Throwing mud at the monsters of the road

City 4x4 drivers are 'complete idiots', according to Ken Livingstone. So we asked a school-run mum and a farmer to swap vehicles for a day to see if it altered their view of driving these cars in towns
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The Independent Online

"Space-occupiers, polluters, and more dangerous for pedestrians, cyclists and other road users". At least, that is how Professor David Begg, a government adviser, describes four-wheel drive vehicles in his campaign to tax them more than conventional cars. The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has said that drivers of four-wheel drive vehicles in an urban areas are "complete idiots". The Deputy Mayor of Paris would like to ban them from his beautiful city, and Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat MP who has a good claim to have started the whole four-by-four debate, wants them to become "naff".

"Space-occupiers, polluters, and more dangerous for pedestrians, cyclists and other road users". At least, that is how Professor David Begg, a government adviser, describes four-wheel drive vehicles in his campaign to tax them more than conventional cars. The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has said that drivers of four-wheel drive vehicles in an urban areas are "complete idiots". The Deputy Mayor of Paris would like to ban them from his beautiful city, and Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat MP who has a good claim to have started the whole four-by-four debate, wants them to become "naff".

By and large, critics have the best of the argument. Four-wheel drive cars are much more dangerous than conventional ones for those who come into unplanned contact with them. Thefitting of bull bars to these already substantial vehicles seems to have fallen, but they still have a brick-like frontal aspect that inflicts maximum damage on pedestrians, particularly children, whose heads reach the bumper height of most of these cars. They are heavy - two tonnes for the larger ones - and thus forceful when they collide, and quite a few have an old-fashioned ladder type chassis that make them rigid and rugged for off-road use but unyielding to sheet metal or flesh and bone in an accident.

In the US, where sports utility vehicles, or SUVs as they are known, have reached about a half of the new car market, a sort of "arms race" has developed where drivers of cars are forced to upgrade to an SUV because of the fear of what might happen if one were to hit them. Then the drivers of smaller SUVs worried about what would happen if one of the true monsters that have entered the market in the past couple of years - such as the Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Navigator - ploughed into their "tiny" Jeep Grand Cherokee. So they too bought Escalades and Navigators to restore the balance of safety. Now American personalities, most notably Arnold Schwarzenegger, are using civilian versions of the military Humvee, as seen in active service in Iraq. Great to topple Saddam, not so good for popping down to the mall.

In fact, there is good reason to say that four-wheel drive vehicles are less safe than normal cars in terms of handling. Four-wheel drives, such as the Range Rover, have many aids to stability and traction control but, other things being equal, a four-wheel drive, with its sheer bulk, high centre of gravity and long wheel base, will be less safe at speed and cornering than, say, an equivalent executive saloon. If you want to swerve to avoid an obstacle, you are better off in a Mini than a Discovery.

They are also much thirstier on fuel. Four-wheel drive vehicles require greater power due tothe weight and high levels of drag. Even those fitted with diesel engines struggle to better 30mpg, while the thirst of the petrol-engined versions is truly prodigious. A Toyota Land Cruiser Amazon averages 21mpg, a Mercedes-Benz ML500 19mpg and a Range Rover Vogue 17mpg. The result is more pollution, contributing to global warming. Large American manufacturers are introducing "hybrid" technology (normal engines with electric motors) to their four-wheel drives, which will help matters.

In addition, despite their vast exterior, SUVs usually offer surprisingly little space for passengers.

None of that, however, matters much to the average customer, who buys for the sensation of "looking down" on the proles below. It is a powerful psychological effect, heightened when the owner buys a vehicle with a prestigious badge. The entry of Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche into the four-wheel drive market confirms this trend. A BMW X5 or a Lincoln Navigator are the wheels of choice for today's rich footballers.

