Stereotype of ‘Chelsea tractor’ reflects reality of urban SUV sales, says report

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Figures show that 75% of SUVS were bought by people living in towns and cities

Advertising campaigns focus on a romantic image of the SUV as the car of the great outdoors.
Advertising campaigns focus on a romantic image of the SUV as the car of the great outdoors. Photograph: PA/handout
Advertising campaigns focus on a romantic image of the SUV as the car of the great outdoors. Photograph: PA/handout
Wed 7 Apr 2021 01.00 EDT

The stereotype of the Chelsea tractor, the derogatory term used to describe the tendency of the London middle classes to use 4x4 vehicles for the school run, is based on reality, according to new figures.

Promoted by carmakers and advertisers as a vehicle that takes you back to nature, new data shows that SUVs, which produce much greater CO2 emissions than most other cars, are most popular in affluent urban areas such as Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham and Westminster.

Three-quarters of the 360,000 SUVs sold in 2019 in the UK were bought by people living in towns and cities, the report from the New Weather Institute and climate action charity Possible shows.

The royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea is in the top three districts for the sale of large SUVs, said the report. More Range Rovers were sold in Kensington and Chelsea than anywhere else; with one in 10 new cars registered in the borough belonging to the Land Rover brand of SUV.

The report accuses advertisers and the car industry of using persuasive but dishonest messaging to push the sale of polluting vehicles that damage the environment.

Because SUVs are bigger, heavier and less aerodynamic than other vehicles, they produce more CO2 than similar-sized cars – in 2019 average emissions of petrol SUVs were 134g/km compared to 121g/km of other petrol cars, according to the European Environment Agency.

Advertising campaigns focus on a romantic image of the SUV as the car of the great outdoors. In July last year Land Rover pushed its vehicles as an antidote to the restrictions imposed by the Covid 19 pandemic in an ad campaign using the line “a love letter from the great outdoors”.

But far from being a vehicle that takes the driver back to nature, SUVs are damaging the environment and the climate, the report said.

Andrew Simms, co-director of the New Weather Institute and report co-author, said: “It turns out that the home of the ‘Chelsea tractor’ really is Chelsea.

“One of advertising’s biggest manipulations has persuaded urban families that it’s perfectly ‘normal’ to go shopping in a two-tonne truck. They’ve spun the Chelsea tractor factor into behaviour change, but the human health and climate damage done by SUVs is huge and needs to be undone.”

Transport is the largest contributor to UK domestic greenhouse gas emissions. It contributed 28% of UK domestic emissions in 2018, 4% higher than in 2013.

In Europe, sales of SUVs are being blamed for the failure of transport sector to meet emission reduction targets. The vehicles have increased from a 7% market share in 2009 to 36% in 2018 and are expected to reach nearly 40% by 2021, according to the NGO Transport and Environment.

Robbie Gillett, campaigner at climate charity Possible and report co-author, said: “Car companies have promoted SUVs as a luxury status symbol for far too long. And now our city streets are full of them. Advertising agencies working on SUV ad campaigns need to end their role in promoting harmful and polluting products.”

The report said the Advertising Standards Authority was failing in its mission to safeguard the public from misleading and harmful advertising and is too biased towards the car industry. It called on the ASA to be restructured and to be far more active in addressing climate change

Greg Archer, of Transport and Environment, said that for years the promotion of SUVs had stalled progress to more efficient, lower CO2 cars. Now the new push by the industry was for uptake of SUV hybrids, which were not a responsible choice to reduce transport emissions.

“These gas guzzlers are being sold as plug-in hybrids with a small battery only capable of powering these urban tanks on short trips,” said Archer. “A plug-in hybrid electric vehicle SUV is not a sustainable or responsible choice for any city driver.”

The ASA declined to comment. Land Rover did not respond to a request for comment.

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