SUVs: Paragon of Efficiency
or Crime Against Civilisation?
A debate with Top Gear Magazine editor
The Ecologist, June 2005
Let me get one thing straight; I don't swallow the 'rational'
argument against sports-utility vehicles (SUVs). Sure,
they burn more gas than smaller cars, but so do all
big cars. So why is this not about efficiency instead
of an issue as esoteric as vehicle height? (And while
we have the tape measure in hand, let's make this understood;
this is about vehicle height.) An SUV's 'footprint'
is no bigger than that of an 'ordinary' car. A Land
Rover Discovery, for example, has the same footprint
as a London taxi.
Sure, big-engined cars also pollute more, but only by
emitting CO2. Other dangerous exhaust gases from cars
have been regulated almost out of existence. Once again,
let's make this an issue about vehicle efficiency and
not vehicle architecture. For one thing, car makers
have proved themselves surprisingly resourceful at improving
And as for safety, you're more likely to be injured
by a small car, with a low, rounded nose - like an Audi
TT, which, from the pedestrian's point of view, is the
most lethal car on the road.
What about compatibility? (The 'ouch factor' when your
smaller car is hit by a larger SUV.) Forget about US-built
'trucks', to borrow the well chosen vernacular Americans
use to describe the SUVs they manufacture over there.
US SUVs are, for the most part, built like old locomotive
carriages, and hurt when they hit you. Not so the SUVs
popular in the UK, most of which are built like regular
You probably guessed I believe the anti-SUV argument
to be an irrational, indeed emotional argument. I believe
passionately in smaller, more efficient motor cars.
But I also believe in choice. I'll give up my SUV when
all those diplomats and plutocrats have ditched their
limos (we'll get to aviation and ship fuel later no
doubt). In the meantime, I won't be your totem because
my car happens to be taller than yours.
I don't dislike SUVs because they're tall. I hate them
because they're a crime against civilisation.
Why? Let's start with fuel efficiency. You say big-engined
cars only emit CO2. 'Only' CO2? It's CO2, of which vehicle
emissions are the fastest-growing contributor, that's
changing the climate of the entire planet. It's CO2
that threatens to knock half of the world's species
into extinction and flood New York. Small matters, I
know, compared to the freedom of the British motorist,
but probably worth mentioning.
As for safety: urban SUVs are involved in 25 per cent
more accidents than ordinary cars. The European New
Car Assessment Programme gives them an average crash-test
score of just four out of 36. The Royal Society for
the Prevention of Accidents advises parents not to drive
their children to school in SUVs. Doesn't sound promising,
Then you bring up the oldest justification for selfishness:
'choice'. But what does 'choice' actually mean? Could
I nip down the shops in a tank? What if I drove a Harley
without a silencer up and down your road all night?
Or do you actually believe, as most of us do, that sensible
limits should be placed on the freedom of drivers? If
so, then it comes down to where we draw the line: and
I draw it at SUVs. Sorry.
Finally, I couldn't help noticing that you say 'gas'
instead of petrol and 'regular' instead of ordinary.
This says it all, for SUVs represent the Americanisation
of British driving. I bet they're great for cruising
through the Arizona desert, or tooling along the massive
streets of LA, where the authorities have thoughtfully
removed all the pavements. But watch them grinding through
the medieval streets of somewhere like Oxford, where
I live, and you see them for what they are: ugly, arrogant
Still, let's celebrate one point of agreement. 'I'll
give up my SUV,' you say, 'when all those diplomats
and plutocrats have ditched their limos.' Great! Let's
join forces, then, to clear the scourge of limos and
SUVs from our streets. And when we've done that, let's
get on to taxing airline fuel.
All the best,
Crime against civilisation? I know I came out fighting,
but shall we both reach for a little perspective here,
eh? The SUV's only 'crime' is that it emits as much
CO2 as any other large car (and considerably less than
a London cab, which seats only five yet puts more tarmac
in the shade than the Yummy Mummy's favourite ride -
the seven-seat Volvo XC90).
We both know that the entire transport sector represents
less than 20 per cent of global CO2 emissions; and that
cars share that sector with completely unregulated
trains, planes and nasty smelly cargo ships. You would
have to make an awful lot of trips to Sainsbury's to
match the amount of CO2 emitted by the average refrigerated
boat rushing in mangetout from Kenya.
But cars are easier targets. Big, bright, beautiful,
mobile monuments to their owners' material success.
Odd, that they should inspire such powerful resentment
Fragrant anti-SUV campaigner Sian Berry (the founder
member of the Alliance Against Urban Four-by-Fours)
loves to hate the middle-class mothers who drive their
offspring to private schools in their SUVs, but says
very little about the black DJs similarly devoted to
their 'trucks' (I'll use inverted commas so you can
look away when I lapse in to the Americana you so despise).
SUV loathing is the prejudice that dares speak its name.
And it's such a waste of time and effort. If you want
to save the planet, please learn to look beyond the
architecture of my car. But then substantive solutions
have never been the green movement's stick. Aren't we
only learning now the truth about recycling or, for
that matter, wind farms?
