Your weekly look at all that sucks in the car world, plus some good bits
Not safe at any speed
Has a backlash begun against giant SUVs crowding out our streets, roads and parking bays? If so, it’s taken a long time to appear. I am starting to see articles appearing critical of the SUV trend for overly large people carriers.
I should declare an interest right now – as regular readers know I own two SUVs, both very old, one daily driver van-like with no rear seats, one back up with four seats, but with the mitigating factor they are the original short chassis, two-door variety designed by Toyota – the RAV4. Being small vehicles they do just fine for carrying loads and finding tight parking spaces. From the first day I bought a second-hand one I knew a high sided vehicle is inherently unsafe in cross winds, but I needed something with big tyres to traverse rocky ground and snow.
I’ve never bought the large 5-door variety of SUV, too bus-like to drive. Toyota made the four-wheel drive vehicle cheap, trendy and fun to drive. Range Rover turned it into a colossally expensive status symbol.
On any city road today you’ll see hundreds of large SUVs empty save for the driver, often a mother taking one child to and from school. The only advantages an SUV offers over a conventional vehicle is you can see over garden walls and hedges, and it has about 5 inches more headroom. The disadvantages are, greater toxic emissions, increased insurance premiums, a third more expensive to buy over a conventional car, and the centre of gravity high leading to instability. Owners think a large SUV a safe place to be.
I had the unpleasant occasion to see a modern-day Range Rover travelling at high speed vault the central barrier on the M8 motorway, fly head over heels upside down to my side of the road, and wipe out a van and a car in front of me. The road was blocked for two hours. (I missed a BBC meeting which was a blessing.) I could see it was a serious accident but did not realise how bad until I noticed the hearse slide up beside me on the hard shoulder. The driver of the Range Rover, thinking himself cocooned in a safe structure, died instantly from his injuries.
Once the trend for tall vehicles took off those of us still driving low riding cars found we couldn’t see the road ahead of us, and duly frustrated, bought an SUV next purchase to gain visual height. The reality is, an estate (US: station wagon) has just as much room if not more than an SUV, and more chance of surviving a skid if ever in trouble.
While the UK government doesn’t record passenger vehicle type in collision injuries and deaths, British academics who analyse police collision data have identified pedestrians as 70% more likely to be killed if they were hit by someone driving a 2.4-litre engine vehicle than a 1.6-litre model. The difference lies in what is in the front.
Recent analysis defines the chances of survival as “Rather than making a declaration that SUVs are dangerous what we can say is large engine cars are dangerous.” The lack of collision data is “masking a deadly problem created by the car industry marketing and producing taller, heavier vehicles.” [Forbes magazine].
That said, the main argument against SUVs coming from local authorities is they are pouring out diesel and petrol fumes by the ton. The car industry faces hefty fines in Europe of €34 billion for failing to meet emissions targets. We seem happy just to cough and complain. The Transport and Environment report places the blame firmly on the rise of SUVs, “driven by car makers’ aggressive marketing”.
The technical bit: Larger engines and bulk mean on average SUVs have CO2 emissions 14% (16g/km) higher than an equivalent hatchback model. Every 1% market shift toward SUVs increases CO2 emissions by 0.15g CO2/km on average.
A 2018 Committee on Climate Change report noted that “the popularity of SUVs is cancelling out emissions savings from improvements in technology”.
So, there you have it. Think smart and downsize or go electric.
GROUSEY’S FOOTWELL FINDS
Destroying your engine
I spotted a newspaper article about a Volvo owner driving from Scotland to London only to destroy his engine when the timing belt broke. After fixing the car there was a dispute over who should pay for the repair – a new engine – but what caught my attention is the number of cases where timing belts snap and engines are ruined. The belts are supposed to last a lifetime but often fail early. Is this another case of manufacturers hoping the car is out of warranty, rather than improving the quality of a critical part of it? Probably.
Minimising the Mini
Today’s Mini hardly warrants the name of the original. Yes, it’s a superior vehicle in so many ways to the pioneering design of Sir Alec Issigonis, but is as big as my smallest SUV, rendering ‘Mini’ a maxi. However, BMW is plans to reduce the size of its core three-door hatchback model when it enters its fourth generation still under BMW ownership, the company that managed to make the car profitable. Quite how BMW will accomplish that is another question. Reducing length is possible the only way to do it. The fourth generation BMW Mini range, due in 2022 or 2023, is also set to ‘expand’ to include a new compact crossover model. The electric version is here already. I like it a lot, but am waiting to see Honda’s more innovative city car out soon.
Cheap electric cars
Whisper, so not too many people hear it – used five-year-old electric cars are one of the best vehicle purchases you can make, whatever your environmental credentials. It makes sense if you are one of the millions of people who use their car most days. Long considered way out of the price range of normal car buyers, good quality electric cars are hitting the used market for less than £7,000. Nissan Leafs, which cost £30,000 (after grants) eight years ago, are now £5,700 with about 60,000 miles on the clock. But what is mileage on an electric car? What parts wear out? A Renault Zoe, with a leased battery and with fewer miles on the clock, starts at about £6,500. Environmentally friendly cars cost a few pounds a week to run – attractive knowing petrol costs £1.30 a litre and diesel averages £1.36 and with the mess in the Middle East fuel will get dearer.