Sean O'Grady: The backlash against the 4x4 starts here

What care you if the high-set bumper of your Chelsea tractor smashes a child's skull?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It's no fun driving in London, let me tell you. Congestion, the congestion charge, forgetting to pay the congestion charge and being fined £50, road rage, two-hour jams caused by Her Majesty the Queen; it's no bowl of cherries getting around the capital. About the only compensation is a chap on BBC Radio London 94.9 (those jingles do work) named John Gaunt, who is on the airwaves in the morning.

It's no fun driving in London, let me tell you. Congestion, the congestion charge, forgetting to pay the congestion charge and being fined £50, road rage, two-hour jams caused by Her Majesty the Queen; it's no bowl of cherries getting around the capital. About the only compensation is a chap on BBC Radio London 94.9 (those jingles do work) named John Gaunt, who is on the airwaves in the morning.

Mr Gaunt is, if you haven't come across him, the nearest thing we have in this country to an American shock jock. Every morning Gaunt hosts a phone-in during which he winds up listeners on a range of topics that he must know will enrage the average Londoner. Crime, particularly paedophiles and examples of over lenient sentencing by the courts; Ken Livingstone; the bid for the Olympic games in 2012 (and who's paying for it); the war in Iraq, that sort of thing. Gaunt has an unerring instinct for the controversial, and so it was no surprise when I tuned in other day and found he'd alighted upon a recent report by the New Economics Foundation. The think tank, with an eye for a headline, has declared that 4x4s should have tobacco-style warnings to remind people about the damage they are doing to the environment by using these wasteful machines in crowded cities. Gaunt's response, predictable enough if you've become as addicted to his show as I have, was that we live in a capitalist democracy and we can spend our dough how we like. There was no shortage of people telling him that no, they weren't envious of someone in a £50,000 Range Rover or £70,000 Porsche Cayenne. Gaunt seemed unmoved. It was at this point that I considered calling "London's liveliest phone-in", as it's billed. Only my natural shyness restrained me.

I'm not sure what makes me more angry; the four-wheel drives themselves or the attitude of people such as "Gaunty", who seem to think that anyone who objects to them is some sort of lentil-chewing, brown-rice eating, tree-hugging swampie. Well I am none of those things and, in the course of my professional duties, have sampled quite a few four-wheel drive cars; the Range Rover, Toyota Land Cruiser, SsyangYong Rexton and Hyundai Terracan come to mind. On the back of this section you'll find a Test of the Volkswagen Touareg because we want to be fair and because we know our readers are interested in these cars. But, my view is that 4x4s are all, to a varying degree, useless in town; far too big on the outside and far too small on the inside.

Be assured. You will find bags more room for you and your family in a Renault Megane Scenic, a Honda Accord Tourer or a Peugeot 407 station wagon, say, than any of those hulking great lumps because off roaders were never designed to be space efficient, and you can tell.

Nor are they terrific handlers. Think for a moment. You're travelling at 70 mph on the M1 and you suddenly have to swerve for some reason. Would you rather have to do that in a Mini Cooper S or in a BMW X5? Or what if you are one of the many motorway drivers who routinely drive 10 or 15 mph more than the limit. If you had to avoid a load falling off a lorry, would you rather be teetering up there in your 4x4 with a centre of gravity about 5ft high or in something responsive? That's always been the point about four-wheel drives. When people who love 'em say they're safe, they mean that they're safe if someone in a smaller car hits them or if they hit something else at least they and their precious cargo of kiddies will be OK. The poor oiks in the old Escort, crushed beneath those oversized alloy wheels don't matter. What care you if the high-set bumper of your Chelsea tractor smashes a child's skull? It wouldn't happen if you drove a Golf, but then you wouldn't be able, literally, to look down on those around you, a genuine psychological effect of being perched on one of those machines, the more expensive the better.

A health warning on four-wheel drives? Certainly; telling the rest of us that those who drive them have got psychiatric problems. Pick up the phone, call Mr Gaunt, call your MP, call your councillor. The fight back starts here.

motoring@independent.co.uk

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