So redeem yourself. Assuming you do believe in personal
transport, why not concentrate your energies on making
cars more efficient and, ultimately, emissions-free?
Petrol-electric hybrid SUVs are quite the thing in the
(whisper it) US right now. Some manufactures think hydrogen
versions might be as little as 10 years away. Then what
are you going to get worked up about? People with big
Do try to keep up. You're not debating with Sian Berry,
or the green movement as a whole. You're debating with
me. My objection to SUVs is part of a wider framework
of environmental concerns and objectives, which also
include working to prevent unnecessary plane journeys,
household energy waste, over-consumption and more. Bitterly
jealous though I am of your no doubt enormous 'material
success', it's not the reason I don't like these cars.
See if you can respond to the following points with
rational rebuttals, rather than willy-waving fulminations:
1. I'm opposed to all unnecessary car use, whether
it be nipping to the local shop in an SUV or driving
the kids round the corner to school in a Mini.
2. I'm particularly opposed to large cars that are used,
like SUVs, limos or the 'trucks' of DJs, black or otherwise,
to ferry small numbers of people on unnecessary journeys.
3. Comparing cars with trains (what do you mean by 'unregulated',
by the way?) is spurious. You know very well - or should
do - that it's not overall emissions that matter but
emissions per capita. Train travel emits far less per
person than car travel, and removes large amounts of
potential congestion from the roads.
4. 'Architecture' matters. Driving big cars down small
streets causes both damage and resentment in a way that
a smaller car (or, better still, a bicycle) would not.
5. We seem to agree that bringing mangetout from Kenya
by boat is stupid and unnecessary. Three cheers for
the local food economy, then.
6. 'Fuel efficiency' won't save you. It's been estimated,
for example, that if all the cars in the US converted
to hydrogen fuel cells, it would take at least twice
as much energy as is currently produced by the country's
national grid to fuel them. The real issue is our spiralling
and unnecessary energy use: a society-wide issue, of
which driving SUVs is only one part - albeit a growing
and easily preventable part.
Oh, please: don't you understand that the world outside
doesn't see different shades of green? It doesn't care
whether you speak eloquently and with reasoned charm
like your editor, or whether you scare the living daylights
out of pre-schoolers like Ms Berry and her SUV-attacking
chums. Radicalism will win you headlines; it won't win
you the war.
So, please, drop the totemic assault on tall cars. (I
meant to ask: do you hate vehicles like the Renault
Espace? Or does having a more sloping windscreen excuse
certain cars from your wrath?) And use your considerable
passion to persuade the transport sector as a whole
to lean off. Then when you've done that you can do some
real work and attempt to translate Kyoto into Mandarin.
To your points:
1. We at Top Gear Magazine (and even Jeremy
Clarkson himself) have never knowingly encouraged unnecessary
car use. I like to think we are all too rounded as human
beings to regard driving as a pastime. (But I may be
guilty of being optimistic there
) My family has
a two-seat Smart which is used 90 per cent of the time.
Something 'bigger' only comes out when the seats are
likely to get filled.
2. My SUV has seven seats and they are regularly all
filled. Indeed, Volvo estimates that its best-selling,
seven-seat SUV spends half its life at 100 per cent
occupancy. And I'm sure I don't need to remind you that
there is no more efficient way of using fossil fuels
than an internal combustion engine.
3. Are we talking about congestion or emissions here?
(I firmly believe that the only answer to the former
is road pricing, and have always supported the congestion
charge.) Now you know very well, Paul, the problem with
trains: the 8.05 from Godalming jam-packed with commuters
is extremely energy efficient (even if it is running
on electricity produced at a largely unregulated fossil-fuel-burning
power station). It's the nearly empty 11.03 that screws
it up for you. That and the fact that few of us live
and work in railway stations.
4. They don't cause damage unless they hit something.
Any vehicle -especially a bus - can do that.
5. Yes, although we've seen what the end of crop exports
has done to Zimbabwe
6. Once again, I agree with you (although your view
on hydrogen production costs is not shared by everyone).
But to be honest, if oil reserves are as low as some
are now saying, global warming may be the least of our
Hope that clears things up a little.
You're probably right: the public don't see the nuances.
When they watch Jeremy Clarkson tearing up a Scottish
mountain to 'road-test' an SUV, ripping through heather
and peat, or crashing one manfully into a chestnut tree
to test its toughness, they probably don't think 'hmm,
now there's a man who likes to discourage unnecessary
car use'. Life can be cruel.
But let's get back to the real issues. You continue
to insist that people campaign against SUVs because
they are a 'totem' of something or other. Yet when I
explain the real reasons to you, you start throwing
out red herrings - Zimbabwean agriculture, China and
Kyoto, black DJs - so that you can avoid responding.
So I'm going to return to the two biggest black marks
on the SUV's record - both of which I bought up in my
first letter, and neither of which you responded to.
Can you answer me two simple questions?
First, we agree that climate change is real and getting
worse. We agree that CO2 emissions are its major cause.
