Mine's bigger than yours

Sydney Morning Herald

Weekend Edition 23-24 June 2001
Steel on steroids or safe and sensible motoring? The 4WD has its place, agrees John Huxley, it's just that it isn't within coo-ee of the suburban commuter trail.

It's been called the Mother of All Motors. A monster. As big as an inner-city bedsit. As wide as a State Transit bus. As heavy as two Holden Commodores. "Not a car. Not a truck. Not another sports utility," the sales brochures explain. "A vehicle not in a class, but a universe all its own." A vehicle that, for as little as $180,000 and as much as any figure the accessory-minded buyer might care to mention, offers its driver nothing less than "dominion over the earth".

The Hummer. Humble it isn't. As one owner explained, it's a "wow! will you look at that!" set of wheels developed by the US military as the ultimate High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, or HMMWV. The acronym was soon translated by soldiers into "Humvee" and hence into Hummer.

General "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf won the Gulf War in one (as one motoring editor wrote, the Hummer was his company car). The actor John Travolta famously fought on film in one. And, soon after they were offered to the American public in 1992, exotic celebrities including tennis player Andre Agassi, basketballer Dennis Rodman and boxer Mike Tyson each bought one. Never knowingly under-muscled, Arnold Schwarzenegger bought seven.

XL toys for XL-ego American boys? You betcha. But, overweight, oversize and as even its proud owners concede altogether over the top, the Hummer is appearing in Australia in increasing numbers. The Western Australia-based importer believes as many as 200 may be in the country. And while new vehicles are currently unavailable following a takeover of the manufacturer by General Motors, demand for used Hummers is high, according to Strathfield dealer Paul Robertson. "Right now, I've nothing to sell. But every day, I get calls from people looking to buy."

So what sort of people buy them? "A special kind of people." Famously rich Kerry Packer once had one. Footballer Jarrod McCracken recently sold one. Tennis player Mark Philippoussis is believed to be trying to trade one. Shark hunter Vic Hislop drives one. Financier Rene Rivkin has two. And a Sydney lottery winner called Phil, who prefers not to have his surname published, has one. Generously, he lets me climb behind the wheel of his $180,000 Hummer.

Phil shows me photographs of him putting the Hummer through its off-road paces: churning through bonnet-high mudbaths, launching off sand dunes, climbing 60-degree rock faces. He rattles off some specs. Three tonnes. V8 turbo diesel. 6.5-litre engine. Top speed 134km/h. Two fuel tanks. Combined capacity 159 litres. Enough for about 800 kilometres. Tyres that can be pumped up and let down from the space station-proportioned cockpit. Just the thing for dragging 10-tonne trucks out of ditches.

Then, it's off for a spin along peaceful residential streets. Whether running to the local shops, popping into Sydney ("bit of a squeeze on Parramatta Road") or driving down to Melbourne, Phil uses his Hummer as an "ordinary car", handling the monster gently, like a pet mouse. Aware of its huge payload, and of public perceptions that the Hummer's invasion may signal an escalation in Australia's "road wars", he drives defensively, dutifully giving way to Dinky-sized small cars, waving to oncoming drivers who flash their lights, possibly in disbelief, stopping to see if a ditched tree-lopper's truck needs a tow.

"Awesome, eh," he says. Actually, it is. Until recently, at least, I'd driven nothing much bigger than a golf ball, nothing faster than a ... umm, Golf. The appalling truth about what I now drive will be revealed later, but I'm not one of Robertson's identikit Hummer people. I am puny. I'm in bed before 10. I am a vegetarian. I am a birdwatcher. I don't like bumpy roads. I don't like a car so big that it cannot be cleaned all over with an outstretched hand. But, I'm with Phil on the Hummer. It's tremendous fun, horribly seductive; comparable, I guess, with jumping on to one of those nasty, invasive, anti-social jet-skis. Fun for everyone except everyone else.

