Size does matter 

It takes big balls to tell a total stranger they have a small penis.

To look at advice columnist Amy Alkon, at least the picture of her I saw on the web, she doesn't look like she has large cojones at all. She looks like somebody you might meet at a really good party who would be charming and funny and hurriedly on her way to an even better party that you weren't invited to. And yet, something she did recently to express her disdain for the ravenous American appetite for SUVs took more brass than you'll find in your average high-school marching band's horn section.

What she did was print up little cards that read: "Road-Hogging, Air-Fouling, Gas-Guzzling Vulgarian! Clearly you have an extremely small penis, or you wouldn't drive such a monstrosity. For the adequately endowed, there are hybrids or electrics." The message concluded with a phone number, which led to her answering machine, on which callers received further abuse ... and were invited to leave a message. Then she ran around her hometown of Venice, Calif., sticking the cards on the windshield of SUVs. Makes those of us who just roll our eyes at the steely mammoths look like passive-aggressive little wusses.

Big mistakes

I see Alkon's point and would even go beyond it to suggest that it's not just SUVs that pose as penis substitutes. Trucks with big, mean dogs in the back; cars with Spinal Tap-level bass speakers; drivers that talk on the phone, tailgate, weave and speed, presumably to get to their enlargement surgery appointment tout suite — these vehicles and behaviors lead fellow drivers to think uncharitably about their owners. The SUV, however, seems to strike a special note of irritation, not because it denotes jerkiness like these other things do, but because its popularity among normal people is just baffling. Why, at a time of high-priced gas, when our oil dependency keeps us slavishly engaged in the messy Middle East, would Americans hunger for cars that are equivalent to that classically embarrassing vehicle, The Short Bus?

Certainly there are people who need large vehicles for jobs or hobbies that involve hauling around mass quantities of things, whether it's lumber, machinery or children. But it's kind of hard to believe that everybody who owns a gigantic car is a professional mover, weekend outdoorsman or breeds as rapaciously as Baron von Trapp. It's especially puzzling to see so many SUVs and ATVs here in Florida. You can't tell me that you need that super-powerful machine to get you over the dangerous slopes of Mount Dora.

Feeling small

Not being an expert on global economics or fuel efficiency, I did some simple online checking into gas-efficient vs. gas-gluttonous vehicles and was stunned by the results. According to a CNN/Money magazine study, the most fuel-efficient car is the Honda Insight, a hybrid electric car. The Insight gets 68 miles per gallon on the highway, 61 in the city. Compare this with the vehicle judged the Worst, the Land Rover Range Rover, at 15 mpg highway/12 city. You could get to Cocoa Beach and back putting only two gallons into the Insight, a cost that would quadruple if you needed something the size of a public bathroom just to haul your beach towels around in.

The disparity is so clear, it makes our sluggishness to embrace alternate fuel technology a very curious thing. My own theory is, first, that the oil industry has squelched any technology that won't keep them on their thrones, having, as they do, the kind of power that all kings have just before Madame deFarge knits them onto her shit list.

The other theory is more subtle: The concept of alternate-fueled vehicles has been, up to now, a little too fringe and hippie-ish for Americans to cozy up to. Like legalized pot, slow food and Ralph Nader, electric cars are something we know are good for us but they are too inconvenient, lefty and radical for us to embrace en masse. Well, the hippie fringe idea is now inarguably the more patriotic one. The less we suck on the oily teats of foreign countries, the more independent we are, and isn't that what all the flag-waving is about?

This idea, coupled with the tax breaks the president is offering for people who buy hybrid cars (see oilman not wanting to be knitted onto the list) might see hybrids phased in and monster trucks phased out within a decade. Finally, it seems, fuel efficiency might acquire that one virtue needed to put it onto the cultural game board: It will be cool. In the gas crisis of the 1970s the hipper cars were the little ones — VW Bugs, Hondas and Toyotas barely bigger than a bathtub. Driving one suggested you knew what was going on and had enough class to do something about it personally. There were plenty of eight-mile-a-gallon yachts but only old farts drove them; needing a big chunky car was like needing an adult tricycle. Driving big made you look small.

Still does, apparently.

Liz Langley writes for the Orlando Weekly. E-mail

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