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A Tale of Two Cities

While Paris considers a ban on SUVs, London finds a different way of dealing with the “Chelsea tractors.”

During Europe’s all-too-brief summer (wet and rarely hot, unlike last year), the first murmurings of a backlash against the increasing number of SUVs on our congested roads began to be heard.

This is the closest thing to an SUV you’ll see on London streets.
The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delano?, started it by saying that he was seriously considering banning SUVs from his city center. His leftwing counterpart in London, Ken Livingstone — still referred to by many as “Red Ken” because of his views — took up the call.

The day before writing this column in late October, I was in Paris. As I stood inside a pavement caf? sipping my early espresso (full octane, of course, none of that de-caf nonsense) ,I watched the rush hour traffic navigating a large roundabout outside the caf? in the normal chaotic and rather endearing French way.

Nearly every car was small, French and diesel. There is almost a sweet smell to the traffic in Paris these days with everyone using low sulfur city diesel which is slightly perfumed. What was odd was that during my 15- minute wait, I didn’t see a single SUV. And during my taxi ride to the airport that evening I saw just one, an aging first-generation Range Rover. Now, this might have something to do with the fact that neither Renault nor PSA Peugeot-Citro?n — the two French car makers who dominate the domestic market — make an SUV, so loyal Frenchmen and women don’t buy them.

But I doubt it, especially since Renault has already announced its plans to develop its own SUV based on a platform from Alliance partner Nissan.

Paris does not need to ban SUVs any more than London does — but what Paris can learn from London is that congestion charging works, and works well. It might sound like heresy for a motoring journalist to welcome something that restricts the rights of car drivers, but this is one case which needs to be noted by the whole auto industry.

The center of London is now a good place to be — it’s easy and quick to travel across and cheaper too if you go by cab because journey times are so much shorter. It proves that car use, not car ownership, is the issue. People have found that they just don’t need to use their cars the way they used to, which has been bad news for Ken Livingstone and his team at City Hall. Congestion charging is not raising as much money, has had been forecast.

But back to SUVs. There has been a smoldering resentment of them in many parts of Europe, especially the U.K. where they are dubbed “Chelsea tractors” after that fashionable part of London. They clog our narrow streets, intimidate other road users, use more fuel and therefore cause more pollution and more damage to road surfaces.

Yet their popularity shows no sign of diminishing. In the 15 countries of the European Union, the 4×4 share of the market has risen from 2.4 percent in 1994 to 5.2 percent in 2002.

Biggest share within the EU is Sweden at 8.8 percent which is understandable. But explain Luxembourg, a country so small that blink and you miss it and not noted for its rugged terrain, with an 8.2 percent share.

Why France, which has one of the lowest 4×4 ownership levels at 4.5 percent, is getting so bothered about these vehicles defies any logic.

Of course, should there be any ban on SUVs, the industry will squeal. It has been the one buoyant sector globally, especially in North America.

Figures from Global Insight Automotive, a consultancy, show a 72 percent increase between 1995 and 2000 from 3.1 million vehicles to 5.3 million worldwide. The consultancy predicts that SUV sales will continue to grow, but at diminished levels. Sales are expected to reach 7.7 million next year, which represents a 43 percent increase since 2000, but then slow to reach 9.8 million in 2009.

What many predict will happen, certainly on this side of the Atlantic, is that SUVs will evolve to become more friendly toward the environment and other road users — that means they will be smaller, lighter and use engines that guzzle less gas. SUVs are predominantly diesel-engined here. How long until that happens in the USA?

This predicted shift will benefit mostly the European and Korean automakers. This explains why Renault and Fiat are so keen to enter the compact SUV market, which is the area where most growth is predicted.

This article was provided exclusively to Automotive Industries by Interchange, a U.K.-based automotive business agency and consultancy servicing media and corporate clients. Anthony Lewis is a partner in Interchange and can be contacted via e-mail at

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