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What's The Ideal Storm Chasing Vehicle...

Minivan or 4WD Sport Utility?
by Matt Ver Steeg, WeatherEdge, Inc.

 

There's been somewhat of a debate within the storm chasing community about which type of vehicle best lends itself toward storm chasing; the four wheel drive sport utility, or a minivan. When people begin to get really serious about storm chasing, they start taking a hard look at what type of vehicle they're driving. Often, they go for more payload, creature comforts, and hazardous driving capability. In my last two seasons out in the field, I've witnessed more chasers driving minivans and sport utility vehicles, than the traditional car. Is there an 'ideal' vehicle for the serious storm chaser?

I've been storm chasing with practically every type of vehicle, ranging from motorcycles in my stupid teenage years, a Volkswagen Super Beetle (real fun in high wind), a Ford Bronco 4WD, pickup trucks, the family car, and finally, a Dodge Caravan. The reason I went to the minivan was because it had the room to carry up to seven people with luggage and gear, and because I liked the ride. For the research on this story, I and one of my frequent storm chasing partners went to a local automobile dealer and test drove the newest offerings from the big three auto makers.

Sports Utility Vehicles
First, stepping into a brand new vehicle is an experience all its own. The seats, the smell, the control layout, the view, it's all new and strange. We spent several minutes sitting in the cockpit of each, getting familiar with the vehicle. The first impression, especially in one model, was that the cockpit felt tight and close. The front windshield felt small and constricted My storm chasing partner complained that he felt he was looking out a porthole. The tight cabin also gave some concern toward proper mounting of radios and camera gear. While not impossible, it would be a daunting task to try to cram several radios and other storm chasing goodies into the front of the truck. After reflection, I would probably devise some sort of quick release system for the electronics, so they could be taken easily into a motel room for an overnight stay, which would be less attractive to thieves. On the plus side, the controls were logically laid out and within easy reach. One S/U model tested had fully adjustable seats with inflatable bladders for fine tuning lumbar support, which we both liked a lot.

The rest of the interior was straightforward, with ample room for gear stowage, and comfortable seats for passengers. One model featured separate heating and a/c controls for rear passengers, along with a radio supplied with dual headphone jacks, which would be great for those long road trips.

On the Road
All of the sport utility vehicles tested offered similar ride characteristics. They could best be described as having a firm and somewhat rough ride. We had only driven two miles when we decided that the choppy ride could equate to some pretty stiff and sore muscles at the end of a long storm chasing day. My passenger complained that he'd have a sore neck at day's end from straining forward to look at the sky. That aside, the noise level inside the truck was quite tolerable, with the most sound coming from the tires. A different tread pattern and softer compound could make a reduction in the overall noise level, adding to storm chasing comfort. Electronic on-dash switching from two wheel drive to four wheel drive was very convenient. Gone are the days when you had to get out of the truck and lock in the hubs. All vehicles tested were sure footed in four wheel drive mode with a solid feel at the controls. Braking tests were a bit unnerving, especially while cornering on slick surfaces. Once traction was lost, the S/U's wanted to go their own way, with a slight tendency to swap ends.

Following the test drive, gas mileage was checked, and posted a 15 mpg highway average. In discussions with the salesmen, they intimated that our experience was normal, and some units with high output engines could drop even lower in fuel performance. After discussion with SUV enthusiasts, the general consensus was that the ride quality could be improved by removing one of the leaf springs from the rear suspension, and by replacing the factory shocks with Edelbrocks or Bilsteins. The proper selection of tires and pressure settings can make a difference as well.

Minivans
Next, we drove the current crop of minivans. These too, were brimming with features and nicely appointed. Options galore are available on these vehicles, ranging from rear passenger heat and air conditioning, to 12 volt electrical outlets for powering accessories. The interior of the minivans felt larger and more open than the S/U's. The controls were placed within easy reach, and the seats were comfortable in all vehicles. There was plenty of space for mounting equipment between the front seats and the rear seats were removable, allowing for lots of storage space. The side door on one model locked back firmly, a real benefit for filming out the door. The windshields on the minivans seemed to offer more visibility than their S/U counterparts. They appeared to offer a wider field of view, and had a steeper rake angle than the S/U's. I do have some concern over the slope of the windshields on the minivans, and wonder whether or not they will be more susceptible to hail damage.

On the road, the minivans exhibited a smoother ride than the S/U's. Noise levels in the cabin were higher, however. Handling was responsive and firm, and there were no surprises, even on slick surfaced roads. All vans were front wheel driven, and displayed no tendency to swap ends. Braking was predictable. Gas mileage was around 20 mpg.

The price of each type of vehicle was noted. Depending on the options selected, the sport utility can cost an average of $5000-7000 more than a minivan.

Both types of vehicles were fun to drive and would be good storm chasing vehicles. The "ideal" vehicle remains a toss-up based on the kind of chasing one expects to do. For an off-road experience, a sport utility vehicle is the way to go. For storage space, improved gas mileage, and a more comfortable ride, a minivan seems better.

Matt Ver Steeg

 

Disclaimer:

Storm chasing is dangerous. You could be hurt or killed in its pursuit, especially if you have little or no knowledge of severe storms and their environment. Chase hazards include but are not limited to heavy rain, flash flooding, lightning, high winds, large hail, tornadoes, and flying debris. Hydroplaning on the road and traffic accidents also occur. If you desire to chase, get informed and educated about weather. Contact your local National Weather Service Office, and enroll in a SKYWARN training class. Read and view all of the published information regarding severe weather, thunderstorms, and tornadoes that you can. You are responsible for educating yourself. Next, contact an experienced chaser in your area, and arrange to travel with them, until you've gained sufficient experience to go it alone. Even at that, veteran chasers get caught in harm's way from time to time. Play it safe. This page is for informational and educational use, and the authors disavow any responsibility for actions you may take.

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