The High Road

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Trucks reign supreme in a large portion of the country, despite environmental concerns.

Forget the pending oil crisis or the damaging effects of automobiles on the environment. Like it or not, this is America, where everything is big - including the cars.

Light-duty trucks (vans, pickups, and SUVs) reported increased sales for the eighth straight year, reaching an all-time high of 8.2 million units in 1999, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association. In fact, light trucks' share of the new vehicle market currently stands at a record 48.5 percent, up from 40.3 percent in 1994. These vehicles are heavier, stronger, and more powerful than their counterparts of 20 years ago. They're also less fuel-efficient than your typical passenger car. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports that all gains made over the past two decades in the fuel efficiency of light trucks has been offset by the increased weight and horsepower of models on the market today. According to the bureau, this environmental loss has been driven primarily by the consumer battle cry of "bigger is better."

But sitting behind the wheel of a big rig doesn't automatically make you an environmental hazard. Truckers, it seems, mirror their passenger car counterparts in terms of environmentally-friendly consumer choices. According to Simmons Market Research Bureau, 40 percent of truckers buy products in recycled packaging, and 38 percent believe there should be a ban on products that pollute the environment. (These attitudes and behaviors are on par with the national average of 40 percent.) In this issue of American Demographics, we take a look at the truck-phenom, and the drivers behind the wheels of these big autos.

The accompanying map created with data from Easy Analytic Software, Inc., a Vineland, New Jersey-based market research firm, shows per capita consumer spending on new and used light trucks at the county level. Counties whose residents have the highest per capita spending are shaded in brown while those counties whose residents spend the least are shaded in blue.

In terms of per capita spending, light-duty trucks know no boundaries. Residents of urban and suburban counties - concrete jungles where off-roading is more of a measure of testosterone levels than a necessity of daily life - have a high propensity to buy a truck, says Alexander Edwards, executive director of research for San Diego-based Strategic Vision, Inc. But inhabitants of rural counties are also likely to drive automobiles that may require a small step ladder to reach the cab. According to Edwards, denizens of the Western states, such as Colorado and Montana, drive pickup trucks used primarily for towing and hauling rather than family trips to the mall.

Weather also plays a factor in vehicle choice. Northeasterners - residents of Massachusetts or Connecticut, for example, who typically have more money to spend on a car - may prefer an SUV to a luxury sedan. When you're battling a "Noreaster," the on-road performance of a four-wheel drive is far superior to a passenger car, says Edwards.

"Marketers [of light trucks] just might be able to raise the prices of trucks in the dark brown areas," he adds. "But to increase sales, they should also look into reducing prices in the dark green areas, where residents may not think they can afford [a new light truck]."

As the light-truck market matures and new crossover utility vehicles (CUVs) like the Ford Explorer SporTrac (an Explorer with a short, open-air cargo bed), the Buick Rendezvous (an SUV with three rows of seats much like a minivan), and the Chrysler PT Cruiser (a cross between a car and an SUV) enter the market, the line between SUVs, pickups, minivans, and passenger cars blurs. According to Ward's Communication, which follows sales, production, and inventory of the automotive industry, sales of CUVs were up 118 percent during the first 10 months of 2000 compared with the same period in 1999.

Who's driving these big rigs? A study conducted by AutoPacific, Inc., an auto market research firm in Santa Ana, California, shows that trucks are still a guy-thing: 72 percent of SUV, minivan, and pickup drivers have a Y chromosome, versus 55 percent of passenger car drivers. Truckers are also big on family: 76 percent are married and 49 percent have children. In comparison, 64 percent of passenger car drivers have tied the knot and only 39 percent have kids. In addition to riding high off the ground, this group is also living high on the hog: The median household income of truckers is $70,000, beating the annual income of the typical car driver by a cool 10 grand.

According to an ongoing Strategic Vision study of the demographics and psychographics of vehicle choice, a trucker's home is his castle. In fact, 40 percent of truckers say they enjoy landscaping and gardening in their spare time, and 38 percent say they work on home projects. (That's 6 percentage points, and 11 percentage points greater than car drivers, respectively).

With the cargo capacity of some of those vehicles, like Ford's Expedition that touts 111 cubic square feet of space - a home addition unto itself - you can bet these folks are doing more than planting tulips and changing light bulbs. You'll also find a greater percentage of vans - pickups, minivans, or SUVs - down by the river. Thirty-eight percent of truck drivers say they enjoy fishing in their spare time, compared with just 19 percent of their car-driving friends.

Looking for a lot where the parking spaces aren't all occupied by mammoth vehicles? You'll find that road hogs make fewer visits than car drivers to fine restaurants (37 percent versus 54 percent), movie theaters (35 percent versus 46 percent), and musical performances or concerts (23 percent versus 36 percent).

But that's about the extent of the shared pastimes of the SUV, minivan, and pickup truck set. While 52 percent of car drivers and 56 percent of minivan owners report they watch television in their spare time, only 43 percent of SUV drivers and 41 percent of pickup drivers say they spend their down time in front of the boob tube. SUV and pickup truck drivers are also less inclined to stick their nose in a book: Forty percent of SUV owners and 27 percent of pickup drivers claim reading as a hobby, whereas 49 percent of car drivers and 51 percent of minivan drivers enjoy a good read. Other activities the SUV/pickup set enjoy less frequently include going to church functions and attending family gatherings. But then again, who needs to socialize when you've got 300 horses under the hood to keep you company?

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