Hey, guys look at me! I'm sitting high and, I'm sure, ruggedly handsome in a Hummer. Just like Schwarzenegger. I'm invulnerable. I'm a road warrior. Just like in Desert Storm. I command respect. Much smaller, "cruiser-bruisers", such as Toyota LandCruisers, Nissan Patrols, Mitsubishi Pajeros. Holden Jackaroos, Ford Explorers, Jeep Grand Cherokees and those poncy, new Mercs and Beemers, don't mess with this heavy-metal mother. In brochure-speak, me and my Hummer cannot be "domesticated".

The moment passes as I step down from the Hummer. Bummer. I'm back in the real world where, of course, "domesticated" is precisely what is happening to the Hummer, transplanted here from Kuwait to Kenthurst. And, more worrying, "domesticated" is what has happened to those other mini-monsters, designed originally for serious work and off-road play but now bought in seemingly ever-increasing numbers by homebodies to replace the family car.

These "suburban assault vehicles", as they've been unkindly dubbed in the US, now serve as shopping trolleys, kindergarten buses, urban taxis, shuttling between supermarket and school, gymnasium and golf club, home and holiday motel. Yet they cost a bomb. They are imported. They guzzle gas. They pollute the environment. They handle like a bank vault. They park like a supertanker. They impede the vision, invade the space and intimidate other road-users. In the wrong hands their weight alone makes them potential killing machines. Even in the right hands they are a menace.

So, why has the four-wheel drive become such a prized and government-protected species? And what is its future? Is Australia set for a further escalation in the "road wars"? Or are there signs of a breakdown in that extraordinary mix of industry marketing initiatives, personal buying decisions and government tax breaks that has produced a situation described by one expert as "at best irrational, at worst insane"? After a long love affair, has Australia started worrying and learned to loathe the 4WD?

It is barely 18 months since motoring mite came cruelly together with motoring might on the s-bends of Spit Road, Mosman. A 20-year-old student was killed when her tiny Daihatsu Charade was hit head-on by a two-tonne Toyota LandCruiser, fitted with bullbars, driven by a 17-year-old P-plater. Floral tributes mark the spot.

But if the shocking accident caused anyone to reconsider the wisdom of owning a 4WD, it does not show in the line-up of vehicles on nearby Military Road. Many of them are poorly parked Mosman Trucks, or Balmoral Bulldozers, as big as the brute that killed the young woman. They have swollen bumpers, large tyres, bulging steroidal side panels. Many have bullbars. Many are heavily accessorised ("drive in a wuss, drive out a weapon," boasts one Sydney customising company).

Similar scenes can be found throughout Sydney, especially in its smarter suburbs. After successive oil shocks prompted brief dalliances with smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, Australians have been climbing, both literally and metaphorically, into 4WDs, many of them fat and thirsty. Sales of "all-terrain wagons" (ATWs) are expected to exceed 120,000 this year.

Boundaries between the two are increasingly blurred, but the sales ratio of ATWs to cars is rapidly approaching one to four a figure almost unthinkable a decade or so ago. This "4x4 revolution", as Toyota acclaimed it, is a worldwide trend, led by the US.

There, the sports utility vehicle (SUV) and its sibling, the pick-up truck, account for one-third of the 17million cars purchased each year. In Australia and America, their growth has supported a highly profitable industry and promoted a new subculture, devoted to bush-bashing, dune-surfing and mud-swimming, some of which goes on display at a 4WD expo at Sydney Showground, Homebush Bay, this weekend.

Just like utes, invented locally for Little Aussie Battlers, imported 4WDs have always been in demand from people with perfectly valid reasons to buy: paddock bashers, primary producers, government utility workers. The story of how their overseas makers seduced Sydney suburbanites is a more complicated mix of practicality, sentimentality and gullibility.

Pragmatically, the big 4WDs seemed ideal for families. They could seat seven or eight people. Unlike conventional cars, they offered "all-in-one", flexible space: seats could be folded down to accommodate more kids, more gear or some combination of the two. They could tow trailers, boats or horse boxes.

