Honda sticks it to Livingstone in battle for 4×4 survival

If Ken Livingstone’s punch-up with the car industry was a boxing match, it would have been stopped long ago. London’s mayor delivered a low blow when he introduced the congestion charge in 2003, but he has not let up and is continuing his assault with proposals to charge 4×4 owners £25 a day to drive their vehicles in central London.

This has forced the industry to fight back. Honda is sending out window stickers bearing the message “Not all 4x4s are the same” to 14,000 owners of its CR-V model. This is intended to help them combat the claims of the anti-4×4 lobby (MW last week). The company asserts that the CR-V’s exhaust emissions are lower than some large estate cars, hatchbacks, MPVs and even the Mini Cooper S. It also points out that the CR-V is more compact than the Ford Mondeo and the BMW 5-series, and is in the top 10% of all “pedestrian-friendly” cars on the road.

Honda’s campaign comes amid predictions that Livingstone’s congestion charge hike could signal the end of the road for 4x4s. If the scheme helps cut both congestion and greenhouse gas emissions in London, it is likely to be adopted by local authorities across the country, and Charles Tennant, associate professor at Warwick Manufacturing Group, says it is a “disturbing situation” for manufacturers.

“It’s not just about people in cities not buying them,” he adds. “The ripple effect should be of particular concern. People might think twice before buying one of these vehicles because of the negative perceptions around them.” The new charge would come into effect in 2009 or 2010, subject to consultation, although Livingstone wants it brought in earlier. It would hit owners of vehicles in excise band G which have CO2 emissions of more than 225g per kilometre. But as well as so-called “gas-guzzling” 4x4s, cars like the more powerful versions of the Mondeo, the Vauxhall Vectra and some people carriers would also be affected.

No more discounts
The 90% residents’ discount for drivers who live inside the zone would be abolished under the mayor’s plans, which would be a particular blow as the charge zone is being extended from the City and Westminster to Kensington and Chelsea next February.

But the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) believes Livingstone has gone too far. “Carbon emissions have come down more in the 4×4 sector than any other sector, so progress is being made,” says an SMMT spokesman. “It isn’t right, it isn’t fair and it isn’t what the mayor was elected for.” One in five vehicles on the road falls into band G, and drivers have not yet shown any sign of abandoning 4x4s. Sales have increased for ten consecutive years in the UK, according to the SMMT, with 187,392 sold in 2005, as more marques launch into the sector.

But growing public concern over global warming is forcing manufacturers to act. Ford announced it was investing £1bn in the development of greener cars in July, and Land Rover has introduced a carbon dioxide offset programme which gives customers the chance to pay to offset CO2 emissions.

First of many
That is surely a sign of things to come. Manufacturers will have to display strong environmental credentials to ensure the credibility of their brands. Marketing departments will play an integral part in this. Honda may be the first car company to come out fighting, but it certainly will not be the last.

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