Motoring: Keep on truckin' - the guzzler returns

As one famous American writer might have said about one famous American institution: news of the Yank Tank's death has been greatly exaggerated. Sure, the old 20ft long, two-and-a-half ton V8 sedan - which wallowed its way down freeways while guzzling gas - may be almost dead. But in its stead is a vehicle just as big, just as fuel thirsty and just as popular.

The best selling "car" in America last year (and the year before, and the year before that) wasn't even a car at all. It was a truck: the Ford F150 pick-up. Last year, Ford sold 78,000 in the USA. Ford already sells more light trucks to private buyers than it does cars in America. It reckons that will be true of the total market soon. Already, three of the four best-sellers in America are trucks.

By trucks, the Americans mean pick-ups, off-roaders, and big people carriers - rather than the big artics that clog the M25. They're typically sold to private buyers in place of normal cars. Even the Japanese, who made their name in America selling little fuel-sipping hatches at a time when the oil seemed to be running out, are getting in on the act. Every Japanese maker now sells light trucks too. And they're almost as big, thirsty, and mean as the trucks sold by Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.

The oil clearly isn't about to run out. And, as if to celebrate, the Americans are having one hell of a party until somebody finally tells them to start behaving themselves. With gasoline at $1.30 a gallon (about 90 pence a gallon or about 20p a litre) there isn't much incentive to be good.

Ford's president, Australian-born Jac Nasser, reckons the popularity of the Ford F150 and other pick-ups is due to America's enduring love affair with the horse. "There's something wild and outdoory about the pick-up. They're sporty, fast and expressive. The pick-up is the nearest thing there is to a horse."

I had a brief go in a 5.4-litre V8-powered F150 on a recent trip to America, and there's little doubting the appeal: you sit up high, have a tremendously powerful engine at your disposal, and mix sports car performance with commercial vehicle toughness. And it looks great, too, in a macho American sort of way. Sure, you'll be lucky to do 15mpg, but who cares when a refill costs only about pounds 15?

Common sense, of course, dictates that driving a "car" that has half its length, and sometimes more, devoted to cargo carrying is dumb. The typical pick-up actually has less cabin space than a family car. But it's fast, cheap (a V8 F150 costs only pounds 9,500), solid, and has great youth- cred. American kids no longer hanker after Corvettes or Mustangs or T- birds. They want pick-up trucks. And the brighter the colour, the bigger the wheels and tyres, and the larger the motor, the better. Like jeans, T-shirts, branded trainers and dumb haircuts they've become part of the American way of life.

Personally, I think they're also a reaction against the little Japanese- built - or inspired - hatches that Americans were forced to buy, a decade or so ago, but never liked. The truck is a cheaper, faster, sportier version of the old Yank Tank. But while large sedan sales dipped by a further seven per cent last year, truck sales - especially large off-roaders - were up by 77 per cent.

Many American car makers can't quite believe this popularity, nor can they believe that these mostly crude and technically old-fashioned machines, with their avaricious fuel consumptions have almost single-handedly repelled the threatened Japanese invasion of their market. Most forecast an eventual downturn in their appeal. All it needs is a big hike in the price of fuel and they could be history.

Yet Americans have been expecting a fuel price hike for years. Despite carbon dioxide emission promises, fashionable green politics, Rio summits and a Democratic president, it's never happened. Taxing fuel more is politically unacceptable in America. It constitutes a tax on mobility. Which means folks can keep on buying their trucks and to hell with those little itty- bitty foreign cars.

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