Ken Livingstone derided them as cars for 'complete idiots'. Now the British love affair with the 4x4 shows signs of waning

Chelsea tractors may finally be running out of road. Sales of four-wheel drives - adored by their owners and loathed by almost everyone else - are likely to decline in Britain this year for the first time.

Chelsea tractors may finally be running out of road. Sales of four-wheel drives - adored by their owners and loathed by almost everyone else - are likely to decline in Britain this year for the first time.

They have already crashed in the United States, which pioneered the fashion for the environmentally destructive, celebrity-endorsed SUVs, with two of the world's largest car-makers in acute financial crisis. With rising oil prices and increasing restrictions on them on both sides of the Atlantic, their future is even more imperilled.

After British sales of 4x4s doubled in the past decade, to just under 180,000 vehicles in 2004, they have started to fall. In the first three months of this year, their share of the car market dropped, and the market as a whole is expected to shrink in 2005.

Analysts believe that this may be the first sign that Britain is now following the US in rejecting them.

Last week, Ford and General Motors - two of America's industrial icons - had their bonds officially rated as "junk", mainly as a result of slumping demand for SUVs. Last month, GM revealed a $1.1bn loss for the first quarter of the year.

US sales of the biggest SUVs plunged by a fifth over that period, with the Ford Explorer and Chevy TrailBlazer 4x4s losing a quarter of their sales.

Meanwhile, environmentally friendly hybrid cars have boomed, with twice as many Toyota Priuses - the market leader - accelerating out of the showrooms.

US dealers are unsuccessfully offering $5,000 rebates on SUVs, but are able to mark up Prius prices by the same amount and still close the sale.

The sudden green revolution is being driven by the rising price of petrol in the US. At just over $2 a gallon, it still seems ridiculously cheap by European standards, but an increase of just over 20 per cent over the past year has hit the America psyche in its most sensitive spot. Even right-wing hawks have turned into conservationists, telling polls that buying a fuel-efficient vehicle is a "patriotic act".

The news from across the Atlantic will delight the growing opposition in Britain to the vehicles that Andrew Simms, policy director of the New Economics Foundation think-tank, has dubbed "Satan's little runabouts".

Old Nick has not, as far as we know, yet been spotted at the wheel of one, but for a time it seemed as if almost every other household name had. Famous aficionados include the Queen, Ali G, Sean Connery and Coleen McLoughlin.

As the backlash grew, the UK-based Alliance Against Urban 4x4s - which aims to make them "as socially unacceptable as drink-driving" - began attaching fake parking tickets to celebrities' SUVs: David and Victoria Beckham, it says, are its "ultimate targets". The London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, describes 4x4 owners in the city as "complete idiots".

Kevin Clinton, the head of road safety at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, says that the giant vehicles - 95 per cent of which are only ever driven off-road when they mount pavements - are "not suitable for the school run", echoing the sentiments of many thousands of motorists trying to negotiate clogged streets at drop-off and pick-up times.

Professor David Begg, chair of the Commission for Integrated Transport, calls driving them in towns and cities "irresponsible", adding that they "emit four times more carbon dioxide than smaller cars" and accelerate global warming. They also produce much more of the air pollution that gives rise to asthma and other diseases.

Insurance industry figures show that they are 25 per cent more likely to be involved in an accident than saloon cars, and do much more damage when they are. US research suggests that pedestrians are twice as likely to be killed by a 4x4 than by a saloon car travelling at the same speed, while another driver hit by one from the side is four times more likely to die.

And every week on average, US parents back into and kill one of their own children, as they cannot see them behind the vast vehicle.

Even the sense of safety sought by SUV drivers is illusory. Their height makes them harder to manoeuvre and four times more likely to roll over in an accident.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders retorts that British 4x4s are much smaller than American ones and that their safety is increasing and pollution falling. It points out that most British ones run on diesel, which produces much less carbon dioxide than petrol does. But it also emits more of the tiny particulates estimated to kill 30,000 Britons a year.

Troubles for SUVs seem bound to increase. But some relief is in sight: manufacturers are now rushing to use the Prius's cleaner hybrid technology in SUVs. The first goes on sale here next month.

1. Hummer H2 Price: £55,000 Size: 7ft wide, 15ft long Weight: 4.3 tons Fuel Consumption: 9.6mpg 0-60: 11 seconds Top Speed: 110mph Who drives them: David Beckham, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kieron Dyer, Chris Eubank What they say: "An incredibly precise and forceful machine" - Schwarzenegger. "Humongous" - Kieron Dyer Air pollution: 10/10

2. Cadillac Escalade 4x4 Price: £53,000 Size: 6.5ft wide, 17ft long. Weight: 3 tons Fuel Consumption: 15mpg 0-60:7 seconds Top Speed:130mph Who drives them: Wayne Rooney, Robbie Williams, Thierry Henry, Justin Timberlake What they say: "Jesus, that was lucky" - Wayne Rooney staggering uninjured from his Escalade after an encounter with a 23-ton truck Air pollution: 7/10

3. BMW X5 SUV Price: £48,000 Size: 6ft wide, 15ft long. Weight: 2.5 tons Fuel Consumption: 15mpg 0-60:8 seconds. Top Speed:120mph Who drives them: Ozzy Osbourne, Coleen McLoughlin, Leslie Ash, Andy McNab What they say: "One of the most monumentally stupid cars ever to turn a wheel because it doesn't work off-road" - Jeremy Clarkson Air pollution: 9/10

4. Land Rover Discovery TDV6 S Price: £39,000 Size: 6ft wide, 16ft long. Weight: 2.3 tons Fuel Consumption: 30mpg (diesel) 0-60:11 seconds Top Speed:112mph Who drives them: The Queen, Sean Connery, Fidel Castro, Janet Jackson What they say: "On the way to work, it's an executive saloon. Come the weekend, it's a hard-as-nails 4x4" - 'What Car?' magazine on naming the Discovery 'Car of the Year' Air pollution: 4/10

5. Lincoln Navigator Price: £50,000 Size: 7ft wide, 17ft long. Weight: 3 tons Fuel Consumption: 13mpg 0-60:8 seconds Top Speed:110mph Who drives them: Ali G, Audley Harrison, Sean Combs (Puff Daddy), Dwight Yorke, O J Simpson What they say: "In our big country we're in a big hurry. When we drive an immense Lincoln Navigator we get to where we're going sooner, or at least part of our car does" - P J O'Rourke Air pollution: 7/10

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