This gentrification of what was once a basic tool for a farmer or soldier started with the original Range Rover of 1970, a more luxurious Land Rover for the well-heeled horsy set, as good on the road as it is off. It was no surprise that Princess Anne was an early fan of the "Rangie". Since then, the snob appeal of "Chelsea tractors" has accelerated. The fact that they are so expensive (£50,000 for a Range Rover, £70,000 for a Porsche Cayenne) actually helps sales in this world of conspicuous consumption. Smaller models, such as the Toyota RAV4 and the Land Rover Freelander, have expanded the market and developed the young, sporty, fun image first cultivated by small Suzuki jeeps popular in the 1980s. Those were the cars that inspired the comedian Alexei Sayle to coin his line about how "you really need four-wheel drive to go to Sainsbury's".

People are still using it to this day. Perhaps they think it is an advertising slogan.

Sean O'Grady


* Introduced to the UK by Land Rover in 1947, 4x4s make up 6 per cent of new registrations and account for 4.2 per cent of all cars on UK roads.

* More than 77,000 were bought in the first five months of 2004, compared with 67,000 in the same period last year. * Prices range from £15,995 for a Land Rover Freelander to £60,995 for a Range Rover V8 Vogue.

* British 4x4s tend to be much smaller than those on US roads. At 2,000kg, the UK's largest version, the Land Rover Defender, is dwarfed by the 3,500kg US Ford Excursion.

* According to a survey last year, 4x4s are three times more likely to kill a pedestrian than smaller vehicles.

* Motorists in side-impacts with 4x4s are 27 times more likely to die than those hit by other cars.

The school-run mother

Name: Vanessa Alexander

Lives: Bletchingley, Surrey

4x4: BMW X5 automatic (latest model)

Engine size: Three litres

Price: £40,000

Main use for SUV: School run, shopping

Gadgetry: TV, computer, GPS navigational system, tracker, lights and windscreen sensors, warning alerts

Cost to fill the tank: £70

Average mileage a year: 15,000 to 18,000 miles

'I feel safer driving high up when children are with me'

The closest Vanessa Alexander's four-wheel-drive BMW comes to off-road motoring is the occasional splash through a muddy puddle. But her "luxury runaround" as she happily describes it, has become invaluable for daily school runs and shopping trips since she bought it six months ago.

The latest BMW X5 model has a pristine, leather-clad interior, a television and an array of hi-tech gadgetry. Her school run is longer than most; she clocks up 28 miles a day driving her youngest daughter to and from Epsom College and soon she will take her eldest daughter to Marlborough School in Wiltshire, where she starts boarding in September. Mrs Alexander, 43, also makes various short journeys through the week to her tennis club; Waitrose eight miles away; her quilting course in Kent and her part-time job managing a uniform shop in Oxted.

But today her motoring terrain is a far cry from affluent Bletchingley. Before her are 600 acres of farmland and a mud-splattered Shogun. Climbing into the farm-soiled interior of Will Dickinson's Shogun, Mrs Alexander excitedly shoots off to take the daily feed to the pigs. It is a confident, if slightly stuttering start, dodging the grazing horses as she steers along the bumpy green field. After some teething problems (she is not accustomed to turning on lights or windscreen wipers because of her car's sophisticated sensor, so she mistakes the water-squirter for the signals) she successfully masters reverse, and proceeds to the grain store to collect sweepings from the barn, which need to be taken to a clearing in woods for wild birds and pheasants.

The Shogun is gingerly driven across a gravel track and haltingly steered into a woodland as Mrs Alexander tries to negotiate trees and branches batting the windscreen. But she is not unnerved by the rough ride. "I have to concentrate and it is a challenge but it's also good fun," she says. "I might go on one of those four-wheel-drive courses after this." With this, she careers out of the wood, and brakes to prevent running over the farm dog, Herbie. ("I'm more worried about running him over than driving down these paths," she says).

But her attempt at towing a horsebox is a challenge too far. She manages to manoeuvre the trailer out of a barn but after furious steering, she concedes defeat and Mr Dickinson jumps in to back it into a lane. "You have to get the knack because the trailer almost does the opposite of what you are doing with the steering," she says. "It's difficult but I enjoyed it."

