decades. Consequently, the thousands of flower children, astrologists, and sages who descended on the Carson National Forest for this summer’s Rainbow Family Gathering had to abide by restrictions that limited fires only to Forest Service-approved campsites. The Rainbows arrived to the natural preserve in school buses decorated to look like pirate ships, converted vans, and towing hand-drawn carriages heavy with trinkets and charms. Nobody, if press reports can be believed, showed up driving a Taos.


I was back in The Nation earlier this month with a review of a new translation of the Brazilian writer Beatriz Bracher’s novel Antonio. It’s a twisted family epic that connects the struggles of its characters with the violence and discrimination endemic to the country—perfect for some late summer beach reading.

My old crony Will Stephenson wrote the cover story for Harper’s this month, a haunting and provocative essay on the efforts of researchers to predict and prevent suicide. Stephenson charts the history of the field of study known as suicidology and interviews a number of psychologists and scientists in the field, including the inventors of a box that functions as something of an automated palm-reader. It’s difficult subject-matter, but Stephenson approaches it with grace and just the right level of skepticism. After considering a company called Qntfy that offers psychological screenings by analyzing what it calls “digital life data,” he asks, “What could you learn about a person from his digital life except that he is, like all of us, ambivalent?”


That’s all for now. You can find me on my website or hunched over my desk reading the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and groaning in despair. 

Your pal,

Kyle

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