Motoring: The pick-up - or how to be a cowboy in Clapham

Pick-up sales are booming but unlikely to overtake 4x4s - we fancy ourselves as squires, not cowboys
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The Independent Culture
WHETHER IT'S fast food, motoring or bombing Iraq, Britain has a habit of following America. A few years after Henry Ford put America on wheels, Herbert Austin copied a trick or two in order to help motorise the UK.

Four-wheel drives are now the big thing in America, and have been for some time. And now, surprise, surprise, the segment of the market accelerating fastest here, and in Europe, is 4x4s, too.

There are, of course, some things that are peculiarly and uniquely American, such as pastrami-on-rye sandwiches, baseball and Yank Tank cars. Do pick- up trucks fall into the same category? Or, like T-shirts, Disney stores and 4x4s, is this yet another Americanism bound to dilute our quaint cultural purity? The Yanks love 'em. So much so that the best selling vehicle in America this year - as with last year and the year before that - is the Ford F-series pick-up.

The Ford boss, Jac Nasser, once told me that the Yanks like pick-ups because basically, they are the modern equivalent of the horse. "There is a bit of the Wild West in every American," said Nasser. "And there is something very cowboy-like about the pick-up truck."

Pick-up sales are booming in the UK - they're up 46 per cent on last year, albeit from a very modest base. And the best challenger, Mitsubishi's L200 pick-up, has only just hit Britain's fens, moors, motorways and high streets - at surprisingly low prices.

Before dismissing the pick-up as just another daft, eccentric Americanism, it's worth examining these over-sized Tonka Toys. Most of us may lead sober, sensible lives, but clearly when we visit our local car dealers we become more Indiana Jones-like.

"If everyone bought cars purely on sensible grounds, we'd all be driving Ford Fiestas," the ex-boss of Aston Martin, Victor Gauntlett, once told me. "Thank God, when it comes to cars, most of us show pleasing signs of insanity."

What could be crazier than buying vast 4x4s, with all that expensive off-road hardware and truck-like diesel or V8 engines, and then simply using them around town? It's crazy, but true. They don't even have any more carrying space, either for people or luggage, than a normal car.

The Mitsubishi L200 has all the advantages of a typical 4x4 - high driving position, Action Man styling, go-anywhere capability. There is nothing a new Land Rover Discovery (pounds 25,520) can do that an L200 Double Cab "4 Life" (pounds 19,195) can't. To boot, the L200 has the carrying capacity of, well, a pick-up. This adds to its "lifestyle" capability, to borrow one of the key phrases of the 4x4 propagandists.

The cargo area is big enough to put four mountain bikes, or a couple of jet skis, or there is even enough space for snow-skiing equipment for a party of five. It's just as ideal for a major shopping expedition to Ikea or the local Homebase.

This is particularly useful in DIY-mad Britain. It's also great for horsey activities, another British eccentricity. A cargo bed cover is available to keep out fast-fingered felons.

On the road, the L200 is surprisingly refined. It is quieter and smoother than the latest, much-improved Discovery, and feels less truck-like to drive. It is also likely to be more reliable. The rear bench provides comfortable transport for three adults, helped by the vehicle's substantial width.

So is this the "Next Big Thing" in Britain? Probably not. Unlike the Yanks, we do not harbour a secret desire to be cowboys. (Instead, we fantasise about being country squires, which is why the Range Rover is so popular.) But if there was any sense in the car market - and there is not - more people would buy an L200 than any other large off-roader.