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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 March 2006, 16:20 GMT
4x4 or against?
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

You need a thick skin to drive a 4x4 these days, with environmentalists, safety campaigners and even Tory MPs on your case. But are they as bad as their critics claim?

Off-roaders, 4x4s, SUVs, Chelsea tractors - call them what you will, these broad, bulky and towering vehicles are more popular than ever.

Last year, some 187,000 were sold - compared with 80,000 a decade before - accounting for almost 8%, or one in 15, of all cars sold.

The trend has polarised people into camps for and against and now the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, has slapped a higher tax on gas guzzlers in the Budget.

But are 4x4s really as bad as their critics claim? First, however, a quiz...


Off-roaders used to be reserved for the countryside, but it's the growth in urban 4x4s that has irked many people. Britain's cities are crowded and traffic-clogged enough without these "urban tanks", the argument goes.

"When you see someone trying to manoeuvre it round the school gates you have to think, you are a complete idiot," says London mayor Ken Livingstone. Even arch petrol head Jeremy Clarkson has voiced his concern for the sanity of anyone who drives a 4x4 in a city.

Jeremy Clarkson
Even Clarkson has 4x4 concerns
But all too often prejudice gets in the way of rational argument, says Nigel Wonnacott, spokesman for the Society for Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

"Some people say it's the old green-eyed monster, I think it's just a comfortable stereotype to rail against - a large car with a little lady driving her kids to school."

Not all off-roaders are out-sized road hogs, he says. Last year's three top sellers: the Land Rover Freelander, Honda CRV and Toyota Rav4 are all shorter than a Ford Mondeo or Vauxhall Vectra.

And for families with small children - anyone who has suffered the back-wrenching pain of lowering toddlers into car seats will understand the benefits of an elevated car.


Environmentally, off-roaders are widely portrayed as roving disaster zones. The bigger the car, the more it tends to weigh, the more fuel it must burn to get around.

All car makers must, by law, state carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions for each model sold in the UK, based on grams emitted per kilometre and this determines the amount of road tax paid annually. Greenpeace points the finger at "gas guzzlers" rather than 4x4s per se, making the point that there are plenty of high-polluting cars that are not four-wheel drive.

But it singles out the 4WD Land Rovers, built in the UK, for particular criticism, highlighting the fact some models do as little as 12 miles per gallon (mpg) in the city - compared with more than 55mpg for Toyota's Prius - European Car of the Year.

The biggest Range Rover churns out 370g of CO2 per kilometre, more than double the average for British-owned cars in general, and far in excess of the 120g/km Greenpeace wants to see by 2008.

School bus
US-style buses cut school-run traffic
The environmental pressure group wants a new, 1,800 punitive tax band, to be paid annually, for all cars which exceed 250g/km - "roughly 25mpg," says Greenpeace's Mark Strutt.

Britain's efforts to cut back on CO2 emissions have faltered of late, particularly in transport, and this, in part, is because of the trend for 4x4s, says Mr Strutt.

Supporters of 4x4s say they already pay more tax, because they use more fuel. And they note that diesels - which rate notably better on C02 emissions than petrol - outsell petrol models by about 2:1. But diesel engines tend to be bigger than their petrol counterparts, says Mr Strutt, and besides, they emit more polluting particulates and hydrocarbons. Particulate traps help, but "ultra-fine particles still slip through", says Mr Strutt.

What do people in Chelsea think of the tax on "gas-guzzling" cars?

Last year, Japanese car maker Lexus made a big noise about its new hybrid 4x4 - the RX 400h, which recycles the energy it generates from braking - claiming "the British public can stop feeling guilty about their love affair with the 4x4". But, according to the Sunday Times, a recent road test of the Lexus found a rival Mercedes diesel 4x4 consumed less fuel.

In what is perhaps a telling sign of things to come, the call for higher taxes on gas guzzlers is no longer coming just from hardened environmentalists. This a cross party committee of MPs, led by Conservative Tim Yeo, echoed Greenpeace's stance by calling for new top-rated "gas guzzler" tax band.

