4x4's and the environment

green laning

4x4

Does choosing a 4x4 necessarily mean ignoring your environmental conscience? Andy Enright Reports

There's no more controversial group of vehicles on the market at the moment than 4x4s. They are extremely popular and that popularity is growing but only a fraction of the motorists who buy these all-wheel-drive models ever explore their capacity for off-road travel. By chance, the features that 4x4s evolved to help them climb rocky hillsides and plough up mud-clogged tracks out in the wilds have endeared them to family buyers in our towns and cities. The problem is that all-wheel drive vehicles have become targets of the environmental lobby.

Much of the criticism levelled at 4x4 vehicles is based around size, whether it's in terms of the extensive exterior dimensions or the gas-guzzling V8 engines that are imagined to be throbbing away under the bonnet. If you want a leviathan offroader with single figure urban fuel economy, it is possible to get one but most people don't, and that's why the majority of 4x4s sold are from the compact 4x4 sector.

These 'softroaders' typically take up no more space on the road than the average family saloon and are packing modest petrol or diesel powerplants. Take the biggest selling 4x4 of the last year, the Land Rover Freelander. This is narrower and shorter than a Ford Mondeo, instantly scotching rumours that it's a carriageway hog. What's more, the best selling engine in the Freelander, the 2.0-litre Td4, manages 37 miles per gallon, identical to something like a Ford Ka 1.6-litre. Carbon dioxide? The old shape Freelander emits less than a Mini Cooper S and its replacement is cleaner again.

It's well worth keeping the 'problem' in proportion. That's less than one in thirteen new cars registered each year is a 4x4. Of this number, well over half were of the compact variety with economical diesel engines being the preferred pick. The number of big, thirsty urban four wheel drives sold is actually vanishingly small - it's just that they're rather obvious when you do spot them and they tend to cluster in specific points. Jeep's massive Commander is a case in point.

The 5.7-litre Hemi petrol engined car sold a very maximum of 100 cars per year. That's one for every 2,343 miles of UK road which even the most rabid eco-warrior could hardly point to being an issue worth getting frothy-mouthed and spittle-flecked over.

In fact sales of really big 4x4s such as the Porsche Cayenne, Range Rover, and BMW X5 appear to have peaked and in recent years a downturn in sales of these vehicles has enshewed. Fashion, like many things, is cyclical and a massive land crab is no longer the thing to be seen in. Granted, the alternative sports cars are often no greener, but these have yet to be stigmatised in quite the same way that big 4x4s have.

In the past few years, 4x4s have gained popularity by cribbing many of the convenience features from MPV people carriers. Let's say you had £20,000 to spend and were looking for a vehicle that could take a family of five and all their leisure gear. The first requirement is that it's a reasonable size. You'll also need something versatile and probably a diesel engine to keep costs down. You could buy an MPV like a SEAT Alhambra, a more conventional estate car such a Mazda6 or a compact 4x4 like a Honda CR-V. In terms of carbon dioxide emissions there's not really too much in it, the Mazda putting out a figure of 165g/km, the Honda 177 and the SEAT 184. All manage around 140bhp from their diesel engines as well, but let's have a gander at how much fuel they sup on the urban cycle. The SEAT will quaff it at a rate of 33.6mpg, the Mazda 34.0mpg but the most economical vehicle of the lot ids the Honda CR-V 4x4 at 34.9mpg. The clincher comes at trade in time when the Honda has retained 54 per cent of its new value after three years compared to 41 per cent for the Mazda and 47 per cent for the SEAT. Suddenly driving a 4x4, it appears, isn't solely about image.

Let's not kid ourselves though - most 4x4 buying decisions have an element of 'lifestyle choice' about them, many buyers deluding themselves that because they live in the country (read suburbia) they need a suitably rugged vehicle. Buyers often cite the raised driving position and ease of entry as one of the preferred attributes of a 4x4. Smart manufacturers like Honda, Nissan and Hyundai have started to sell front-wheel drive versions of their '4x4s' into this market and they make a lot of sense. Customers get the raised driving position and rugged looks but enjoy better fuel economy and lower emissions in the process. At the end of the day, the market self regulates relatively well. Hybrid vehicles like the luxury Lexus RX400h with its petrol/electric powerplant are becoming fashionable in a way that a gas-guzzling Hummer never could be. Legislation threatening to impose punitive financial measures against the worst culprits is also beginning to put a dent in sales of the worst offenders.

Although many 4x4 owners are derided for never going off-road, should the urge to drive your 4x4 to its design limits overtake you, the following guidelines should be considered.

Be aware of different travelling regulations in different countries, and always seek permission to cross private lands

Stick to existing routes

Drive carefully to minimize erosion and damage

Drive "as slow as possible and as fast as necessary"

Engage the diff lock, if available, on low-traction surfaces to minimize wheel spin and road damage

Proceed slowly around animals, or switch off engine and waiting for them to pass

Fully prepare your vehicle for the journey with appropriate tools and supplies

Use eco-friendly cleaning materials, wash vehicles away from water sources - not in them - and take all litter back with you

Respect the peace and tranquility of others

Do a safety check when preparing to go back on the road, and drive slowly to minimize road-debris damage to other vehicles

It is possible to salve your green conscience and still own a 4x4. It just requires some care, forethought and a little responsibility.