20/20: Questioning SUV Safety

ByABC News
December 12, 2000, 7:46 PM

Nov. 17 -- At the Consumer Reports test track, a Ford Explorer with only a driver inside had no problem handling the curves.

But when three passengers and luggage were added, it made a big difference, says Consumer Reports testing director David Champion. He adds that despite their rugged image, many sport utility vehicles are not built to safely handle as much weight as you might think.

In fact, Consumer Reports found the typical VW New Beetle can carry a higher maximum load than many popular SUVs. The finding is particularly surprising considering SUVs have large cargo areas they are often shown in television commercials handling large loads and consumers assume it is safe to put lots of stuff in their SUVs. Many say extra cargo space is one of the reasons they purchase SUVs in the first place, a misconception that may be putting them at risk.

Load Capacity QuestionedTo show how easy it is to overload a vehicle, Consumer Reports put five men into the popular Ford Explorer and weighed it on a special scale. The total exceeded the vehicles maximum allowable weight. Then, they tried it with two couples plus what they said were four average suitcases. Their total weight was 10 pounds over the maximum load capacity.

Champion says its astonishing the vehicle is not engineered to hold more weight.

Its a five-seater vehicle and it should be able to carry five people and luggage. If you give [consumers] the space, he says, give them the capability to carry the weight that you might put in that space.

The obvious concern is safety. Champion says the extra weight adds to the SUVs already high center of gravity and increases the risk of a deadly rollover, especially during an emergency maneuver.

Champion also adds overloading stresses the brakes and can lead to a tire blowout. In fact, Firestone officials cite overloading as one reason their tires have come apart on Explorers a claim disputed by Ford Motors.