From Hollywood to Hampstead, campaigners are uniting with one aim: to drive urban 4x4s off our streets. Jonathan Margolis meets the plotters against the axles of evil, then views the issue from the other side - behind the wheel of the very latest 'Chelsea tractor'

Such is the hatred across Britain for the urban and suburban four-wheel drive that it would be easy to imagine the political parties including anti-4x4 measures in their manifestos. So-called "Chelsea tractors", loved by townies with no hill to climb steeper than a speed hump, have already prompted the Lib Dems' environment spokesman, Norman Baker, to give sympathetic soundbites to the amazingly successful ad hoc pressure group Alliance Against Urban 4x4s. "They intimidate other road users and pedestrians; and are actually less safe for the 4x4 drivers themselves," insists Baker.

The Alliance's spokeperson is Sian Berry, a Camden Green Party activist. She seems almost shocked by the impact her smooth, unusually literate website and articulate advocacy have had on promoting the 4x4's terrible reputation.

"I think it's worked so well," she says, "because we didn't go out and invent the cause. It's something everyone has noticed for themselves, that there are more and more of them on the road. I spotted this a year ago waiting for the bus and seeing Range Rover after Range Rover going by." Her campaign has carefully avoided targeting 4x4 drivers who clearly need their vehicle for work; cars with bulky tools on board are left alone. Berry also painstakingly ensures that the campaign is not used as a sounding board for non-specific anti-Americanism.

The Alliance's current tactic, which has already targeted Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham and London, is copied from New York's anti-SUV [sports utility vehicle] campaign of two years ago. Demonstrators stick mock parking tickets on the windscreens of urban 4x4s, telling owners they are guilty of a "poor vehicle choice".

"People already wanted to do something about it and are pleased to have this peaceful outlet - putting our parking tickets on them - for their feelings," says Berry.

Although peaceful isn't perhaps the best word to describe the Alliance's January blitz in well-to-do Hampstead. Protestors, one dressed as a lollipop man, confronted 4x4 mums on the school run and accused them of using their vehicles like "giant environmentally damaging prams". The mothers gave as good as they got.

Yet the Alliance's antics have attracted uncritical coverage in many local newspapers and on television news programmes. Perhaps because among the bright, non-car-owning young graduate journalists who produce them, it is a given that 4x4 cars heat up the planet, crush pedestrians and cyclists and are prone to rolling over and killing even their own rich, selfish, polluting owners, as if anyone cares.

But it is not just environmental campaigners and young, instinctively anti-car urbanites who are incensed by the growing numbers of 4x4s. Other urban car owners are irritated by the way they block the view of oncoming traffic to drivers of normal saloon cars and by that certain smug, above-it-all expression common to their drivers as they lord it several feet north of normal people in traffic jams.

And while the controversial Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson has no sympathy with the anti-4x4 lobby (he suggests that the Alliance's organisers should "get a job"), even he can't * stop himself taking a swipe at 4x4 owners. "I do have to say that the drivers of these things in cities must be clinically insane," he says.

Taki, the Spectator's egregious Highlife correspondent, has complained about them, arguing that any townie who buys a 4x4, "Either has a very small willie or very big tits."

That urban 4x4 owners are mad may be the one thing in the world agreed on by Clarkson, Taki and Ken Livingstone. The London Mayor has famously said of the 4x4, "When you see someone trying to manoeuvre it round the school gates, you have to think, you are a complete idiot." A view backed up by a New York Times report which revealed that every week in the US somebody backs over, and kills, one of their children because of the poor design of many of these vehicles.

Even in car-mad Italy, anti 4x4 campaigns are hitting the same chord as in Britain. In Rome, the city government proposes charging owners of gipponi, ("big Jeeps"), triple the standard rate for city-centre permits. Florence banned entry to non-resident owners of the cars from 1 January this year. Paris and Stockholm are considering similar plans. Canada announced moves last week against the urban 4x4, while former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating has discussed "taxing SUVs off the roads".

In the US, where a quarter of last year's 16.9 million new car registrations were for SUVs, the first supporters of the anti campaign were churches. In 2001, Rev Dan Smith of Hancock United Church of Christ near Boston said, "SUVs are not in keeping with God's teachings". He asked worshippers to consider what Jesus would drive. The answer? A small Honda or Nissan might be suitably humble.

Hollywood stars have taken up the cry. Tom Hanks and Harrison Ford have denounced 4x4s as dangerous and bad for the environment.

Now comes support for the 4x4 opposition from a new and unlikely source. Leading neoconservatives who backed the invasion of Iraq are going green. The reason? They want to stem the flow of US dollars to oil-rich Islamic theocracies, Saudi Arabia in particular.

