20/20: Questioning SUV Safety

ByABC News

Nov. 17, 2000 -- 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 vehicle’s 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 it’s astonishing the vehicle is not engineered to hold more weight.

“It’s 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.

Nevertheless, Champion says the Explorer is not the only vehicle where cargo weight is also an issue. According to Consumer Reports calculations, many SUVs can carry more than 1,100 pounds in combined passenger and cargo weight. But the load capacity of a number of others — depending on the options on the vehicle — is right around 1,000 pounds. Additionally, at least a dozen SUVs with standard equipment have even lower cargo limits. These lower capacities are resulting in some people unknowingly overloading their SUVs.

Information Difficult to FindSo if you are an SUV owner, how can you find out your vehicle’s load capacity? Consumer Reports suggests the onus should fall on the vehicle’s manufacturer. “We believe there should be a sticker on the car, somewhere in a prominent place, showing the load capacity,” says Champion.

Mercedes does that, and some other SUVs list the load capacity in the manual or on the vehicle itself. But the vast majority of owners’ manuals — while warning you not to overload your SUV — do not tell you the maximum cargo weight. They leave it up to you to figure it out.

The Ford Explorer’s manual, for example, says to weigh it at a “shipping company or inspection stations.” Nissan suggests weighing the Pathfinder at a “truck stop, gravel quarry or grain elevator.” Not very practical advice, says Consumer Reports, which also warns against putting cargo on the roof because it says that can make an SUV more likely to tip during an emergency maneuver.

Whether it is adding weight on the roof or putting too much weight inside the vehicle, either can increase the risk of an accident — a fact unknown to many SUV owners. Nevertheless, manufacturers insist SUVs can safely handle many typical loading situations both inside and on the roof. Additionally, some told ABCNEWS they will begin including more specific information about cargo loads in user manuals.