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Auto Exhausted 

Crank Call

Published March 7, 2001 at 5:28 p.m.

“You don’t need roads, when you can make your own.”

Freightliner slogan

It’s been a long time since I had a good rant about the traffic. This town wasn’t built for a fleet of tanks, so speed up, slow down, shove over and screw you: When even my visiting mother-in-law succumbs to “road rage” in Vermont, it’s time to talk about a bigger problem than potholes. (Picture a tall, polite, silver-haired lady doing her best to maintain order while scolding a lot of hoodlums in Jeeps. “Well,” she told us, “I just sat there and said, ‘You’re a… You’re a… You’re a jerk!’)

Have you heard about the Unimog? It’s the $84,000, 12-and-a-half-ton, 20-foot-long, seven-foot-wide, non-sport, non-utility “vehicle” bearing down on us next year from Freightliner, a wholly owned subsidiary of DaimlerChrysler AG. DaimlerChrysler is one of those newfangled “global” corporations you’ve been hearing about, and the slogan at the top of this column belongs to Bruce Barnes, Freightliner’s marketing manager, whose job it is to put a Unimog in your driveway, if you’re man enough to afford it. “Even in Scottsdale, Arizona,” says Barnes, “moms will want to take it to the grocery store. It’s a head-turning vehicle.”

Even in Scottsdale, Arizona? Right here in Colchester, Vermont, my partner and I have a theory: The reason these goddamn ego chambers keep getting bigger and bigger is because men can’t stand the thought that women might be sitting — and thus driving — as high up as they are. It’s as simple as that. “Moms” have nothing to do with it. They’re perfectly content to wreak havoc all by themselves in minivans and Explorers. It’s “dads” who can’t get size off their minds.

“It is 9 feet, 7 inches tall, nearly the height of a basketball net, and almost 3 feet taller than the tallest sport utility,” The New York Times reports about the Unimog. “Its front seat, mounted six feet high, is reached by a three-step ladder.” Power! The Times has a good, clean, liberal record for decrying the testicular march of Durangos across America, but now that the Bushmen have freed you to make your own roads, you can ignore that teensy-weensy voice of conscience.

Every day I pull out of the driveway in a 12-year-old Honda station wagon, a diminutive relic of Jurassic curiosity, and brave the slaughter of Route 15 headed east or west — it doesn’t matter which. East takes me to the inferno of Five Corners in Essex, and west to the hell of downtown, the Burlington City Council’s lifetime “legacy” to chain stores, tourists and boutique-owners.

Don’t try to find a way around it, or under it, or quietly through it — from Colchester to anywhere is no trip for the meek. For about 30 seconds, four years ago, I tried chanting a mantra — “I won’t let it get me, I won’t let it get me, I won’t let it get me” — until I realized that a spiritual response to the problem spelled certain death. What used to be back roads to Williston and Richmond are now major thoroughfares, overrun with Bravadas, Amigos, 4Runners and XTerras (don’t tell me a woman invented those names). Farther south, I should think, in Shelburne and Charlotte, are the gentle hills and shores of rural Vermont, where anyone likely to have enough money for a Unimog probably lives already in bucolic enchantment.

“Wanting to conquer the great outdoors is simply not a good reason to give up leather and air-conditioning,” says Freightliner’s brochure. I know what you mean! “Leather interior, GPS navigation systems and high-end stereo systems are all available — just in case you’d like to spoil yourself!”

For the record, Unimog is German shorthand for “universal engine-driven apparatus,” and Freightliner is hyping the thing as “tough, rugged and eminently civilized.” It’s two feet wider than “a typical car,” whatever that is, and three-and-a-half inches wider than its next biggest rival, GM’s once-mighty Hummer. Both are souped-up, slicked-up versions of military transport trucks, described by their manufacturers as “family vehicles.” Quoting a recently laid-off dot-com employee of the Times acquaintance: “I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”

The Unimog weighs more than two Chevrolet Suburbans or four Toyota Camry sedans. It gets about 10 miles to the gallon of diesel fuel. In Germany, where gasoline is taxed for what it’s worth, the poor thing hasn’t lived up to forecast, appealing only to “totally crazy people who wanted it.” Freightliner hopes for a dumber audience in the United States.

“Here’s what SUVs and other so-called four-by-fours will see as you drive by,” boasts the Unimog’s brochure. Unimogs will be marketed only to “prosperous families,” “affluent off-road enthusiasts” and “people who simply like to drive noticeable vehicles.” And that’s not all! It has a special “in your face” component that sets it apart from all other toys of its type — “a vertical exhaust pipe, just like the exhausts on real 18-wheelers!”

Being so big and tall and everything, the Unimog is naturally “exempt from most federal safety, air pollution and fuel economy regulations.” What it might do if it rams your bumper or blows a tire is anyone’s guess — but, hey, you make the roads!

OK, it’s an old theme, and a pointless one — that’s my point. The last couple of years have seen an explosion of Web sites for people who just hate those Stupid Useless Vehicles, but these, like every other channel of complaint in a tough, rugged, eminently civilized society, provide only minor relief and lead exactly nowhere. That I can do for myself on the road, ya big bag of wind!

P.S. Normally, I’m less “civilized” than that.

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Peter Kurth

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