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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 May, 2004, 09:31 GMT 10:31 UK
Motoring through the urban jungle
By Jennifer Quinn
BBC News Online Magazine

They glide up and down the genteel streets of SW3 like an invading army. These urban assault vehicles are Ken Livingstone's worst enemies. The people at the wheel are worse, the London mayor says. They are "idiots."

Once upon a time, a four-wheel drive vehicle might have looked out of place in central London. Now it's de rigueur.

The 4x4 - the sport utility vehicle to North American motorists - is a British institution, common as hedgerows in the countryside and increasingly a denizen of the city. Many of them never navigate anywhere more off-road than the car park at the shopping centre.

This has earned Mr Livingstone's derision: "When you see someone trying to manoeuvre it around the school gates, you have to think, 'You are a complete idiot.'"

But the 4x4 has been a part of Britain's motoring history since not long after the war, when Land Rover first began manufacturing in Solihull, West Midlands.

In more remote parts of the world, it was the first vehicle some people ever laid eyes on; it has evolved from a chunky, graceless piece of machinery into a luxury vehicle whose praises are sung by its owners.

They cite the view from the driver's seat, its usefulness in ferrying around children, animals, and the detritus of family life, and its safety. Its opponents say it's a ridiculous gas guzzler, much too large for Britain's cities - where space can indeed be described as limited - and unnecessary for urban motoring.

Better view

There is no middle ground on the 4x4. Feelings about them run strong. They're derisively referred to as Chelsea Tractors. Their lack of fuel efficiency is cited; their safety record questioned.

They're looked down upon as yet another American import, like junk food and posh coffee.

But Matthew Taylor, the managing director of Land Rover UK, points out that the 4x4 has been a British staple since 1947, and unsurprisingly defends his customers' right to choose what they drive and where they drive it.

"At the end of the day, people should be able to choose the vehicle that suits their needs and their requirements," Mr Taylor says. "And people have a multitude of needs and requirements, not just one. So whilst it may be used on the school run one day, it may actually be the vehicle they use to take themselves on a holiday the next day."

TIGHT SQUEEZE
Smart car
How do I get two children and a Labrador in a Smart car?
Sarah Millward, Derbyshire

Sales of four-wheel drives have steadily increased since 1997, and now account for more than 6% of new car registrations. The Land Rover Freelander is the best-selling 4x4 in the UK, with the Toyota Rav 4, the Honda CRV and the Land Rover Discovery motoring after it.

The United States has much more of an SUV culture than Britain. Every other vehicle on the broad American interstate highways seems to be a huge 4x4, and while they love their big trucks, there's also a growing segment of the population which loathes the SUV.

Environmental menace?

US Senator John Kerry, the Democrat presidential candidate, had to tell reporters that the extraordinarily large Chevrolet Suburban they saw parked at his second home belonged not to him, but to the "family."

Which is apparently different, and important, since Mr Kerry has campaigned on increasing the fuel economy of US vehicles to reduce his country's reliance on foreign oil.

The American versions of 4x4s tend to be much larger than the ones found on the roads in the UK. For example, the Ford Excursion weighs nearly 3,500 kg, compared to a Land Rover Defender which is about 2,000 kg.

For Neil Evans, size does not matter.

He lives in central London and works in Soho, and has nearly found himself under the bumper of an SUV more than once.

"It's ridiculous. The 4x4s are simply too big for Soho's roads. They're enormous. You can't see around them if you're a pedestrian ... and if you're trying to park, trying to get around one is a nightmare," he says.

"You expect to see 4x4s and Jeeps and whatnot up Everest, or up mountains - that's where they're advertised to be - and it seems ridiculous that people want to drive them in a place where you can get by with a car that's four feet long. I'd much rather see a Smart car than a 4x4."

No room for kids

Sarah Millward scoffs at this idea.

"How," she asks, "do I get two children and a Labrador in a Smart car?"

The 27-year-old lives in Derbyshire and uses her five-year-old Land Rover Discovery to ferry two teenaged kids to school and back. And, she says - quite proudly - she takes it into central London, as well. As an artist, she sometimes has quite large pieces that need transporting, and they're not going to fit in a subcompact car.

The Queen at the wheel
Another central London resident at the wheel of a 4x4

"It's an old one. It's not very glamorous, but I love it," Ms Millward says of her 4x4. "There's a freedom, in this country, isn't there? We get to choose what we drive and if we choose to have a big car, that's fine."

Mr Livingstone isn't the first politician to set his sights on the 4x4. Last year, Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrats' shadow environment secretary, said he believes the very British four-wheel drive has become a "status symbol and personality enhancer" and that the environment is paying a dear price for the drivers' ego.

Ego on wheels

"It's really unnecessary to drive your child 300 yards from the house to the school in a 4x4," he says. "It becomes an issue about fuel consumption and about the space they take up. Some of our towns are quite short of space, and some are medieval and they just don't have the space for these vehicles on the road."

Like Mr Evans, Mr Baker says they can be "quite intimidating" for pedestrians and cyclists. He's more concerned about the footprint the 4x4 leaves on the environment, but doesn't go as far as Mr Livingstone in his condemnation of their drivers.

"I wouldn't call them idiots," Mr Baker says. "And I don't want to have them banned. What I would like to do is have them regarded as... as naff."


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