Mr Yeo himself even goes as far as to call for a 5,000 punitive tax rate for the most polluting models.

"Transport is one area where carbon emissions are rising in Britain. We urgently need to get a grip of this and that means shock tactics," he says.


The safety argument against 4x4s has long hinged on drivers' "I'm alright Jack" attitude. In other words, while those inside are safer than ever, anyone else is likely to come off much worse in a collision.

According to the safety standards judged by Euro NCAP - a respected independent body that crash tests cars on sale in Europe - that's still true, but getting less so as car makers up their game.

"The law of physics says that when a heavy car, be it a 4x4 or anything else, hits a lighter one the big car will come off better," says Chris Patience, head of technical policy at the AA.

The height advantage many 4x4s have over ordinary cars can be a drawback to others. In head-on collisions a 4x4 is more likely to "ride over" the lower car - good news for the driver of the off-roader, bad for the other guy. With side impacts (a 4x4 driving into the side of a normal car), the height disparity is again liable to leave the "little guy" worse off.

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio drives a Toyota Prius hybrid car
Green-thinking celebs drive hybrid cars
But Mr Patience says car makers are "putting all their efforts" into developing "sacrificial structures" in big cars, such as 4x4s, designed to absorb much of the energy in an impact. In terms of pedestrian harm, 4x4s are often no worse than ordinary family cars, according to Euro NCAP results.

"Typically pedestrians hit by cars wrap around the front of the car and their head hits the bonnet."

The key factor then is how much give there is in the bonnet before the victim's head hits the engine - causing serious head injuries. All-wheel drive cars tend to have more space, effectively creating a crumple-zone for the head, says Mr Patience.

"There's no shared characteristic of 4x4s that make them any more or less aggressive towards pedestrians compared to a 'normal' car."

However, Euro NCAP's secretary general Adrian Hobbs says children are in greater danger if hit by a 4x4 than an ordinary car, because the height of the front-end means they're more likely to injure their head and chest.

Some motoring commentators also say 4x4s lull drivers into a false sense of security, with the result that they're more likely to have accidents.

I walk the 3 miles to and from work every day but on a weekend I drive around in a big, deisel-hungry Land Rover Defender. Does that make me a guardian of the planet or Dr Evil? Nothing's black and white here. The fact that 4x4s are targetted rather than all high emission and/or low mpg vehicles does suggest a hint of blind class war about all this.
peter thody, leeds

A comment on the BBC1 Budget programme from a Mum who uses a 4x4 to take her kids to school sums things up perfectly: "I'll continue to take my children to school in a safe vehicle." What she failed to add was, "and so what if I hurt other people's children in other smaller vehicles if we have an accident". Such selfishness is, sadly, all too common.
Stuart Bell, Southampton, UK

I drive a 4x4 and ego has nothing to do with it, it's about personal choice and circumstances. As for damage to pedestrians and the environment..any car irrespective of it's size/shape can cause death/excess pollution if its driven too fast and to be honest the majority of those aren't 4x4s! Unfortunately, although all of us that drive a vechicle today are polluting the environment, the world is full of small minded bigots who like to generalise and put the blame on anyone but themselves.
Hayley, Oldham, Lancahsire

We have no public transport,In bad weather it is 3 days before our roads are gritted or snow cleared.I have a 4 x 4.What else can I do? Stay at home?
B Gibson, Wensleydale, England

I liked the idea of a tax based on dirt, the cleaner the 4x4, the more tax paid. While impractical, it does highlight the fact that in some parts of the country, such vehicles are useful due to the terrain. I've been off-road in 4x4s (not mine) transporting goods, including fording a stream where the water was quite deep and beyond the capability of most saloon cars. However, this government has already demonstrated many times that it doesn't really understand the countryside.
Dave, Cambridge UK

This is all smoke and mirrors - if the goverment was serious about emissions they would start taxing aviation fuel and also make it easier for vehicles to be run on vegetable oil - at the moment there is NO clear guidance from HM Customs and Excise concerning the rate of duty applicable
Bob Taylor, Andover, Hants

