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 Australia keeps rising. In Britain, they're called Chelsea Tractors in a sneering reference to their proliferation in London's wealthy inner suburbs. In Rome, authorities want to triple parking permit fees. Now North Sydney is considering a similar measure and an internet poll shows that most ratepayers support it.

 

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 Sydney.

 

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 Australasian College of Road Safety Raphael Grzebieta asserts they present a "problem" in terms of road fatalities.

 

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 Monash University's Accident Research Centre.

 

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 Australia 300 a year results from roll-overs, with most of these in four-wheel-drives. Some models now have an "electronic stability system" installed and the car brakes automatically if a roll-over is imminent. But there are no design rules in Australia that require such safety features.

 

In the United States, car companies are being forced to explain the risks to consumers.

 

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 US. The year-long campaign came after a court case in which Ford faced allegations of deceptive advertising of its sport utility vehicles. The ad presents a rodeo where the monster, called an Esuvee, bucks and kicks its way around the ring and calls on drivers to avoid rolling over by driving them correctly.

 

In Australia, Scruby is calling for four-wheel-drives to be banned from car parks to avoid deaths such as that of five-year-old Bethany Holder who was hit by a Nissan Patrol in the grounds of her northern beaches school in 2002. "We want to force people to start considering much more socially responsible vehicles," he says.

 

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 Darwin several years ago. Even in the Northern Territory, where there is no speed limit and everyone is king of the road, I would cringe at myself from time to time. Buzzing about the town centre I'd sometimes simply not see another vehicle with a lower axle and consequently I accepted their wrath.

 

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 Sydney at the same latitude in a sparkling silver Lexus is a very different experience to the one I had in the Top End. I no longer know where I fit in the hierarchy of road vehicles. I'm much higher up than usual and I'm not so sure that it's where I belong.

 

At Toyota's sleek marketing office in Caringbah, it's readily conceded that four-wheel-drives are no more spacious than a station wagon. It's the promise of lifestyle, rather than their utility, that makes people buy them. "There's a certain level of aspiration," says Toyota spokesman Mike Breen. "People will buy them hoping one day, with mum and the kids, we will go to the Kimberley and have a lovely holiday."

 

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.

 

In Britain, one group offers to help its members with "creative and peaceful ways to deal with your frustration at the increasing numbers of big 4x4s vehicles on urban streets". The Alliance Against Urban 4x4s has posted on the internet spoof infringement notices that can be downloaded, printed and placed on the windscreens of targeted cars. "Poor vehicle choice A dirty and dangerous car", the ticket reads.

 

EVERY morning when North Sydney mayor Genia McCaffery goes to work, she nudges into the Pacific Highway traffic in her Volvo. The task becomes daunting when a four-wheel-drive is parked on the corner. "It's really difficult for me to see. It makes getting out of my street very hazardous. That's why in the city you get a lot of people who don't like them," she says.

 

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.

 

North Sydney has started other councils thinking. Manly mayor Peter MacDonald pays tribute to his North Shore counterpart for kicking off the debate but wants to take it further. In the spirit of the newly enforced Kyoto Protocol on reducing gas emissions, he wants to replace cars with public transport in his staff's remuneration packages. MacDonald wants to pressure the Federal Government into making the 5 per cent tariff on four-wheel-drives the same as that of other cars, which incur a 10 per cent charge. (The Government plans to make all tariffs 5 per cent by 2010.) And he wants the State Government to register cars based on their environmental rating rather than their weight.

 

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.

 

In Parramatta, the concern is more pragmatic, focusing on the amount of parking space available. As part of a review of parking zones, the council is considering encouraging the use of smaller cars by making smaller parking slots. "That's much more positive," says spokesman Chris Tweedie.

 

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. (Toyota graciously ignored the large graze I had incurred on the bumper bar of their $82,300 vehicle and gave me something with the much lower price tag of $44,000.)

 

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 Hollywood stars who have been lining up to buy them in recent years. At last week's Academy Awards, environment-conscious actors such as Natalie Portman and Salma Hayek eschewed the traditional limo ride in favour of the Prius.

 

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."

 

In the US a hybrid SUV is now available. It is in such demand that there is a waiting list of 10,000. In a niche market the Prius is popular here too and Toyota is selling 150 a month. In May a hybrid four-wheel-drive will be on sale in Australia. But for those who want to have their eco-friendly cake and eat it, until the axle comes down as well, just ignore the dirty looks.
 
 
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