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by John Cadogan

Are new SUVs really lane-hogging gas-guzzlers? Hysteria and political correctness often conspire to make us think this is so. However, do these extreme claims actually stack up? It’s a major issue for car makers – because one in five Aussie new vehicle buyers is putting themselves in an SUV these days.

That’s a lot of SUVs. So, at least 20 per cent of new-vehicle purchasers either don’t think their transportation of choice qualifies in this way, or they’re happy with it if it does. It’s pretty obvious there’s anti-4WD sentiment out there in at least equal measure.

Recently, Christchurch’s beleaguered populace tragically suffered yet more serious aftershocks, a galling consequence of which was that the resulting ‘liquefaction’ of the soil swallowed an Audi Q7, snout first. (It also spewed silty filth throughout the area, sparking renewed cleanup efforts – but at least nobody was reported as being killed.) Looking above, it’s not the most dignified presentation of the prestige Audi SUV you’re ever likely to see. I just downloaded the PDF Audi Q7 brochure online (a very swish publication) and – unsurprisingly – it did not include any images of Q7s being swallowed by the very earth.

Of course, it wasn’t just one lone Audi that the earth attacked. Liquefaction of the soil occurs when aftershocks compress subsoils, which eject water as a result. The water rises to the surface and causes an epidemic of instant mud. You can see the consequences.

Looking at the pictures you can see geophysical liquefaction the kind of off-road obstacle your average Audi Q7 statistically never confronts. Let’s face it, Q7s and zeir cherman counterparts generally never face off against any off-road terrain whatsoever. The very concept of a gravel road is beneath them – at least in strictly metaphorical terms.

Last Friday, News Limited’s motoring mob covered the snout-first interment of the ill-fated Christchurch Q7, and in the process Rupert’s boys pronounced SUVs to be “lane-hogging gas guzzlers” purchased for the “rigours of the school run and shopping”. It just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? This is a commonly expressed view in the print and broadcast media – the politically correct view being to hate 4WDs by virtue of the claims above and also, from time to time because they are branded ‘pedestrian killers’ and ‘urban battering rams’. Let’s take a look at that, however – because there’s a case that SUVs are being unfairly clubbed with the ‘lane-hogging, gas-guzzling’ stick here. This de facto presumption of the politically correct ‘truth’ about SUVs might be anything but.

Lane Hogging

Let’s say you’re stuck behind an Audi Q7 in traffic. And let’s say you’re in Australia’s most popular new car, the Holden Commodore. Even Blind Freddy could see the Q7 appears to be rather a big conveyance, sporting quite the bulbous rear end. At least it’s big in relation to some other personal transportation options – though not in comparison to many other vehicles on the road. The Q7 is 198cm wide (not including wing mirrors) and 174cm high to the roof rails. It’s 509cm long.

The car you’re in – the Commodore – is 190cm wide, 147cm high and 490cm long.

The Q7 is bigger in every dimension – 198cm versus 190 wide, 174cm high V 147cm and 509cm long V 490cm.

In terms of actual real estate on the road, call it lane-hogging potential if you want, the Q7 is about a hand-span longer than the Commodore, and the length of your middle finger wider. In stricter dimensional terms – in terms of its ability to ‘hog’ real estate on the road, or parking space – the Q7 has a footprint of 10.08 square metres – occupying just a smidge over three-quarters of a square metre more macadam than the Commodore. It is higher too, however – 27cm to be precise, or less than a foot in the old money.

So, in terms of overall dimensions – length plus width plus height (the way Qantas argues the toss over your hand luggage) – the Q7 is 44cm longer all over/around than the Commodore.

It all seems like not nearly enough lineal metre-age to wrap an hysterical anti-SUV bias in, don’t you think?

Gas Guzzling

Let’s do Audi Q7 versus the most popular car in Australia (Holden Commodore) again.

An Audi Q7 has as its most frugal offering a 3.0-litre TDI quattro powertrain. It’s a premium automobile with a drive-away price of about $100k, so it’s well beyond most people’s financial reach. The entry-level premium Commodore is the Calais, which comes with a 3.6-litre SIDI V6 as its most frugal offering.

Comparing the pair, the Q7 consumes 7.8 litres per 100km under the ADR test, and emits 205 grams of CO2 per kilometre.