Above all, perhaps, they looked safe. With their high, car-topping drive position, clear, all-round vision, and clunky-steel build, they conferred a sense of fortress-strong invulnerability. Women, especially, liked climbing into what social commentator Hugh Mackay called the "lifeboat on wheels", floating serenely across a sea of urban traffic chaos. As author Bettina Arndt, owner of a Mitsubishi Pajero, said: "Mums driving the kids around love the feeling of power and security they get."

They also seemed to offer excellent value for money. Because 4WDs were essentially new bodies easily bolted on to existing, small-truck platforms, early models could be built cheaply and priced both competitively and profitably. What's more, their cost-effectiveness was boosted by special, concessional import duties 5 per cent compared with 15 per cent for cars introduced in 1975 as a tax break for those who bought 4WDs almost exclusively as workhorses.

So far, so sensible. But as David Chalke of Strategy Planning Group, a Melbourne-based marketing consultancy, explains, when it comes to personal transport, people don't necessarily act rationally. More personal, more subjective, factors come into play. "Face it: cars are essentially very selfish things. They consume the world's resources. They kill people. They are as much about style, about creating self-image, as commonsense."

Driving, he says, has become an act of display. "People don't buy big 4WDs to be unobtrusive. They tend to be look-at-me types, striving for individuality." Suburbanites jumping on the four-wheel-driven, turbo-charged, bullbarred bandwagon, he suggests, have been buying into the "machismo of the bush"; assuming the steel-reinforced role of the rugged individualist. The best mate. The adventurer. The he-man who, like his Hummer, refuses to be "domesticated".

That's why people movers have never caught on in Australia. One, they are boring. Blokes turning up on Saturday mornings at the hardware store in a people mover are given heaps by their mates. "In terms of credibility, they don't even rank," says Chalke. Two, they involve self-sacrifice in the interests of the family.

"Basically, you're required to give away the fun of having something spunky and sporty in exchange for functionality. People won't do that. The 40 grand they're spending on a people mover could buy them, say, a Pajero. Something that's got a bit more to it. Something that implies that, `hey, I'm not just a dull, old homebody who reads Family Circle ... I'm a go-getting sort of person. The sort of person who does interesting things, who might have a boat, or go into the bush, or tow a trailer. So much more attractive than the guy who drives the family taxi'."

Contrast this dreary role with the exciting prospect held out by the sales team at the local 4WD dealership. As long ago as 1983, Mitsubishi started plugging the escapist theme with Indiana Jones-style advertisements for its Pajero. Despite research that confirms what most car drivers have always suspected that typical 4WD buyers are in their 40s, married with kids, living in the metropolitan area little has changed in 20 years.

Look at the "action man" model names, which could well have been dreamed up by the Burke & Wills ad agency: Pathfinder, Discovery, Explorer, Outback. Or check out the ads. Typical of the thud-and-blunder genre is Toyota's crass re-shooting of The Man from Snowy River to show some lunatic in a LandCruiser ploughing up a mountainside with a horse box in tow. Oh what a feeling! Oh what a wanker!

Yet, as Hugh Mackay wrote in his book Reinventing Australia, such images continue to resonate in the national psyche. Vehicles such as the LandCruiser, Range Rover, Patrol and Pajero "possess a symbolic value which the family car lacks: they appear to be cars uniquely equipped to tackle the Great Australian Outback. They also carry the promise that, one day, we will pack up a tent, load the kids into the back seat and set off for Kakadu to do our duty as real Australians." To boldly go.

In their dreams. In reality, they are going nowhere. As magazine editor Brian Tanner complains in the current, 252-page issue of Just 4x4s, "Having purchased the ultimate 4x4 and set it up to conquer all manner of off-road challenges, owners suddenly realise they might scratch, dent or cause expensive mechanical damage by four-wheel driving!"

