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What's behind Germany's love for SUVs?

Britz Paul Kommentarbild App
Paul-Christian Britz
December 15, 2019

Greta Thunberg and Fridays for Future notwithstanding, more than 1 million new SUVs and off-road vehicles hit Germany's streets this year. Have the Germans lost their senses? Paul-Christian Britz considers the evidence.

Greenpeace activists block SUVs being shipped
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Marks

SUV drivers tailgate on the autobahn, take up multiple parking spaces in cities where space is at a premium, and, to cap it all, they're wrecking our climate. These are people who are putting their own egos above the interests of others — there's no denying it. That's the stereotype.

And yet Germany prides itself on being a land of common sense, a nation of poets and thinkers. We also want to be seen as world leaders in environmental protection. After all, we separate our garbage and recycling properly; there was also a time when we were trailblazers in changing energy policy. Was all this just Germanic double standards? Is everyone in Germany these days a self-righteous idiot?

Read more: Why are high emission countries lagging on climate protection?

No need to panic

There's no need to panic just yet. At least, that's the hope on offer from a group of Finnish researchers. They've been analysing the sorts of people who buy themselves monster cars. The Finnish study goes by a catchy title: "Not only assholes drive Mercedes."

Around 1,900 Finns took part in the survey. Scientific research has indicated that their moral standards and income structure are very similar to those of Germans. The participants were classified according to the established five-factor model of personality generally used in psychology:

-     Openness to experience (open-mindedness)

-     Conscientiousness (perfectionism, discipline, willingness to work)

-     Agreeableness (thoughtfulness, cooperativeness, empathy)

-     Extraversion (sociability)

-     Neuroticism (emotional instability and vulnerability)

It comes as no surprise to learn that it's mostly men who drive big cars. So far, so boring. Also: Drivers of luxury cars are generally difficult people, less socially acceptable, rather narcissistic and egotistical. All as we suspected.

Read more: Meet the scientists quitting academia for climate activism

Greta plaits dangling from the trunk

There are those who take this to extremes, plastering the bumper of their SUV with anti-environmentalist slogans or dangling Greta Thunberg plaits from the trunk under a sign saying "Problem solved." They've made social incompatibility and protest their trademark, according to their mantra: Now more than ever!

Britz, Paul
DW's Paul-Christian Britz

But then the study gets really interesting. Very conscientious people also often drive luxury cars. Er — what? These are people who place great importance on discipline, reliability and a willingness to work.

It certainly provides food for thought when parents are dropping off their children outside nurseries and schools in hulking great cars with hoods that loom well above the children's heads. If a child were suddenly to run in front of the car, the driver is scarcely in a position to see them, even from the elevated seat. At least the buyers of these cars aren't prompted by bad character. The opposite is probably the case. But how does that go together?

People buy cars that reflect their actual or ideal personality — at least, that's still true of the generation that buys cars. The average car buyer in Germany is 53 years old. 

Those who are less socially acceptable don't usually abide by rules and conventions (track width, for example), and are generally more narcissistic and aggressive. Conscientious people, on the other hand, are very aware of quality, aim for reliability and perfectionism, or want to demonstrate high performance. Big cars from luxury manufacturers, SUVs in particular, fit perfectly with their concept of life.

Read more: When it comes to climate protection, Germany still has a lot to do

Appealing to the conscience of the conscientious

One way of summing this up would be to say, "That's just the way people are; there's nothing to be done about it." And that may be true of protest drivers. But there's still some hope for both the climate and the traffic situation — because conscientious people can be persuaded: with reliable, high-quality, alternative energy vehicles on the one hand or, better still, with reliable public transport. This may sound naiive, but it would be feasible if car manufacturers and politicians applied themselves to making it happen.

Alternatively, we can literally speak to the consciences of our conscientious fellow human beings. In Sweden, "flight shaming" has already led to a reduction in the number of flights taken, and it's catching on in Germany, too — as is its sibling, "SUV shaming." And this does in fact have the potential to make big, swanky cars unattractive to conscientious people. Because what responsible, socially acceptable person wants the future of their children or grandchildren on their conscience? Especially if it's accompanied by a loss of respect within society?