The Calais V6? It consumes 9.9 litres per hundred and emits 236 grams of CO2 per kay. That’s 27 per cent more fuel and 15 per cent more CO2 consumed by the local jigger. A similar comparison with broadly similar results is possible when you compare the 250kW 4.2 TDI Q7 against the 260kW 6.0 V8 Commodore.

You can even purchase a mind-bending V12 TDI Audi Q7. (Provided you can find $273k stuffed down the back of a mattress somewhere…preferably someone else’s mattress, say, Madonna’s.) It emits 298 grams of CO2 per kilometre and consumes 11.1 litres of diesel per 100km. The same figures for the 6.0 V8 Holden are 292 g/km of CO2 and 12.3 litres per 100km – so pretty much line ball there – only the Commodore’s much lower pricetag means many more people can afford its relatively high fuel consumption and emissions, compared with the near-$300k Audi Q7 V12. At least, for the consumption-conscious, the V12 Audi Q7 is socio-economically unattainable. (Holden doesn’t ever say ‘making consumption affordable’ in its communications – understandably – and the politically correct set are strangely silent on this issue.)

For the detractors: In fairness you also have to remember that the V12 Q7 is 3cm shorter than its lesser stablemates – so there’s a slight reduction in alleged lane-hogging potential if you trot out the ‘big’ Q7 as an example. You also have to remember that the purchaser of a pricey, consumptive vehicle like Audi Q7 V12 is having his ticket well and truly clipped by the government on the way past – paying around $70k in luxury car tax alone, not to mention other taxes and duties.

I don’t know what you think, but it seems the sometimes highly vocal anti-SUV bias is nothing more than the tall poppy syndrome writ large, with wheels and an engine. It’s simply very easy to fire off an ill-informed incendiary grenade into a fat cat in an expensive SUV.

There is, frankly, very little proliferation of big, heavy SUVs in the Australian market. According to industry statistics provided by Vfacts, large and luxury SUVs accounted for just 3.6 per cent of all vehicles sold in Australia last year (including commercial vehicles). That was about 37,000 sales out of 1.04 million in total. Frankly, all the SUV action is in the cheaper seats, with more affordable compact and medium SUVs accounting for 19.2 per cent of total new vehicle sales. Even there, if you break the market down into ‘compact’ and ‘medium’ SUVS you’ll see that there are 37 per cent more compact SUVs getting bought than medium SUVs.

Two last points:

First, for the SUV-haters, do you really want the nanny state to do something about this alleged problem? Should the government step in and tell us what we are allowed to drive? (Cue the North Korean national anthem if you think this idea’s a ripper…) If you look strictly at ‘needs’, most people in Australia need a car like a base-model Ford Fiesta. When ‘wants’ kick in, people tend to drop more cash on the car they prefer, and the car industry rubs its hands together. Sometimes, people drop a lot more cash to trade a need for a want. It’s actually pretty cool living in a country where you can obsess about making that choice – because not everyone on earth luxuriates to the extent they can obsess over such trivia. (When you have to walk 5km for water, fantasies about the kind of car you want are irrelevant. And, if you’re a woman, in some countries the notion of owning a car or – deity forbid – driving it, is completely irrelevant.)

Second, lane-hogging, gas-guzzling allegations are completely bogus. Or at least trivial. They’re just ill-informed hysteria with no underlying substance, wrapped in the tall-poppy syndrome. Doesn’t being a lane-hog have more to do with driver behaviour than the vehicle being driven? And consumption? You can find overly excessive consumption in just about all classes of vehicle. Also, the oft-attendant claims that SUVs are death traps or even ‘urban battering rams’ are frankly ridiculous.

Of all the problems on the road – the quality of the roads themselves, the age of the cars on it, the woeful lack of proper driver training or education, the $20 billion road trauma problem, the extreme (world champion) obsession with turning speeding into a de facto taxation system because technology makes it easy to do so, the potential long-term effect of the carbon tax, the amount of tax we motorists actually pay, and the blind eye the regulators are turning to our wealth of local gas resources for road transport (to name just a few) – who’s got the time time to give half a toss if some Mosman mum chooses to drive a Q7?

Perhaps you disagree. Maybe you think of SUVs as a kind of automotive, roadgoing equivalent of Hannibal Lecter, MD. Perhaps you think they are in fact (despite the evidence) gas-guzzling lane hogs that many drive with malicious abandon? Should the authorities step in and tell us what to (and what not to) drive? Maybe the weight is over. Perhaps size does matter. Tell us what you think. As always, CarAdvice welcomes your comments and opinions below.






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