There's an old saying that runs something like 'to keep the conversation round the dinner table light it's best to avoid the topics of religion, politics and money'. Based on recent experience I'd like to propose an update for Transport Times readers: 'if you really want to get your dinner guests going, try criticising their religion, their politics or their choice of car'.
I say this because I recently found myself drawn into a rather lively debate about the wisdom or otherwise of choosing to drive an SUV – a 'sport utility vehicle' – particularly in town and city streets.
For some the choice of which car to drive is the product of answering three rather mundane questions: can I afford it? can I afford to run it? And does it go? But for many the choice is a more visceral matter, emotional even. Because they feel the car is saying something about them, for good or ill. I recall a family friend coming round to our house to show off their shiny, lemon-yellow, brand new car many years ago, proudly pointing out that by agreeing to buy the model the showroom had in stock they had saved a tidy sum from the list price. 'Maybe so', observed my Mother after they'd gone, 'but in that colour? Not worth it!'
Anyway, what I said, in relation to the revelation that most SUVs were registered to urban addresses, was that if we're going to achieve net zero carbon and improve air quality in our cities we're all going to have to think about the choices we make. That was it, and that was enough to reduce some of my correspondents to apoplexy.
All I'm saying is that when it comes to cars drivers are going to need to balance what best fits with their lifestyle with the environmental consequences. If having one of those fancy new green number plates is a badge of honour then what will driving a gas guzzler say about the driver?
And, as I'm sure Transport Times readers would recognise, the issue isn't just about the cars we choose to buy – it's also about how and when we choose to use them. That's an issue that could come to the fore if, as covid restrictions ease, commuters continue to harbour concerns about returning to public transport.
So, let's go back to the term SUV; what does that acronym actually signify? Once upon a time it was strictly used to describe large 4x4 vehicles, well-suited to running off-road and to carrying heavy loads. There are indeed many such vehicles to be had. But I think the term has been devalued to the point where it isn't very helpful. Because there are all manner of cars - of various sizes, that are more or less economical to run - being badged as SUVs not all of which warrant being thought of as 'Chelsea tractors'. What they do have in common isn't necessarily that they are 4x4s, it's that they have a taller bodyshell than a conventional saloon car. Which makes them easier to climb into (I've written elsewhere of my chum Watson's decision to quit driving when he realised it increasingly required him to climb down into the vehicle rather than stepping up), and, once seated, providing a good view of the road ahead. Less bucket-seat than armchair.
The thing is, does the comfort and convenience of a taller-bodied vehicle that many of us are seeking really need to come with a huge engine and full off-road capability? Perhaps that is part of the cachet for some buyers, though I hear that the fashionably large wheels of some are simply too big to accommodate off-road tyres. But the rest of us might be happy just to have something a bit taller, with all the creature comforts we've come to expect, but with an economical – environmentally friendly – drivetrain. Which is presumably why we're seeing fully electric SUVs starting to appear.
Meantime, what would the buyers of high-end SUVs choose if they didn't crave the capability to drive up a mountain? Is it realistic to think that they would choose smaller, more thrifty cars when, for them, running costs don't weigh heavily on their household budgets?
I fear, though, that there is one other thing – maybe by choosing cars with suspension designed to cope with rugged off-road terrain we are doing so because they are so well-suited to carrying us in comfort over the virtual assault course of our sad, old road network: crunching over potholes, bumping through poorly patched streetworks and bouncing over multiple varieties of speed hump.
Which reminds me that the design brief for the original Citroen 2CV was to be capable of being driven across a ploughed field whilst carrying – unbroken - a basket of eggs. Maybe it's the 2CV of the 2020's that we really need, a bit taller than the old one, a bit sturdier and safer, of course, and with a full infotainment package this time round. Oh, yes, and make it plug-in battery electric too.
Steve Gooding is Director of the The Royal Automobile Club Foundation for Motoring Limited, a charity registered with the Charity Commission for England and Wales. Charity Number 1002705. Registered address: 89–91 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5HS