If the four-wheel drive car fits...

When you are 6ft 4in tall, only a gas-guzzling 4x4 will do, insists Christopher Hirst
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Indy Lifestyle Online

"I wouldn't have got in if I'd known. I never will again," announced my high-principled, if ungrateful, friend Paul after I'd given him a lift. His view was echoed a couple of weeks later by Bridget, a young American, when she reluctantly clambered into my car: "Why have you got one of these? It's exactly the sort of thing I wanted to get away from." The problem, as you may have guessed, is that I own an SUV, the new pariah of the Queen's highway.

I didn't set out to buy an SUV when my last car came apart at the seams. I was indifferent to a vehicle that promised off-road adventure. Likewise, I was uncaring about how fast it managed 0-50. Its outward appearance was of little consequence. Same went for the interior and the fittings. I was even fairly negligent about its mpg. All I really cared about was if the car fitted. Or, rather, if I fitted into the car. The reason is that I'm 6ft 4in in my stocking feet. My previous car was a hearse-like affair called a Nissan Prairie. Despite its name, redolent of the wide-open spaces, it was a conventional two-wheel drive - just one with an unusually high roof line. By adjusting the rake of the steering wheel to its highest point and pushing the driving seat back to its utmost limit, I was able to fit in. I bought two of these spacious if inelegant vehicles and would have bought a third if Nissan hadn't ceased production.

When the time came to get a replacement, I found myself trying on car after car for size. I had high hopes of the Subaru Forester, but it was hopeless. Same applied to the Honda CR-V. I could just about squeeze into the seat, but found my head pressed hard against the roof. The Mercedes 320 belied its bulk when I climbed inside, like the Tardis in reverse. The Range Rover Vogue proved to be equally cramped, which was just as well since it exceeded my budget several times over. The Jeep Cherokee was just as bad. It looks big on the road, but this is mainly due to the high road clearance. When you climb in, the interior turns out to be surprisingly poky.

I had better luck with its larger sibling, the Grand Cherokee. Once I'd mastered the electrically powered leather seat, there was loads of leg room. My wife was equally impressed by the light that illuminated the vanity mirror. We came so near to buying one that we even gave it a nickname: BMF (the first two letters stand for "Big Mother"). Then, someone spotted us reading the brochure in a pub. "I had one of those," he said. "Nice motor. Shame they're so thirsty." "What?" "Yeah. The four-wheel drive is constantly engaged. They're made for American petrol that costs next to nothing. Had to get rid of mine." "Oh," I said, suddenly becoming much more interested in mpg.

We returned to the hunt. I found that I fitted into the Renault Espace, but two sun roofs seemed to be one too many. Much to my surprise, I fitted into the compact Mercedes A Class, though I didn't fancy doing 250 miles up the A1 in such a tiddler. In the end, I returned to Nissan. Why a car designed by Japanese should offer such generous leg room is a mystery, but the Nissan Terrano is fairly spacious even in the short-body version I bought. Though generally rubbished in comparative assessments of 4x4s, the Terrano is not entirely without merit. My version occupies the same road space as a standard saloon. Its fuel consumption seems very similar to my old Prairie.

Yet I stand condemned as a petrol-guzzling, 4x4 road-hog. An internal market research report for the American motor industry reported: "SUVs tend to be bought by people who are insecure, vain, self-centred and self-absorbed, who are frequently nervous about their marriages, and who lack confidence in their driving skills." It did not, as far as I know, include the possibility that these scorned vehicles may also be bought by people who fail to fit into conventionally sized cars.

Ironically, the four-wheel drive is one of the weak spots of the Terrano. When it's engaged, manoeuvring at low speed is a bit weird, as if each wheel wants to go in a different direction. I use this expensive extra once a year, when we spend Christmas in rural Yorkshire. Admittedly, most folk who live in this isolated neck of the woods somehow manage without a 4x4, but the additional traction can be a boon - like the time last year, when I found myself skidding into an oncoming car while taking a bend on a steep, icy road. Unfortunately, on that occasion I'd forgotten to engage the four-wheel drive.

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