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City drivers should think before buying SUVs

New Weather Institute flags up negative impact of large cars

Mark Moran
10 May 2021
Too big for the city? (Bruno van der Kraan/Unsplash)
Too big for the city? (Bruno van der Kraan/Unsplash)


The size of sports utility vehicles (SUVs) mean that their drivers face complaints from other road users about their bulk and their pollution. And, while SUVs are off-road vehicles with 4-wheel drive capabilities, it appears that most are bought by urban drivers. Research by the New Weather Institute revealed that three-quarters of all SUVs sold in the UK are registered to people living in towns and cities.

The report from the think-tank New Weather Institute said: “The numbers stand up long-held suspicions that these 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 New Weather Institute, which is a co-op, says areas where SUV owners dominate are also the places where road space is most scarce, and where the highest proportion of cars are parked on the street. It says many large SUVs are too big for a standard UK parking space.

Large SUVs are often known as “Chelsea tractors” and, indeed, are most prevalent in places such as Chelsea. The largest SUVs are most popular in three London boroughs – Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith & Fulham, and Westminster.

One in three new private cars bought in these areas is a large SUV. These boroughs also top the league for popularity of most polluting cars by UK sales volume, all of which are SUVs.

The most likely large SUV to be owned by a city driver is the Lexus NX300.

Andrew Simms, from the New Weather Institute, said: “It turns out that the home of the ‘Chelsea tractor’ really is Chelsea. 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 argues that advertisers have misled consumers by pushing messages around purchasing SUVs such as “get back to nature” and “help the

A study by the International Energy Agency said increasing demand for SUVs is the second biggest contributor to the growth in carbon emissions. The UK Citizens’ Assembly on climate change has supported restrictions on SUVs.

Drivers in cities should think twice before buying a big SUV, said Steve Gooding, head of the RAC Foundation. “We should all choose the right vehicle for the right trip to cut the size of our carbon footprint. 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.”

However, while Gooding supported the principle of making appropriate choices of vehicles, he told the BBC it was wrong to protest against medium sized cars that look like SUVs but don’t clog the streets and are economical to run.

“The term SUV has become so broad as to be unhelpful,” he said. “Some 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. The popularity of the SUV body-style looks like it’s going to be with us for some time as some auto companies have already released fully electric versions with more to come later this year.”

Edmund King, president the AA, told the BBC: “Talk of banning the advertising of SUVs is a naïve approach. Some of the cleanest cars come in the SUV shape but are all-electric such as the Jaguar I-Pace, Tesla Model X or Hyundai Kona.

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

“Cars like the Nissan Juke are often the family car of choice in suburban areas.”

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