Driving SUVs off the road

Concerns about pollution and the harm they cause in road accidents is sparking a revolt against SUVs.

While sales of sports utility vehicles (SUVs) are soaring they are, paradoxically, becoming increasingly unpopular with the public. Almost two-thirds of the population are said to want special taxes on these so-called “gas-guzzlers” and more than half are in favour of banning them from city centres. These statistics come from a survey by YouGov for KPMG that also shows that a fifth of SUV owners bought their vehicles for “pose value”.

The backlash against SUVs has gathered such a pace that legislative or regulatory restrictions are on the cards. One of their most vocal critics is Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, who has labelled urban 4×4 drivers “complete idiots” and has asked Transport for London to look at the possibility of introducing a higher congestion charge for SUVs. Various countries like Sweden and France are also considering imposing extra taxation on SUVs.

Yet despite the growing backlash, sales of SUVs were up by 17 per cent in the first half of 2004, according to Spyder Redspy Automotive Consultancy, and almost every car manufacturer is jumping on the bandwagon by bringing out four-wheel drive models. From Land Rover’s Discovery 3, which goes on sale next month, to the new 4×4 Fiat Panda, the boom looks set to continue for the foreseeable future. Even Smart has joined the party and is testing its first 4×4 called Formore.

But critics say SUVs have become status symbols that are dangerous and bad for the environment, and one recent survey suggested that as few as 12 per cent of drivers ever take them off-road.

Now urban 4×4 drivers are the subject of a consumer backlash and the theory is that by hitting them in the wallet we will halt the trend for 4x4s and stem any damage they do to the environment.

The Green Party has come out in support of Livingstone’s proposal of higher congestion charges for SUVs. Greenpeace campaigner Mark Strutt says: “SUVs are anti-social gas-guzzling monsters driven by people who clearly have no regard for the environment at all. If you buy one of these vehicles you have absolutely no right to moan about congestion charging or fuel tax.”

Danger zone

The environmental group claims that children are 17 times more likely to be killed or seriously injured if they are run over by an SUV as opposed to a saloon car, and says the Government and the advertising industry have a responsibility to educate and inform people about the dangers of these vehicles.

Road safety for pedestrians is a key issue for the European Union, which is introducing safety directives designed to reduce the harm that the front of cars can do to pedestrians. Although the regulations will apply to all cars, they could have a major effect on the design of off-roaders and some sports cars.

Strutt blames marketing for the rise in SUVs: “Perception is part of it and advertisers have a great deal of responsibility. The images they present of people driving four-wheel drives across the open countryside are highly questionable and to some degree immoral.”

Marketing of SUVs has traditionally concentrated on their ruggedness and independence factor and usually features exotic locations far removed from town centres and school runs. Mitsubishi on its website uses phrases such as “dominate the highways”, “take the towns by storm” and “conquer the streets” to promote its Animal and Warrior marques.

Honda is one of the first manufacturers to take a different approach with its latest ad for the CR-V, which carries the strapline “Is that the wild calling, or just the local garden centre? Sometimes it’s difficult to tell.”

Neil Christie, managing director of Honda’s ad agency Wieden & Kennedy, says: “We have tried to be absolutely honest about what the cars are bought for. They are engineered for one thing but bought for another.”

Land Rover produced the UK’s first 4×4 in 1948 but the growth in popularity evident today started at the beginning of the Nineties. Since then, sales have rocketed. In 1999, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), 98,927 4x4s were sold, accounting for 4.5 per cent of the UK’s new car market. That figure rose to 159,144, or more than six per cent, in 2003 and it is expected to reach about 190,000 by the end of this year.

One of the reasons for the continuing rise in sales is that the SUV has broad appeal. A host of new easy-to-drive marques, like the BMW X5, the Porsche Cayenne and smaller soft-roaders like the Land Rover Freelander and BMW’s new X3, have made them popular with City executives and school-run mothers alike. By launching their own SUVs, brands such as Fiat Panda and Smart are hoping that the appeal can only get wider.

Tax curb

With the market for SUVs stronger than ever, it seems special taxes could, on the face of it, be the only way of slowing it down. But some experts believe SUVs are merely a fashion trend that will die out in time.

