The rise and rise of the 4x4

Love them or loathe them, our obsession with SUVs shows no signs of abating. John Simister charts the reasons behind their huge success
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Indy Lifestyle Online

our-by-fours. Some of us love them, some of us detest them. The lovers perceive them as a fortress for the family, an impregnable transport solution, a fine means of self-assertion in a hostile, status-obsessed world. The detesters view them as the transport of the arrogant, ignorant and taste-starved, as ludicrous wasters of fuel and road space. And for all the counter-arguments put out by the industry, right-thinking people can't help but sympathise with that view.

our-by-fours. Some of us love them, some of us detest them. The lovers perceive them as a fortress for the family, an impregnable transport solution, a fine means of self-assertion in a hostile, status-obsessed world. The detesters view them as the transport of the arrogant, ignorant and taste-starved, as ludicrous wasters of fuel and road space. And for all the counter-arguments put out by the industry, right-thinking people can't help but sympathise with that view.

By right-thinking I don't mean green-tinged leftie killjoys. Those who love cars and driving also feel uneasy about 4x4s, except when used for their proper off-road purpose, for they are an affront to lean, clever engineering, to notions of agility and response, to fitness for on-road purpose.

Figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) show a rise in sales of "dual-purpose vehicles" from 80,427 in 1995 to 179,439 last year, demonstrating how much the buying public has fallen in love with the 4x4 idea, and why the anti-4x4 lobby has so much ammunition.

Before we go further, I should make it clear that we're talking about the tall, Tonka-toy type of 4x4, the sort with its roots in a Land Rover or a Jeep: an off-roader, in fact, or what is called an SUV in the US (sport-utility vehicle). But the distinctions get blurred when you have, say, a Honda CR-V, which has fairly meagre off-road abilities but SUV-flavoured looks, or a Toyota RAV4 base model, which has front-wheel-drive only. If Ken Livingstone ever became truly serious about a 4x4 ban in London, he would have to be very careful about his definitions.

Clearly it's not just the number of driven wheels that are an issue, because who could object to a Quattro-badged Audi, a Volkswagen Golf 4Motion, a Subaru Impreza or even my late father's Mondeo 4x4? The issue is the self-centredness, the climbing up kerbs outside schools, the mindset of 4x4-driver-versus-the-world, especially the plankton in their ordinary crushable cars.

"My wife is pregnant and wants a 4x4," began a question in a motoring problem page I once read. "What would you recommend? Our current car is an Audi A6 quattro Avant." The whole nonsense perfectly encapsulated.

We all know that very few 4x4s venture off-road. Those that are the most capable appeal to buyers for their authenticity and the promise of escape that they offer, but nearly all can cope with wet fields, gravel and snow rather better than regular two-wheel-drive cars. That is one practical justification for owning one, although buying a Hummer to handle half an inch of snow in the Home Counties does seem like overkill. Another valid reason for owning a particularly heavy 4x4 is that you can tow a heavier trailer, such as a horsebox. No objections there.

Otherwise that weight, and the looming bulk that goes with it, is one of the big problems. A new Discovery, for example, weighs nearly three tons, and however much the 4x4 manufacturers talk about their engines' fuel efficiency, the fact is that all this weight needs a lot of fuel to move it.

Much of that weight is of stuff you'll hardly ever need, such as that second axle's drive system, a super-tough chassis, the bigger engine and bigger brakes needed to make the ensemble go and stop. Some of these vehicles should really be paying truck toll-rates to cross the Severn Bridge.

The whole "anti" argument, though, is in danger of becoming too emotionally charged, something that can easily happen when a Range Rover's high-mounted headlights are searing your retinas with xenon-intense blazes as you cower beneath the behemoth in a traffic jam. A 4x4's "roadprint" is typically shorter than that of a car of similar cost, so they don't add to congestion, it just seems that way because of their added bulk. Nor are the best-designed new ones any more hazardous to pedestrians foolish enough to blunder into their paths than many normal cars, especially older ones.

Other safety issues need careful examination. Too many people have been swayed by Newton's laws of motion when they are buying a fat 4x4, reasoning that they'll be less damaged when crashing in a heavy 4x4 than in, say, a supermini. This takes no account of the 4x4's ability to absorb impacts and thus cushion its occupants, or that the rigid separate chassis of many older 4x4s could cause such violent deceleration of the people within that their injuries could be awful. Most modern 4x4s, though, are engineered to crush correctly and now fulfil those previously unmet expectations. But don't buy a 4x4 expecting it to protect you better in a crash, because it probably won't.

