The Sun-Herald – Sunday 6 March 2005
The trouble with 4WDs
By: Catharine Munro
A worldwide campaign against four-wheel-drives is under way. Catharine Munro gets behind the wheel and explores both sides of the great car debate.
WHAT is that smirk about and why the raised eyebrows? Why won't that sedan let me change lanes? And how dare that woman make me reverse down the narrow street with a dismissive flick of the wrist. Is it because I'm in a four-wheel-drive?
As I cruise up the freeway in the hushed luxury of a borrowed $83,000 Lexus RX 330, I keep thinking of Harold Scruby, a tireless anti-four-wheel-drive activist and chairman of the Pedestrian Council of Australia. Do I look like one of the "Mosman mothers taking little Billy to school" whom he refers to so disparagingly?
A worldwide campaign against the "urban assault vehicle" is under way, targeting their fuel consumption and safety record, but their popularity in
When it comes to discussing their merits, there is fierce debate. You're either laissez faire and believe in the right to drive what you want where you want, or you think a tollgate should be set up at Penrith stopping any vehicle that could be used on the farm from entering
Enemies of the four-wheel-drive say they are unsafe and consume too much fuel and space. And, although manufacturers say their design is constantly being improved, president of the
A 2004 study of the "aggressivity", or risk to other drivers and pedestrians, showed a 25 per cent improvement in four-wheel-drives between 1964 and 2000. However, they were still the most aggressive class of car on the road, says the report by
Buyers face a moral choice, Grzebieta, a civil engineer, says. "Mum puts her kids in it thinking she is safer, she has vision but you are playing that off against the victims in a crash," he says. "It's a sort of social responsibility we are talking about."
And four-wheel-drives are more at risk of rolling. One in five fatalities in
An advertising campaign started there last month depicts four-wheel-drives as a dangerous monster. Ford has been forced by 50 state governments to spend $US27 million on the campaign to educate young men about the hazards of sport utility vehicles or SUVs as they are known in the
To offset the criticism, car companies are installing cameras in their top models that automatically start filming the area to the rear of the car while it's in reverse and display the image on a dashboard screen. The Lexus camera, with its fish-eye lens, certainly doesn't help me park but it does reveal what exists where once there were blind spots.
But despite the turbulence surrounding the four-wheel-drive, to sit in its smooth, sumptuous interior is to be in a peaceful place. I'm nestled into something that's more armchair than driver's seat and my mind is at rest because for once I can see what the traffic ahead is doing. All is well, except for that nagging fear about what other drivers think of me. If I had this vehicle for more than 24 hours, it could blossom into full-scale paranoia.
As a former four-wheel-driver, the sensation is familiar. I drove one while living and working in
In those days I had every right to have a raised axle. Many of the roads I travelled were just too rough for a sedan. However, driving through
The car companies began to urbanise what were once farm vehicles about 15 years ago, making them easier to manoeuvre in city streets. As the car market booms, the four-wheel-drive's popularity keeps rising. In 2000 just over 105,000 vehicles were snapped up, four years later the figure had risen to 173,000. Nearly one in three vehicles bought last year was a four-wheel-drive. Meanwhile, sedan sales are flat.
Nowhere near one in three is outback-bound. Instead of heading off into wild terrain, they usually end up in a Woollies car park. And some of the features are made to match: the back door of the Lexus I'm cruising in can be opened by remote control "for when you're carrying lots of shopping bags", Breen says. With a paint job like this, it's not the type of car one takes off road.
In reality, the only difference between a four-wheel-drive and a station wagon is how high you sit from the ground. To choose to drive one is to place yourself above the fray. It is to decide that you belong up beside the truck drivers looking down on everyone else. At one set of traffic lights I even try to work out whether I am higher than the Mercedes four-wheel-drive beside me. Call it height envy.
All this really annoys other drivers and that's not just an Australian phenomenon.
EVERY morning when
But that's not why she is pushing to have the council charge big cars more for parking permits. When the changes were announced last month, it was interpreted as an attack on four-wheel-drives. Instead, McCaffery wants consumers to think before they buy petrol guzzling cars, whether they're four-wheel-drives or V8s. That hasn't stopped hate mail from angry four-wheel-drivers streaming into the council. "It's undemocratic and un-Australian and unacceptable," one critic wrote in response to McCaffery's plan.
The mayor doesn't mind being in the middle of a passionate debate. "It's good to get people thinking about it. It's a real issue about the impact on the environment that cars are having." And she wants those driving less environmentally damaging cars to be rewarded. The council has ordered 15 "hybrid" cars whose fuel consumption is half that of a regular vehicle because their engines are driven partly by electricity and partly by fuel.
Some commentators are up in arms. "There are times when local government behaves like the UN big on grand gestures that have only a nodding acquaintance with reality and strangers to common sense," railed Imre Salusinszky in The Australian.
With such pressure mounting to downsize I'm abandoning my experiment with the large vehicle and instead opt to experience the future that these councils want. I swap the Lexus for a Prius, halving my fuel consumption from 10 litres per 100 kilometres to five. (
After a lesson in driving electric cars, I press the ON button and glide off in a hatch-back with razor sharp, aerodynamic lines. As the speed increases to 15 kmh, the petrol engine takes over but the guilt has long departed. The Prius is marketed to gadget-lovers aged in their mid-30s. There's no need to insert a key, the car just senses it.
In the Prius I am ideologically unassailable. There can be no accusations of being unsafe or unclean (although, according to the green vehicle guide, they are not the top rating car). Dirty looks in the traffic matter not. A station wagon with a "Not Happy John" bumper sticker cuts me off. But who cares? I'm cooler than him. As cool as Cameron and Leonardo and the rest of the
Cameron Diaz was reportedly rapturous about her new gadget. "The craziest thing is, 'cause all of a sudden you just, like, you're sitting at the stop sign? And you can't hear anything? And you're like, 'Omigod! My car has died!' And then all of a sudden you step on the gas and you're going again."