Alexei Sayle: You heard it from me first

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Indy Lifestyle Online

I know I have a tendency to claim to have invented things. And not just stand-up comedy things, either, but also the hovercraft, the hydraulic sleeve valve and determinism. But I'm certain that it really was me who came up with the line, "you really need a 4WD to go down to Sainsbury's". Satirising, as it does, the use of 4WDs solely in an urban environment, it is a line that other people are still using to this day.

I started to perform it in my stand-up act around 1978, and I defy anyone to come up with an example of its use before then. The line came to me because I began to see lots of Suzuki SJ Jeeps in the gentrified roads around Fulham, where I lived, and they clearly never went anywhere near mud. Audience response to the line told me that I was on to something but, after a while, I got bored and stopped doing it, thinking the idea was played out, and yet, over two decades later, others are still dragging it out.

Since then, I've been ambiguous about the whole hatred of 4x4s, SUVs, whatever you want to call them. It's certainly true that they are more lethal to pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers than conventional cars, and perhaps they should be banned on those grounds alone, but environmentally, if we're honest, it is our entire consumerist way of life that threatens the ecosystem, and 4WDs are only a tiny part of that.

What I think a lot of people really hate about SUVs is not the cars themselves but the people who drive them. In their lofty, faux-military vehicles, they seem to exude a contemptuous disdain for the rest of humanity and the planet on which we dwell.

The Lexus RX 400h attempts to address this image problem by connecting the normal 3.3 litre petrol engine to two electric motors and a big battery, which switch between each other in exactly the same way as in its smaller hybrid relative, the Toyota Prius.

However, unlike the Prius, which is a specific model and conspicuously lets everybody know that you are warm, caring, environmentally aware person, the RX 400h only has that tiny little "h" to tell the outside world that you are not Jordan. The model that was lent to me looked particularly gangsta-ish in dark grey with blacked-out rear windows, sort of part-50 Cent, part-50 per cent fairtrade, undyed linen blouson.

To test the extremes of the Lexus's character, I decided to drive it to a revival of a Simon Gray play in Milton Keynes while on the way to do a bit of off-roading on some green lanes in Northamptonshire, near where I used to live. In town, especially using electric power, the car was very smooth, if a little heavy, noticeably thumping over speed bumps until I became used to its characteristics.

However, on the open road, particularly the motorway, I constantly found my speed slipping below the limit. Somehow, there was never the urge to press on that I recall experiencing at the wheel of the bigger-engined Range Rover.

Reaching the muddy green lane, I confidently swung the wheel and headed into a dank tunnel beneath dripping trees. A few hundred yards along, however, I suddenly got the fear. I realised that I had no idea of the Lexus's abilities, and the waterlogged ruts were deeper than I'd imagined. I had an image of getting stuck, and then, as darkness fell, having to find a local farmer and saying, "Excuse me, can you pull my 4x4 out of the woods with your tractor?" I'm terribly late for Otherwise Engaged, and the actress I'm with won't get out of the car because she doesn't want to get her Prada boots muddy."

This is where the Lexus endeared itself. With only road-biased tyres and a road-biased idiot at the wheel, the enormous torque of the electric motors, with less fuss than I remember from my old V8 Land-Rover, silently pulled the big car out of every slippery hole that I managed to steer it into.

Using the reversing camera, I off-roaded backwards until there was a space big enough to turn around and head towards Tarmac, gratefully driving away from nature with that feeling that all 4x4 owners are endlessly searching for - that I'd just successfully wrestled a bear.

motoring@independent.co.uk

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