Christopher Macgowan: Don't believe the anti-car lobby's propaganda

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Drivers like 4x4s. The last 10 years have seen the annual market double to around 180,000 units.

Drivers like 4x4s. The last 10 years have seen the annual market double to around 180,000 units. By comparison, there are 840,000 Fiesta- and Corsa-sized super-minis sold each year, so the 4x4 segment is still relatively small, but it is growing. Manufacturers are meeting demand but the anti-car lobby has chosen to attack this group of consumers.

Their cars are no more than status symbols, say 4x4 haters. Driven by housewives in central London, they exist solely to clog up roads on the school run, pollute the atmosphere and injure vulnerable road users. Ban them. In fact, most 4x4 buyers are perfectly reasonable and responsible road users just getting on with their lives.

There are many reasons why consumers choose 4x4 models. Once you strip away the emotion and the stereotyping, you reveal just another type of car which more and more people want to own. Some are taller than standard saloons, but many are shorter. Some emit less carbon dioxide and some more than other models. And in crash tests, there is variation between models. It is a pattern reflected across the whole car market.

I read a report recently that suggested one in five new cars sold in London is a 4x4. Nonsense. The figure is around one in 14 and is consistent with the national average. While in some of our cities protesters harass drivers with false parking tickets and fancy-dress protests, in many parts of the country a 4x4 capability can be just plain useful.

Some choose a 4x4 because it is used for commercial purposes in an off-road environment. For others, these models simply best suit the needs of increasingly active 21st century family lifestyles, or offer increased carrying capacity for a large family. Indeed, Volvo customer researchers say the number one reason for buying its popular XC90 model is the seven-seat configuration. Mountain biking, towing a boat or hauling skis to the slopes of Aviemore are just a few of the myriad leisure pursuits the modern multi-purpose 4x4 takes in its stride. Of course, it's true that for some drivers a taller car makes them feel safer, but I can't see the problem with this. A command driving position brings even better visibility.

On the important question of 4x4 safety, the markets here and in the US differ dramatically. But I've lost count of the number of times I've seen quotes citing US 4x4 research from 1998 instantly transposed to the UK, claiming that all 4x4s are inherently unsafe and dozens of times more likely to kill occupants, pedestrians and other road users. Models sold in the US tend to be truck-based vehicles and are far bigger than those sold in the UK, and the driving and highway characteristics prevailing in the US are quite different from those we experience in Europe.

The new generation of 4x4s destined for European markets is safer than ever. Occupant protection continues to improve in leaps and bounds. The goal for manufacturers of all types of vehicle is to improve front-end design, so that the protection offered to pedestrians more closely mirrors the excellent performance for occupants in Euro New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP) safety tests. But there are already shining lights in the 4x4 segment. The British-built Honda CR-V is just one of a handful of models to gain three stars in NCAP pedestrian protection tests and is testament to the fact that safer design and 4x4 are not mutually incompatible concepts. Far from it.

Informed debate is welcomed by the industry, but consumer choice remains the key. There are already penalties for drivers of larger vehicles, whether it's a larger 4x4, an executive saloon or sports car. Road tax, company car tax and fuel tax already penalise those who make the choice to buy large.

The stereotypes may suggest that all 4x4s are bulky, polluting and unsafe, but these sorts of sweeping generalisations rarely stand up to scrutiny.

The writer is chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders

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