Previously, too, 4x4s were more likely to crash in the first place because they were less agile and more likely to fall over. Again, recent models are much better in this respect and are inherently stable, but you still can't expect any 4x4 to avoid an obstacle or flick to another lane as easily and tidily as a lower-built car. It just isn't possible. At least the ability gap has narrowed, though.

All of which means the manufacturers have had to work very hard to make 4x4s do things they don't naturally want to do. Buyers think the laws of physics should be repealed and demand 4x4s that handle like sports cars, so BMW has created the X5, Porsche the Cayenne, Land Rover the new Range Rover Sport. These cars are mutants in the pure line of automotive progress, but they appeal to a car-buying population increasingly insecure about roads, the rage thereon, the world in general. They reflect modern times, especially in cities that are crammed with people who have never been more alone.

So the 4x4 market has diversified massively as ever more people seek a 4x4 to match their needs, desires and fears. There's hardly any point any more in using the need to drive off-road or pull a trailer as a starting point, because it's almost irrelevant now. Few buyers "need" a 4x4, but plenty want one for security (actual or emotional), style, and often simply because they like sitting high and consider an MPV too utilitarian. And 4x4s are also better than the average car at coping with speed bumps, which for some buyers is reason enough. It all adds to the urban-jungle fantasy.

Every motor show has its 4x4 concept cars, all promising the taste of adventure, of self-sufficiency, of coping in the face of adversity. And as some reach production reality, be they rugged, sporty, luxurious, versatile or whatever, they morph off into new directions and cross-pollinate with other automotive strains. We have tall "crossover" estate cars with hints of 4x4, we have MPVs that think they're off-roaders, we even have 4x4-sports car fusions.

The love affair with 4x4s isn't going to go away soon, especially as Americans are even more besotted than Europeans. That happened because successive energy crises brought constraints on US car-makers to improve their cars' average fuel consumption, taken across the range, which killed off the stereotypical US gas-guzzler. Those rules haven't yet applied to trucks, though, and in the US scheme of automotive classification 4x4s are lumped together with pick-ups. Also, recent sales have slipped slightly, so American buyers turned to 4x4s to fulfil their right to profligacy, and what is fashionable in US culture does have a habit of imprinting itself on Europe. Now Europeans are addicted to these bulky, assertive cars too, and until the world becomes a gentler place it's going to be a hard habit to kick.

Three faces of 4x4

KIA SPORTAGE

Kia is reinventing itself with some competent and credible new products. The new Sportage shares the underpinnings of the recent Hyundai Tucson (Kia is owned by Hyundai), but clothes them in better-looking body. The transmission, normally front-wheel drive, sends power to the rear as required. This, plus tough suspension and a good ground clearance, makes the Sportage a capable off-roader. On-road it is smooth, and starting at £14,495 it is probably the best-value SUV available today. It's also fairly economical: the acceptable face of 4x4.

NISSAN MURANO

The Murano looks like a fugitive from a sci-fi film. It's a 4x4, but flaunts its big wheels and notional off-road ability as a teenager might the latest Nikes. Inside, the dashboard is crisp and cool and it has a terrific sound system. Outside, the leering chrome grille avoids the arrogance of its square-cut rivals, and at the back is a little camera that projects a view of what's behind on to the sat-nav screen. If we have to have 4x4s, the Murano is the car to convert the unconverted. No 4x4 displays more creativity or better transcends truckness. Yours for £29,800.

RANGE ROVER

The original Range Rover was the car that lifted 4x4s beyond the utilitarian, combining enormous off-road ability with a degree of refinement previously unknown in the genre. Today's third-generation version is bigger and heavier, but fulfils the same role albeit at a massively higher price point. They are now fitted with Jaguar engines instead of BMW, but there's still a hefty price to pay at the pump. The 4.2-litre supercharged version, with 400bhp, is especially thirsty but very quick. This grandaddy of SUVs is the most extravagant that Europe can offer. As a feat of engineering it's remarkable, but does the world need it? Judging by the number on London's streets, it does.

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