We agree that SUVs emit more CO2 emissions than ordinary
cars. Would you also agree that we all have a personal
responsibility to emit as little as possible? If so,
how can you justify driving an unnecessarily polluting
car? If you, living in one of the richest countries
in the world, can't sacrifice a small degree of 'choice'
to tackle the worst environmental problem humanity has
ever faced, what hope is there of us solving it?
Second, I notice you avoided my point about safety entirely,
and I can see why: SUVs are some of the most dangerous
cars on the roads, especially if you happen to be outside
them. To add to my earlier points, I note that the UK
Transport Research Laboratory reported two months ago
that 2004 was the worst year for road deaths for seven
years. It blamed the reverse on the increasingly popularity
of SUVs and 'people carriers'. Do you accept that SUVs
are more dangerous for pedestrians, cyclists and other
drivers than ordinary cars? If so, why not drive something
smaller and make the roads safer for all of us?
All the best,
I think most folks were thrilled to see that Land Rover
on top of that mountain, and I think most folks laughed
out loud when Jeremy drove into the tree. So however
correct your message might be, people just ain't hearing
it. Maybe you should listen just a little harder to
those people who are vaguely sympathetic to your argument
and in a position to fine-tune it a little. I assume
you're not so smug that you were not made more than
a little anxious by the almost immeasurably small visibility
of the Greens and green issues in the May election.
Someone, somewhere is not doing their job.
I do insist and will continue to insist that SUVs are
not the issue (I honestly believe personal transport
shouldn't even make your top 10 of environmental issues,
but, hey, it's what I'm here for), and that it's all
unnecessary polluters you should object to: old cars,
taxis, limos, sports cars, people carriers, all cars
made in America, buses, commercial vehicles and, yes,
So why have you picked on SUVs? Can you tell me that?
I can tell you a 10-year-old Volvo emits not only a
lot more CO2, but a whole bunch of other nasties likely
to kill my kid sooner than global warming.
I know, I know, I know: you believe SUVs are dangerous
and you quote the TRL opinion (from which it has now
distanced itself) that SUVs are more likely to be involved
in accidents. Hmmm, funny that. In the US the National
Highway Traffic Safety Administration says quite the
reverse, not altogether unsurprisingly considering the
clear visibility advantages SUVs offer.
The TRL also now says that an SUV might well be safer
in a pedestrian impact, the bluff front actually helping
to keep the pedestrian's head away from the windscreen.
Indeed, shortly to be introduced European legislation
is forcing car makers to redesign the noses and bonnets
of new cars to make them higher and more bluff.
And yes, we did see a rise in road fatalities last year,
but please don't try and pretend that was anything other
than a sadly predictable rise in deaths in young men
aged 17-34. I think even you know they don't drive SUVs.
You must be heartened to hear of the rapid decline in
sales of large SUVs in the US and of how sales of small
cars are booming in the UK. Motorists are not as careless
as you believe. So, please, give the individual some
credit, and learn to fight those battles really worth
Doubtless the viewers of Top Gear found the sight of
a middle-aged plonker in saggy jeans ramming his big
silver car into a 300-year-old tree downright hilarious.
I think this tells us all we need to know about the
viewers of Top Gear. And its readers, come to
Fortunately, according to your circulation figures,
only 165,000 people buy your magazine. That means around
59.58 million people don't. I reckon that gives us something
to work with. It's also 118,000 less than voted for
the Green Party in May, by the way. Perhaps you're not
doing your job properly.
But I am going to answer your question, even though
you haven't answered all of mine. 'Why have you picked
on SUVs?' you ask. Well, we've gone through the SUV's
black marks pretty exhaustively. I could use this last
letter to roll out some more we haven't even covered:
the sheer volume of materials that go into making such
a massive vehicle, for instance, and the impact that
has on the environment.
But I think the answer is broader than that. I think
the reason that people have begun to focus on SUVs is
that - unlike old Volvos or London taxis - they have
opened a new front in what seems to be our losing battle
against car culture.
I have been campaigning on transport issues for more
than a decade. In that time I have seen climate change
move from a 'wacky' theory that appeared only in magazines
like The Ecologist into mainstream science and
politics. I have seen new roads destroy virgin countryside.
I have seen the number and volume of cars on the roads
grow relentlessly. I have heard politician after academic
after journalist acknowledge that our insane love affair
with the car needs to end if we are to live in any kind
of decent society.
Then, just as I thought we might be getting somewhere,
along came the SUV - the epitome of everything that
has been going wrong. Dangerous, arrogantly wasteful,
pointless, irresponsible and antisocial, driving one
sends a crystal-clear message to society: 'Stuff you.
I'll drive what I like. You can clean up the mess.'
No wonder people respond in kind.
'Personal transport' is a big issue, and it's only going
to get bigger. We need to change our whole relationship
with the car, and quickly. The rise of the SUV doesn't
take us forward: it drags us backwards. Sales are declining,
you say? Then maybe I'm not alone. Sales of bicycles,
by the way, are apparently booming. Care to join me?
All the best,