Rather than being used as workhorses, too many 4WDs are worn as a fashion accessory, like Country Road shirts, R.M. Williams moleskins and Timberland boots. Industry surveys in Australia and in the US suggest that as few as one in 10 owners ever take their 4WD off-road. Those wanting the "look" can buy it from customising companies that sell pre-rusted jerry cans, stick-on tyre "mud" and colour-coordinated desert dirt.

For "hunting, shooting, fishing", read shopping. For that literally "dirty weekend", dangled in front of buyers of the Subaru Forester, read good, clean family fun. And, as with so many of the claims upon which their popularity has been pegged, for dreamy off-road fantasy, read disappointing 4WD "fact", because, to a greater or lesser extent, those big 4WDs especially fail to deliver on several counts.

One, safety. "Sure, if you have 21/2 tonnes on your side, you are always going to do fairly well in an accident with another car," says the NRMA's expert Robert McDonald, "but it is likely to be at the expense of that other car." As Chalke puts it, "Crudely, the thinking goes, if I hit someone, I might kill them, but I survive."

Bullbars some of which, in the words of the Pedestrian Safety Council, "make the chariots in Gladiator look like VW Beetles" make matters much worse. Adelaide University researchers found that damage to a child's head when struck by a Toyota Prado was 10-15 times worse when the vehicle was fitted with a small-diameter steel bullbar.

That is indefensible. But the safety benefits to the driver are not that clear-cut either. In regular crash safety tests, 4WDs continue to rate all the way from good through average to poor. "Where you [the 4WDriver] get into trouble is when you hit something solid or bigger than yourself, like a tree, or a wall, or another 4WD. Then the dynamics of your own vehicle come into play," McDonald explains.

Increasingly, he says, manufacturers have abandoned the old practice of bolting bodies on to truck chassis, which produced vehicles that were stiff and heavy, in favour of all-in-one, or monocoque, construction. In an accident, this offers a far safer crumple zone. "It's the difference between sitting in a soft, car-wash sponge and a heavy, hollowed-out brick." The difference, possibly, between life and death.

Moreover, tests continue to support accusations that 4WDs are much more likely than ordinary passenger cars to be involved in roll-over accidents. More than 100 people have died in the US in such incidents involving the world's biggest-selling 4WD, the Explorer, prompting a recent multibillion-dollar bust-up between manufacturer Ford and tyre supplier Firestone.

Despite improvements, McDonald insists, 4WDs remain inherently more unstable because of their higher centre of gravity, and more ponderous because of their greater weight. "I don't think anyone would dispute that they're not generally as responsive as passenger cars in terms of steering, ride, handling, braking and tyre grip." It's in the nature of the beast.

Two, green credibility. Far from providing an environmentally friendly way for Australians to visit, enjoy and cherish their Great Outdoors, the big 4WDs consume more than their fair share of natural resources and produce more than their fair share of toxic emissions. Indeed, while manufacturers are belatedly embracing green principles, government concessions, again aimed at appeasing genuine country users, historically have permitted 4WDs to generate more than twice the amount of greenhouse gases.

As New 4WD Buyer magazine reminds its readers this month, new emission standards for diesel vehicles will be introduced next year. Currently, the requirement is that they do not blow visible smoke for more than 10 seconds.

Moreover, while enthusiasts such as Phil may confine their off-road antics to designated areas, too often when 4WDs do go off road they inflict eco-damage. For proof, look no further than the letters page of Australian 4WD Monthly, where a correspondent complains that "the last great 4WD trek in Australia", to Cape York, is being trashed by "thoughtless and selfish" drivers. Perhaps they have been watching those TV advertisements, spiced with churning dust, spinning tyres and flying stones, which seem to reinforce a view that the bush is there to be bashed, not respected.

Three, value. Manufacturers may love 4WDs: as McDonald says, "By and large, they were crude, cheaply constructed devices that made a lot of money. Margins on cars, which carried much bigger development costs, were much tighter." But buyers quickly discover that they are expensive to fuel, to insure, to service and to repair.

