Drivers in cities should 'think twice' about buying big SUVs warns expert

By Alex Nelson
Wednesday, 7th April 2021, 11:45 am
While 'traditional' SUVs can be polluting, some newer SUVs are all electric, such as the Jaguar I-Pace, Tesla Model X or Hyundai Konaelectric (Photo: Shutterstock)

The head of the RAC Foundation has said those living in more urban areas should “think twice” before purchasing SUVs and big cars “capable of ploughing over rivers”.

Steve Gooding’s comments came as research revealed the majority of SUV buyers are located in suburban regions.

"It is right to question if suburban drivers need a car capable of ploughing over rivers, across fields and up steep hills just to pop to the shops,” he added, urging prospective vehicle drivers to “choose the right vehicle for the right trip to cut the size of our carbon footprint.”

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'Time to stop promoting SUVs'

SUVs – sports utility vehicles – are often attributed the humorous nickname “Chelsea tractors”, in part to their large nature and relatively slow top speeds.

But that pet name may not be completely unfounded, as research revealed such vehicles are indeed more common in affluent suburban areas like Chelsea.

A report by the New Weather Institute think-tank said its research proves “long-held suspicions” that vehicles “ostensibly designed for off-road are actually marketed successfully to urban users where their big size and higher pollution levels are a worse problem."

The report revealed that three quarters of all SUVs sold in the UK are registered to people living in towns and cities, with the largest SUVs being most popular in the London boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith & Fulham and Westminster.

In these areas – where road space is scarce and a high proportion of cars are parked on the street – one in three new private cars bought is a large SUV, many of which are too large for a standard parking space.

Andrew Simms, from the New Weather Institute, said: "One of advertising's biggest manipulations has persuaded urban families that it's perfectly 'normal' to go shopping in a two-tonne truck.”

"But the human health and climate damage done by SUVs is huge and needs to be undone. Just as tobacco advertising was successfully ended, it's time to stop promoting polluting SUVs."

The report claims that SUVs’ association with the great outdoors and “getting back to nature” is a deliberate misrepresentation by advertisers, designed to mislead consumers into believing the vehicles are more environmentally friendly than they actually are.

'Some of the cleanest cars come in the SUV shape'

In many London boroughs - where road space is scarce and a high proportion of cars are parked on the street – one in three new private cars bought is a large SUV (Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

There is no commonly agreed-upon definition of an SUV, and usage of the term varies between countries,

However, SUVs are often characterised by their oversized designs, high-set driving positions and features meant for off-road driving, like specialised tires and four-wheel drive.

Technically designed for much rougher terrain than smooth, tarmacked roads (indeed, SUVs predecessors can be traced back to heavy-set military vehicles), their increased heft over traditional road cars means they are often much less efficient in terms of fuel consumption.

A recent study by the International Energy Agency said increasing demand for SUVs is the second biggest contributor to the growth in carbon emissions, and said that if SUV drivers were a country, they would be the seventh in the world for carbon emissions.

Do suburban drivers need a car 'capable of ploughing over rivers, across fields and up steep hills just to pop to the shops?' (Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

The RAC’s Gooding has said that not all SUVs are created equal, and some more modestly sized cars that retain the SUV style can be more economical to run.

“Some auto companies have already released fully electric versions with more to come later this year," he told the BBC, adding that “motorists might just be seeking the comfort and convenience of relatively tall but still modestly-sized cars that come with the SUV badge but are economical to run.”

Edmund King, from the AA, said talk of banning the advertising of SUVs is a “naïve” approach, as “some of the cleanest cars come in the SUV shape but are all electric”.

"The auto industry is developing a wide range of cleaner, greener vehicles with some of the best in SUV styles," he told the BBC.

"Not all SUVs are large. Small SUVs are among the most popular cars on sale, because they usually offer the high-set driving position, practicality, safety, and looks of more traditional off-roaders, but without the high price, running costs or emissions."

A version of this article originally appeared on our sister title, NationalWorld