Reports of the death of the 4WD exaggerated

News that 4×4 sales are down compared with last year might make you think the Alliance Against Urban 4×4s is about to pack up and go home, but believe me, we still have a long way to go.

For its current issue, trade magazine ‘The Manufacturer’ obtained sales figures for the first half of 2006 from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders and compared them with figures from 2005. They found something that, at first glance, seems extraordinary: after rising every year for the past decade, 4×4 sales were marginally down.

Cue the headlines. The Evening Standard got hold of the figures and seized upon them to announce that the era of the 4×4 was coming to an end. Using a picture of me putting a fake parking ticket on a Range Rover to illustrate the story, they announced ‘Chelsea tractors driven into decline by public backlash.’

(One of my Green Party colleagues later emailed to ask, “What did they do to that photo to make you look so small?” The answer is nothing. I’m five foot six, not exactly tiny. It’s just that the Range Rover really is very huge indeed.)

Both the Evening Standard and The Manufacturer credited campaigns like ours with the switch this year from massive growth to a small reduction in new 4×4 registrations. The magazine said, “The figures suggest that environmental campaigns to make driving SUVs socially unacceptable have been successful.” This is all very flattering, but the victory party at Alliance HQ is still on hold and here’s why.

Let’s look at those sales figures in more detail. In the first half of 2005, 93,988 new 4×4s were registered in the UK. Between January and June of 2006, this figure was 93,860 – a 0.14% fall. Superficially this compares well with a 13% rise between 2003 and 2004, and a 5% rise last year.

However, the market share commanded by 4×4s continues to go up. This year new car registrations across all sectors are down by more than 4% so you could argue (and the SMMT does) that 4×4 sales are, in fact, holding up well.

And this still means nearly 94,000 new 4×4s are now on the road that weren’t there in January, and that tens of thousands more will join them by the end of this year. Hardly a cast-iron reason to celebrate, although it is a sign that higher fuel prices and more environmental concerns may be starting to affect people’s choice of car.

There’s still an awful lot left for our campaign to achieve. Ideally we’d like to see no-one driving an off-roader around town who isn’t actually going to use it off the road, and we’re realistic about the challenges we face.

With new 4×4s appearing every month, and the re-launch of the Landrover Freelander about to saturate our TV screens and city centre billboards, campaigns like ours are dwarfed by the reach of the global advertising industry. No matter how many interviews, phone-ins and newspaper headlines we get, we’ll never make the difference we need to without legislation to control this propaganda and bring the pollution taxes paid by owners of gas-guzzlers up to effective levels.

But the public backlash is real enough. Even the cabby taking me to Television Centre to talk about the story on the news was exasperated at the huge size of the latest models and the poor driving he sees every day from 4×4 drivers. With public awareness growing of the pollution, carbon dioxide emissions and danger to pedestrians from big 4×4s, there can’t be a Landcruiser or Cayenne driver in the country who hasn’t had their ear bent by a public-spirited friend over dinner. These factors do seem to be making the 4×4 unfashionable at last.

With luck this fall in sales will also - at least privately - be seen as significant by manufacturers for whom sales growth surely makes the difference between a winning product line and an ailing white elephant. Perhaps they will now start to make and promote nice, small, clean cars rather than behemoths we don’t need?

Don’t hold your breath. On the other hand, if you’re stuck behind one on your bike, hold it - hold it for as long as you can.