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The Destructive Fantasies of the New York International Auto Show

How the car industry persuades people to buy the big cars they don’t need

Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images
A Jeep Wrangler Rubicon drives on an outdoor track during a press preview at the 2024 New York International Auto Show in New York City

The Subaru pavilion at this year’s New York International Auto Show, which ended its week-plus run on Sunday, was built to resemble a national park. Flanked by faux trees, an imitation-wood welcome center showed off Subaru’s status as the largest corporate donor to the National Parks Foundation. Periodically, a giant LED display flashed a theatrical presentation featuring drone footage of national parks set to a sweeping orchestral score. The image extended onto the stage floor, then out below a low fence of the type that keeps hikers from tumbling off the edge of a trail. If you looked down, you’d see dirt and fallen needles underfoot. In the video’s dramatic finale, the back wall of the display parted to reveal a fake redwood tree with an SUV-size hole in the middle, out of which a brand new 2025 Subaru Forester emerged like the armored hero of a Marvel movie. 

This, it seems, is the life one can lead with a Subaru: adventurous, freewheeling, and organized around the kind of spectacular natural beauty best experienced with a kayak or tent. Most visitors to the New York International Auto Show do not lead such lives. Like the vast majority of people who own cars sold on the promise of a life spent outdoors, most drivers use features like all-wheel drive to get to the grocery store, commute to work, and pick their kids up at schools in cities or flat suburbs. Car shows, though, are the ideal place to see how automakers go about selling consumers big, expensive cars they don’t need.

What you won’t see at the show, of course, are the real reasons the automakers’ cars are so big. Car companies started building bigger cars less to satisfy demand than because vehicles legally classified as light trucks—i.e., non-passenger vehicles—are subject to much less stringent emissions and efficiency regulations. The new rules just finalized by the Environmental Protection Agency—which stipulate that larger vehicles endowed with features suited for heavy labor can emit more carbon than smaller, passenger-oriented ones—are no exception. Of course, most consumers just don’t need the sorts of massive hauling and towing capacities that allow automakers to skirt the feds. This created a problem car manufacturers were happy to try to solve. For the last half-century or so, manufacturers have set out to persuade drivers those features are necessities. 

Bizarrely, a core pitch for bigger cars—made by an industry responsible for an outsize share of U.S. emissions—is that they’re essential for accessing the very nature those cars are rapidly despoiling. The transportation sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States; cars sold to consumers—as opposed to pipelines or vehicles used for industrial or commercial purposes—make up the largest share of that. Sport utility vehicles are a particularly bad culprit: They consumer about 20 percent more oil to drive the same distance as a medium-size, non-SUV car.

The Ford Bronco pavilion at this year’s show highlighted the stories of the outdoorsy types who drive Broncos. Behind two cars stood a high wall covered with colorful placards introducing the nature enthusiasts, along with their bivy sacks, dry bags, and snowboards: all the gear they need to go enjoy the wilderness. Drivers could sign up for the Ford Bronco Off-Roadeo Adventure Ride, a makeshift roller-coaster experience. Just outside, said Broncos overcame various constructed obstacles before mounting and then descending a metal hill. At Nissan’s display, which announced its cars were “Made for Out There,” a wooden fence ringed a few rocks and desert grasses. At “Camp Jeep,” Jeep Grand Cherokees, Gladiators, and Wranglers could slowly summit their own peak, next to the Broncos. That obstacle course—geared toward “adventurers and thrill-seekers,” “adrenaline junkies and off-road enthusiasts”—was an exciting contrast to how such cars are likely to be used by conference attendees IRL, as seen just beyond the conference center walls: sitting in traffic en route to the Lincoln Tunnel.

Car companies make other appeals too. SUVs, in particular, with their increasingly tank-like structures, are marketed as the preeminent way to protect families. While those cars might keep the people inside safe, they pose a mounting danger to those who share streets with them. Tall trucks and SUVs are 45 percent deadlier to U.S. pedestrians, one recent study finds, and the supersizing of vehicles is fueling a preventable epidemic of pedestrian deaths.

As this year’s show also made clear, car companies now need to square their supersizing impulses with the tide of electrification, spurred on in some places by government regulations. At a “Tire-side Chat” in the “Electrified Zone” of the Toyota display, two excitable presenters asked around a dozen onlookers (about a third of whom were kids) to guess how many of their offerings are “electrified in some way,” including plug-in hybrids and vehicles with onboard fuel cells. As they explained, Toyota gives you “the power to choose your level of electrification” so “you can be as electrified as you want to be!” In December, the watchdog group Public Citizen filed a complaint against Toyota with the Federal Trade Commission, arguing that the automaker’s advertising, including its “Beyond Zero” push, “incorrectly characterized gas-powered vehicles as electric.”

The final round of trivia asked a child of about 10 to do a “carbon clean-up.” By successfully answering trivia questions about Toyota’s electrification efforts, that is, he could deposit one of the three “carbon clouds” into a Toyota bag; after getting all three right, the kid won a backpack.

Subaru broadcast its green bona fides in other ways, most of them extraneous to its actual products. Between “shows,” the automaker ran ads about its various charitable initiatives. “As forest fires keep raging, the need for replanting keeps growing,” read one clip about Subaru’s contributions to the National Forest Foundation, set against the backdrop of a burned-out patch of trees. Suddenly, a Subaru bounds up the hill of a refreshingly lush forest, as the narrator explains how Subaru is helping to replant one million trees so as to “protect America’s most beautiful places.”

On a sprawling underground level, meanwhile, a test track where drivers could take E.V.s for a spin abutted a recruitment pavilion for the Marine Corps, which hosted a pull-up contest next to a tank; the New York Department of Corrections, which invited children to pose with riot gear in front a bus used to transport prisoners; and the NYPD, which brought out various generations of police cruisers to display. As far as I could tell, though, the only electrified police cruiser was on the display floor upstairs, where a 2024 Blazer E.V. Police Pursuit Vehicle promised custom features for cops.

If there is something that can be called “car culture,” then the New York Auto Show offers a decent working definition as to what that might mean: fantasies of a better, more exciting life, where free time is abundant, your family is safe, and nature’s beauty is preserved and accessible for you to venture into on a moment’s notice. No car can reasonably provide these things; as far as the great outdoors is concerned, automobiles are fueling the climate crisis that’s making it more dangerous. The point of all advertising, of course, is to convince you that all that stands between you and some better life is a product. But as the myriad dangers of big cars become more and more obvious,  you don’t need to scratch too far below the surface to catch a glimpse of the lies and violence that keep car culture going.