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King-of-the-Road Excess

If the highway has seemed a little more crowded of late, the cause may not be more cars, but bigger cars. To be specific, more and bigger sport utility vehicles (SUVs).

The increasingly popular trucks-cum-cars are the conveyances of choice in America's suburbs - far from the unpaved mountains and deserts they were bred to conquer. But that rugged image sells. The bulbous old station wagon, capacious but definitely a car, is fading from memory.

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For many suburbanites, the bigger the SUV, the better. Ford plans to come out with a new king of the road: a 19-foot-long model. It will surpass the GMC Suburban as the longest family vehicle ever made.

Nearly every carmaker is now competing for the SUV dollar. Lexus makes one; so do Oldsmobile and Mercury. Even Cadillac is reported to pine after an "off-road" offering to place next to its sedans and coupes.

Along with prestige and size come sizable prices - anywhere from $20,000 to well over $50,000. SUVs are muscular contributors to showroom sticker shock.

They also contribute to upward-trending average fuel consumption. The larger SUVs get as little as 14 miles per gallon. Their big engines - the coming Ford behemoth will have a 10 cylinder option - boost CO2 emissions as well. And safety? Concerns range from tippiness to the damage done to smaller vehicles that may get in their way.

None of these factors may be potent enough to deter the new-car buyer taken by bigness, power, and status - and maybe even by the TV ads that show Jeeps and other SUVs scaling the Rockies only slightly less nimbly than a mountain goat.

Still, it's tempting to long for the days when gas mileage and economy mattered, especially when drivers are trying to peer around the Explorer, Montero, or Cherokee boxing them into the slow lane of a rush-hour freeway.

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