Back home in Surrey, Mrs Alexander has no plans to change her motoring habits. She said: "I got the 4x4 for a definite, practical purpose. I spend a lot of time driving so I felt I needed something I was comfortable in and this time I wanted a luxury car.Because one of my daughter's will be a boarder, we need a lot of boot space for her trunks. I also feel safer driving higher up when I'm carrying my children. I wanted to try a 4x4 now because I will not need it in 10 years when my daughters are grown up."

The size of the vehicle would stop her driving into large cities, and parking can be a problem, but, says Mrs Alexander: "I enjoy driving it."

The farmer

Name: Will Dickinson

Lives: Cross Farm, Hertfordshire

4x4: 12-year Shogun (K-registration)

Engine size: 2.8 litres

Price: £15,000

Main use for SUV: Work on farm, school run, shopping, holidays to Europe

Gadgetry: Inclinometer, altimeter, conversion to 4-wheel drive

Cost to fill the tank: £55

Average mileage a year: 5 to 6,000 miles

'Her BMW costs more to fill than a ton of wheat'

Straw-filled and mud-spattered, Will Dickinson's second-hand Mitsubishi Shogun did once boast the ultimate in high tech gadgetry - when a television was strapped to the front seat on a family holiday.

Mr Dickinson's off-roader functions as an all-purpose vehicle, used for family holidays to Europe and daily school runs as well as the daily grind on the farm. Battered but reliable, it helps the father of three to lug tons of straw or pig feed around his 600-acre arable farm.

Mr Dickinson, 43, said: "The first thing it does is the school run, which is luckily only five minutes, and then I will use it for anything from carrying tons of feed and straw to collecting machinery from other farms. We would get along without it but it makes farming life much more convenient. I use the four- wheel drive facility momentarily to get out of a bit of trouble rather than consistently."

Faced with negotiating a suburban school run in a luxury off-roader, Mr Dickinson is in confident mood. "I've never driven one of these before but I imagine it's just like driving a car," he says as he nestles himself on the BMW's leather interior in his farmer's fatigues.

A loud, repeated beep from the car's automatic warning system reminds him to strap on his seat-belt ("I'm not always so good at wearing seat-belts around the farm", he had said earlier), and another sharp warning sounds as he reverses out of the driveway.

Surveying the computerised gadgetry in the car's interior, he is evidently impressed, if a little bewildered. "It's a lot smarter than mine and I certainly appreciate the smooth gear changes. There is none of the juddering you get in mine. If I were doing 70mph in the Shogun, it would be up to the edge of its speed whereas this is only about half way," he says.

A trip to the petrol station triggers a chorus of beeps as the eight-inch warning system is activated, alerting Mr Dickinson to the proximity of the car behind and a nearby hedge as he attempts to manoeuvre the vehicle back onto the road.

On the road approaching Epsom School, Mr Dickinson's spirits are lifted as he goes a steady pace over the speed humps, delighted by car's smooth response to them.

"Now this is what four-wheel drives are for - speed humps. I barely felt those," he says.

Once back on the motorway, Mr Dickinson relaxes into the slow lane ("I'm a farmer so I'm not used to going at boy-racer speeds", he remarks), and feels a sense of relief at the temporary silence inside the 4x4. He is itching to veer off Surrey's pretty lanes and try the vehicle on open countryside - but has to keep his enthusiasm in check.

"We passed a lot of country along the way and it would have been good to ride off-road to see exactly how good it is," he jokes. "I really liked driving it because it suits my mentality as a farmer.

"I have no problem with someone like Vanessa using a four-wheel drive for school runs and shopping trips. They are capacious vehicles with lots of room for children and their gear," he says.

"I don't mind if people buy them for school runs and a bit of off-roading for a few years before trading them in because it means there are better quality 4x4s on the second-hand market for people like myself.

Like Mrs Alexander, he feels uncomfortable with their negative effects on the environment and their weekly costs. "It costs more than a ton of wheat to fill the tank which hurts most during hard times," he says.

While the "car swap" has given him an opportunity to drive a top-of-the-range vehicle which he could not otherwise afford, he is unsure how practical it would be for farming. "I don't know if I would chose to drive it around on the farm but I know I'd have fun with it if someone asked me to try it out in some of my fields."

Interviews by

Arifa Akbar