WASHINGTON – The number of sports-utility vehicles in Maryland jumped 59 percent between 1997 and 2002, an increase of 172,500 SUVs in five years, the Census Bureau reported Thursday.
The bureau’s 2002 Vehicle Inventory and Use Survey said the number of SUVs rose from 290,800 in 1997 to 463,300 in 2002, when there was one for about every eight licensed drivers in Maryland.
The numbers did not come as a surprise to friends, or foes, of the vehicles.
“SUVs are really the family station wagon for the new millennium,” said Lon Anderson, director of public and government relations at AAA. “Drivers want options for comfortable family transportation that can also provide utility.”
Pickups were still the most popular truck in the state, with 473,000 such trucks in 2002, up only slightly from five years before. The number of minivans in the state rose 21 percent, from 215,200 to 260,300.
Maryland car dealers said Thursday’s report shows that buyers have embraced newer SUVs, which are more compact, more fuel-efficient and safer than older models.
“SUVs are taking over because they’re making (them) comparable to the size and length to a passenger car,” said Scott Wilson, sales manager at Heritage Dodge-Jeep in Owings Mills.
But environmental groups received the news with chagrin. Charlie Garlow, air and energy chair for the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, called SUVs “an unnecessary waste of gasoline.”
“It’s distressing to see that SUV purchases and uses are going up,” he said.
“We’re hoping the public sees the reasons for switching their vehicles . . . to support manufacturers who are making fuel-efficient vehicles,” Garlow said. “There’s no reason to get 15 to 20 miles per gallon for a trip to the grocery store for a bag of potato chips.”
Anderson, however, said SUVs are not the gas-guzzling behemoths their critics make them out to be.
“You’ve got four to six-cylinder SUVs out there, and it’s getting twice the mileage per gallon” of station wagons, Anderson said.
But Chris Fick of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group said air pollution has not gotten better, and that SUVs are partly to blame.
“When adjusted for weather, smog has gone down by 2 percent in the last 23 years, so you can hardly make the claim that the air is getting cleaner,” he said.
That argument does not seem to sway consumers. Doug Carson, general manager at Easton Ford, said his dealership has seen a marked increase in SUV sales in recent years. In 2003, they accounted for about 40 percent of all of his truck sales.
Maryland is not alone in its love of SUVs. Of the 20 jurisdictions that the Census Bureau has reported on so far — 19 states and the District of Columbia — Maryland’s 59 percent increase ranked 12th. Georgia was tops, with a 114 percent increase in SUV registrations over the five-year period.
“Americans have a love affair with SUVs,” Carson said. “I don’t think it’s going to stop tomorrow.”
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