Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The 4X4 Rant

It seems there is no reason to own an SUV in town. Ironically that may be a good thing...

Much has been said on the issue of people using 4x4s in town, but most of it, I feel, misses the point. The main criticism from the media is an environmental one, but is this entirely justified? It’s not often you'll find me using a Hyundai as an example, but on this occasion I am – the Sante Fe 2.2 CRD to be precise. This is a full size SUV powered by a conventional Diesel engine (rather than a miniature soft roader or hybrid) and it produces a mere 192g/km of carbon dioxide. To put that into perspective, the Vauxhall Vectra 2.8i repmobile produces 262g/km and one of Mr Livingstone’s Mercedes Citaro 'bendy buses' a whopping 1,586g/km. So, hippies everywhere can stop letting people’s tyres down.

With that off my chest, it's time to get on to the real issue. Whilst I disagree with the class warriors and eco-mentalists attacking urban 4X4 ownership, I don't see any point in it either. Contrary to popular belief, there is no logical reason to drive Rupert and Jemima to their prep school in a 3 ton armoured vehicle.

There is a widely held opinion that crashing an off roader is a safe activity. Put simply, it's not. The Nissan Navara picked up a dismal one star Euro NCAP rating when it was first tested last month. True, most SUVs do fair better in occupant safety than this, but it does disprove the myth that they are all inherently safe. Conversely, there are plenty of conventional cars ranging from the diminutive Fiat 500 to the mammoth Mercedes E Class that have secured the maximum five star rating.

This leads on to an interesting point: The only way to truly make a crash safe is not to have one and here too the SUVs suffer. Imagine someone has just pulled out in front of you – what would you rather use to swerve around them - a Range Rover or an Audi RS6? Whilst cars like the Range Rover Sport and Porsche Cayenne do now handle remarkably well, they're still nowhere near the standards of sports saloon costing the same amount. You simply can’t swerve as sharply or stop as rapidly in something designed for hill farmers. For keen drivers, it also goes without saying that an equivalent saloon or sports car will be more fun to drive.

The example of the RS6 comes down to another point - space. In terms of interior capacity the SUV shape may have the advantage over a conventional saloon, but compared to a large estate car there’s very little in it. An RS6 Avant or BMW M5 Touring for example, has got to be a better way of frightening your Labrador than a Freelander.

So why buy a 4X4? On the face of it there are only really two valid reasons – going off road or towing. Whilst they're great for dragging a horsebox up a muddy incline, they're still heavily compromised in every single aspect of town driving. An MPV will hold more, a super-saloon will be quicker and a whole host of things will be safer. As a petrolhead I do have to concede a third possible reason – because you want to own one. They may not know it, but the school run mums are championing the cause of everyone who buys a car for no more reason than personal preference. Subjectively 4X4 ownership makes about as much sense as using a dragster to drive to the shops. Actually, that sounds like fun.

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