According to official figures, the brand new £62,000 Range Rover V8 Vogue is one of the fuel-thirstiest and most carbon-dioxide-fecund 4x4s on the road. Last week, I borrowed one.

First reactions to me and my new car were not good. "There should be a £750 a day congestion charge for these bloody things," grumbled my lunch guest as he scaled the vehicle's 6ft 4in north face to get up into the passenger seat. He was only partially impressed by its creamy leather interior, scorching performance, amazing on-board gadgetry and smooth, whisper-quiet ride: "What is it they say? Sixty mechanics to build 'em and one idiot to drive 'em?"

The Vogue is, however, wonderful to drive. That giant engine sounds like no more than a gentle, distant wind, the steering is fabulously light. It even has radar all round so, even if you find navigating it through crowded city streets intimidating, it's hard to hit anything or anyone, because alarms sound when you get within a few feet of an obstacle. When you're inside the Vogue, the outside world seems a more distant and less threatening place.

Assuming that its 13mpg performance and £80 per fill-up habit don't disturb you too much (the diesel Range Rover is less profligate), driving the Vogue in town is pleasant and calming. I understand now why middle-class school-run mums love them so much.

Yet despite the anger these beasts obviously cause, I have to report that nobody stuck a mock parking ticket on it or vandalised it as part of their homework assignment. No one, so far as I could see, even gave me a funny look. Traffic wardens didn't persecute me. Cyclists didn't shout - at least not so I could hear.

It wasn't overt antagonism which made driving the Range Rover in London awkward, but a feeling of foolishness. There was, for instance, an amusing bit of tractor-on-tractor action on day one. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a large vehicle to enter my narrow street, lined as it is on both sides by walls of automotive steel. And, of course, I had to come head to head with another 4x4, a Jeep Cherokee.

We both smiled apologetically. We both began reversing, like repelling magnets. But then Jeep lady motioned to suggest, "After you, for I am an even bigger fool than you with your equally enormous, polluting and inappropriate car," and I slid by with my proximity radar alarms bleeping furiously. Between us, we had enough raw power and traction to drive a container load of aid to Darfur, but it took us two minutes to negotiate a suburban street.

For twerps with Range Rovers, there is a parallel 4x4 world. From perches above the hoi polloi, you acknowledge one another fleetingly, sheepishly. You smile at van drivers at your level altitude-wise, if not socially. Out of embarrassment, you try not to make eye contact with bus passengers who are also up there with you.

And you draw comfort from your fellow 4x4 drivers. On my own in traffic, I felt like an idiot, albeit a safe idiot. But when I passed another 4x4, especially another bearing the modern-day urban Marque of Cain - Land Rover - on the bonnet I felt as I imagine a very fat man feels when he spots someone equally obese.

In certain spots bristling with tractors - particularly in the car park of the preposterously upmarket Kensington Tesco - I felt less like a greedy fattie who spots a solitary compatriot and more like just another 24-stoner in one of those towns in the American Midwest full of identical blubber people. It was only when I reverted to my regular Mondeo that the obese 4x4 world seemed gross again.

The funniest thing in the urban 4x4 world is the existence of off-road trails outside London where for £7.50, the guilty or unfulfilled 4x4 driver can take to miles of impassable mud tracks. It appears that giving urban 4x4 owners somewhere to suffer the same inconvenience at weekends as hill farmers do on a daily basis is a sound commercial proposition.

Mark Foster is the newly anointed manager of corporate communications at Land Rover (or "head of blame" as he announces when we talk). While explaining that the company doesn't plan to engage in the debate on 4x4s, he is nevertheless well armed with statistics which seem partly to douse the Alliance's activist flame.

SUVs are not all gas-guzzling monsters, Foster argues. Ninety seven per cent of Land Rovers sold in the UK, he claims, are diesels which do 30mpg and more. Road Transport Laboratory figures last year showed that pedestrians hit by a 4x4 are less likely to be hurt than when they collide with a normal car. And one of the Alliance's most alarming figures, Foster maintains - that 35 per cent of fatal crashes involve a 4x4 - is based on old US figures which, crucially, also include pick-up trucks.

While Foster cannot easily rebut Berry's claim that 95 per cent of Land Rovers are never used off road, he insists that significantly more of the company's vehicles are used in the country as opposed to the town. He also points to DVLA figures showing that the percentage of 4x4s registered to London addresses is just 3.6.

So for now, in perfect urban 4x4 fashion, both sides are left trying to navigate their way around the conflicting facts. Each hoping to run the other off the road.

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