I live in a tiny village high in the Chilterns and I do drive a short wheel base 4x4. It is shorter than a Mini Cooper, It does about 35mpg (diesel) and I find that it makes me drive more cautiously as I have to allow more time to deal with road hazards. The 4x4 has become a symbol that is loathed by those who just don't do their actual homework. The big luxury saloons and performance cars are far more damaging than my car - and air travel dwarfs anything that is happening on the road. It is just so easy for the ignorant to fix on the physical shape of a car and blame that image for everything - easy and very lazy.
Kim, Oxon

Selfish ego-trips, pure and simple, and they cause more damage to pedestrians and other cars in crashes.
Jonathan, Glocs, UK

Ok, so I drive a 4x4, a matter of personal choice as it provides 7 seats and lots of space, and I plan to keep it for at least ten years. Just suppose the anti-brigade get their way, who is going to buy me a car to replace it, because I can't afford to? Can I sue the government for my loss?
Peter Whitcombe, Surrey UK

There is no logical or environmental argument why someone should drive a large 4x4 around town. Its just a selfish attitude towards the safety of others and the big "I am" in other words look at me I can afford a big car. If large 4X4s were banned from towns and cities and everyone had to drive standard vehicles then both the environment and pedestrin safety would improve
Graham, Liverpool

One of the biggest polluters I see are on the airports. Being only operated on private land, most ground support vehicles, including diesel powered generators for aircraft, do not have to comply to the standards set out within the MOT test. You should see how much black smoke they chuck out! Although I do believe there should be some form of punitive tax for inefficient road users, I also feel the Government should gain a better understanding of the real pollution source rather than simply blaming and taxing the motorist as usual.
Steve, Luton

As much as I like 4x4 I only see them as a tool. If we are really concerned about the enviroment and the upcomming shortage of fuel in the world. Not only should Car Tax for ALL gas guzzelers be heavily increased. But I feel small environmentally friendly cars should have less Tax if not beacome tax free to encourage more ownership of these very small cars. I do feel however Taxing gas guzzelers is only a small bit of the solution.
David Bell, Castle Bromwich

So if I have a 4x4 in London which is used to drive approx 3,000 miles per year and my next door neighbour has a 'family' car and drives 60,000 miles per year then why should I be expected to pay a higher tax bill. If this isn't an unfair tax then what is it? Frankly increasing the tax to 210 will make no difference to the car I drive!
Jonathan, London

The road tax makes up a small fraction of the total taxes paid on a car with average usage - duty on petrol makes up the lion share. Surely those with worse mpg already pay more tax per mile driven. I am in favour of encouraging more environmentally responsible car usage, but freedom of choice is important as well, as long as you are prepared to pay higher taxes to offset the polution you cause.
Clive, London

The report fails to note that they render narrow country lanes impassable and are overly large large for many parking spaces. Also that the damage and injury done in an accident are proportional to the weight of the vehicle. If 4x4 owners paid 4 tax surpluses - for pollution, congestion, increased accident damages and increased injuries - only then would they be paying their way. Until then, 4x4 owners are being subsidised by everyone else.
David Hamilton, Haslemere

I have a 4x4 and while you can agree with the above how about the fact that I now drive 3 times slower than I use to in my spors car. Whats more dangerous a 4x4 doing 30MPH or a sports car doing 60 or 70 round town, what uses more petrol,, the only people that can sleep safe and sound at night are the people who have purchase the Toyota's Prius.
Alan Wagstaff, Town

Increasing the road tax on mum-trucks by a few quid will make no difference except to the chancellor. If you can afford to buy a BMW/Volvo/Range Rover 4x4 you can certainly afford the road tax. However, making the manufacturers pay a tax on selling vehicles of this type may encourage them to make their cars more fuel efficient.
David, UK

My husband is a farm labourer and we live on a farm, at the end of a long non-tarmac track, at the edge of Town. The vehicle is not used to take our children to school. They get on a bus! Why should we be penalised for using a 4x4 for getting around? I think people who live in central London/non rural towns should be charged a higher tax if anything!
Di, Royston, England

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