In a recent report on motoring costs by the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria, Toyota's diesel auto LandCruiser GXL came top with average weekly running costs of $271.38. By contrast, Ford's little Ka was most economical at just $95.82 a week. However, only recently have 4WD manufacturers of vehicles up to 2.7tonnes been required to display fuel consumption figures. Those show that some require up to 20 litres to trundle just 100 kilometres, back and forth to the health club.

Ominously, SUV buyers surveyed in America rated fuel consumption only 37th on a checklist of 40 purchase points. In Australia, McDonald predicts, "When they see the figures, owners will be terrified." So, too, should all of us: in recent years, the switch to 4WDs at the expense of more economical cars has dragged down the average fuel efficiency of the Australian car fleet. But does anyone really care?

Defenders of the 4WD faith will argue that Australia is a free country with a user-pays economy that encourages freedom of choice and the expression of personal taste. Thus, David Chalke should be permitted his sporty Mazda MX5 ("It stands for Menopausal eXhibitionist hits big 5-oh"). Robert McDonald should be respected for his choice of Subaru Forester (probably the greenest of the 4WDs). And I should not need to apologise for my speedy Subaru Impreza WRX (Guilty as supercharged, your honour).

So, should we all be allowed to choose our own set of wheels, however profligate, dysfunctional, dangerous and ugly they may seem to others? Well, actually, no not when there are wider community issues of environmental impact, government protection and road safety. McDonald agrees.

"Look at the impact of 4WDs on the environment. Look at the things these vehicles are being used for. Look at how much more cheaply, how much more safely, they could be done by, say, a standard station wagon. Yet, ordinary taxpayers continue to subsidise these vehicles, making them more attractive. Surely, that's insane."

As the recent debate over urban 4WDs with bullbars demonstrated, road users cannot look to governments to restore sanity. While the RTA now refuses to re-register vehicles fitted with "illegal" bars with sharp or protruding edges, more radical, more whole-hearted attempts to tackle problems posed by 4WDs have been shirked by governments. They fear unfairly penalising legitimate, mostly bush-based, users. Short of introducing a system of checkpoints and permits, big 4WDs and bullbars cannot be banned from the city.

Fortunately, though, the days of the big, city-dwelling 4WD dinosaurs may be numbered. They are slowly being culled by "natural" market causes. Soaring fuel costs and changing lifestyles have combined to turn Australians, who never really embraced American mega-cruisers such as the Chevvy Suburban, soft.

That is soft as in "soft-roaders", the new boom breed of cheaper, smaller, sexier 4WDs such as the Honda CR-V, the Toyota Rav4, the LandRover Freelander and the Hyundai Santa Fe coveted by young couples and affluent baby boomers who buy them both for themselves and for their growing-up children. Sales of these "medium-sized compacts" have soared, accounting for most of the doubling in 4WD sales in the past four years.

"Because they're such damned expensive things, the big 4WD LandCruisers, Patrols and the rest were always going to plateau," says Chalke. "Now they're being overtaken by the micro-urban 4WDs, the fun machines, which are just the thing for smart urban couples who want a stylish, non-boring, vehicle they can take to IKEA and load with flat-pack gear."

Even more encouraging are signs that the dinosaurs may simply be dying of shame. Owners have always been regarded with suspicion. An English joke asks,"What's the difference between a Range Rover and a hedgehog?" Answer: A hedgehog's pricks are on the outside. Everyone knows, don't they, that Pajero means "wanker" in vernacular Spanish.

Suddenly, though, the big, bullbarred 4WD is no longer a laughing matter. In America, SUV hate sites on the World Wide Web have proliferated faster than outsized fuel tanks. In Australia, owners have been driven onto the defensive. Their vehicles have become seriously, socially unacceptable. After being a prized and protected species for so long, they have moved onto the endangered species list.

Meanwhile, even the hardcore Hummer is turning soft. A new, slimmed-down, mini-monster has gone on sale in the United States. The makers claim it is as "at home on the freeway as it is on the free range ... a civilised tool for business travel and family pleasure". Hmmm.