Chief executive of branding agency Corporate Edge, Chris Wood, who has worked with Williams F1, Triumph, Vauxhall and Ford, says 4x4s have become the new GTIs. “Ten years ago, everybody from young executives to mums had to have a GTI and now it’s a 4×4,” he says. “It transcends any kind of common sense but as with any trend it will serve its time and then it will go.”

Wood does not think the current backlash will have a significant effect on sales, but believes advertising campaigns could focus more on the functional benefits the vehicles offer. He thinks reviewing the image of the SUV would be an effective way of countering the criticisms.

“What about changing the label?” asks Wood. “They could be called OVs (omni-vehicles) instead of 4x4s, for example. Because the 4×4 is so established manufacturers could use a different name and move the cars away from previous criticisms.”

If the SUV is just a trend, it has not shown any sign of dying out yet. Land Rover has seen its individual sales figures increase from 44,746 in 2001 to 47,020 last year. Sales are up five per cent again this year and hopes are high for the Discovery 3 – which is already winning rave reviews from car experts – and the new Freelander, due out in 2006.

Land Rover claims as many as two-thirds of its customers use the four-wheel-drive capacity on their vehicles at least once a week. Marketing director Colin Green says: “Sales figures don’t lie. Other manufacturers wouldn’t invest the money if they thought it was a fashion bubble that was going to burst.”

Green says Land Rover would be foolish to ignore data-driven research completely, but adds that the company continues to meet emission and other legislative requirements.

A driving shame

Ford went one step further in 2000 and promised to increase fuel efficiency on its SUVs by 25 per cent by 2005. However, the company admitted last year that it would fail to meet that standard by such a wide margin that this year’s SUVs will be only five per cent more fuel-efficient than when the 25 per cent target was set.

According to France’s Agency for the Environment and Energy Management, the over-sized Mercedes G500 is now top of the “list of shame” for the most environmentally harmful car in Europe; and no fewer than 14 out of the 18 cars on the blacklist are SUVs.

But former commercial director of Toyota GB, Mike Moran, says it is illogical that these vehicles are being singled out for criticism.

“It’s nonsense,” he says. “The argument has been made about the damage they cause in an accident and the fact they drink fuel. On that basis, we should ban all taxis, vans, buses, trucks and any other car with an engine capacity bigger than two litres.”

The RAC Foundation argues that a lot of 4x4s are actually cleaner, greener, smaller, shorter and safer than many standard saloons and people carriers. The group points out that most vehicles sold in the 4×4 sector are diesel variants, which have better fuel consumption and emit less carbon dioxide than petrol models.

RAC executive director Edmund King says the taxation proposals, “are ludicrous. It is not the job of politicians to dictate what vehicles people should drive.”

SMMT head of communications, economics and policy Paul Everitt agrees, adding: “Vehicles and drivers are stereotyped without people really understanding the range of vehicles that make up the segment.”

Most industry figures believe it will be concrete legislation, rather than the growing sense of public outrage, that could halt the march of the SUV. However, the makers of smaller SUVs, like Honda and Toyota, say they are ready to sell two-wheel-drive versions of the same vehicles if restrictions are imposed on 4×4 vehicles.

MG Rover was one of the first companies to produce a two-wheel-drive SUV-style vehicle when it launched the Streetwise last year. A spokesman says sales have been “exceptional” and it has prompted a number of other manufacturers to go down the same road.

Looking ahead

Former MG Rover global sales and marketing director John Sanders says any legislation has to be long term, to give manufacturers, who have spent hundreds of millions of pounds on 4x4s, the chance to adapt.

Nick Matthews, from the Warwick Manufacturing Group, part of the School of Engineering at Warwick University, believes some sensible legislation could be good for the industry. “There definitely will be tougher regulations, but I hope it will be done with a degree of sophistication so that it will be a spur for innovation,” he says.

There is no doubt that SUVs are still the vehicle to be seen in but, essentially, talk of restrictions could be immaterial. After all, the sector, although strong at present, will always be vulnerable because it is built on shifting sands. The fashion trend for SUVs could by its very nature peter out of its own accord.

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