Hamish McRae: Doom time for the SUV

Bill Ford has called for higher fuel taxes, a sacrilege in the US
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Indy Lifestyle Online

For those of us who feel that a Range Rover is over-engineered for the school run there is good news. So, too, does William Clay Ford Jr. If he is right, at last the Sports Utility Vehicle tide may be about to turn and people will return to driving real (and more efficient) cars rather than specialised (and less efficient) lorries.

In the US, only 40 per cent of the car market is actually cars; the rest is SUVs and light trucks. Bill Ford reckons that the proportion will shift back towards 80 per cent, as it was in 1980. His argument is that higher fuel prices (which he is calling for) and trends will push people to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

The fuel consumption of the US car fleet is now at the lowest since 1980. Instead of increasing fuel tax, manufacturers were required to cut the fuel consumption of their car fleets. But SUVs and trucks are exempt and are less efficient than cars even of the same size and weight because of wind resistance, chunky tyres and the mechanical complication of four-wheel drive. The result: an environmental catastrophe.

In Europe, we have not made the switch to quite the same extent. Using a light truck as a car remains a US redneck delight, though there seem to be quite a few here now, especially in Essex. And the market for SUVs is constrained by the slight sense of embarrassment (though perhaps not enough) that many feel when driving one. Trucks and SUVs are also surprisingly uncomfortable over speed-bumps, since their suspension has to be a compromise between on-road comfort and off-road capability.

And that is the core of the argument against the SUV. All engineering has to be a compromise. Pretty cars don't have as much room inside as ugly ones. Make a car lighter and you reduce fuel consumption but then it is very hard to give it a decent ride or make it acceptably safe. Build it higher to create more room and you lose road-holding ability.

Anyone who has done a long journey in a people carrier will testify to the fact that it is less comfortable than a well-designed proper car. It is also less fun to drive -- and that will be the really big challenge facing the manufacturers over the next 10 years, as Bill Ford recognises.

The only safe assumption is that fuel will become more expensive. It is not just a question of oil becoming scarcer; society will become more concerned. Bill Ford called for higher fuel taxes, sacrilege in the US, on the grounds that customers' decisions should be aligned to society's goals. The company is launching three new hybrids, as well as a string of new regular cars.

My guess is that the big prizes for the US car companies will be to combine reasonable fuel efficiency with pleasure to drive. This is not just a matter of ergonomics and comfort. It is the whole package. In the US the way to get people out of trucks and SUVs is to make better cars again.

And in Europe? Many years ago I found myself in Tokyo chatting to Nissan's head of car design. What, I asked, would be the biggest trend in the next few years? He replied that it was to make a car in which people could feel relaxed in traffic jams.

Given the gross under-investment in roads in Britain, that mantra would be a good guide here. A car in which you could be happy in a jam, yet was fun to drive and fuel-efficient. Add the ability to glide over speed bumps, and the SUVs would be retired to the farmyards, where they ought to be.

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