Animosity climbs as SUVs make inroads in London

LONDON -- It is sometimes difficult to navigate the ancient and narrow streets of London in a sport utility vehicle intended for the open spaces of the countryside or the rugged mountains of the American West.

When Beverly Knowles, proud owner of a shiny silver BMW X-5, encountered this problem last month, she did what she always does in such situations: She stepped on the gas and hoped for the best.

The result? A little paint off the side, but neither she nor the alley seemed the worse for wear.

''It was a slight misjudgment of space," said the 32-year old Londoner, who owns an art gallery in the Notting Hill neighborhood, about a recent incident with a garbage bin and a narrow alley. ''But I figure, if anyone comes out badly in these collisions, it's not going to be me."

Knowles is precisely the type of person who engenders fear and hatred in the hearts of people who don't like SUVs. She admits to parking on the street in any spot that is convenient, and earned $2,700 in parking tickets last year as a result. She says her already-patchy driving record has been exacerbated by her ''tank on wheels." She has no qualms spending $144 per fill-up on her SUV, which she affectionately calls ''The Monster."

Brash and unabashed, people like Knowles, and the people who hate them, are becoming more prevalent in London.

Last year, 187,000 SUVs were sold in Britain -- almost 9 percent of all new cars registered, up from 2.3 percent in 1990.

Londoners seem particularly enamored of the vehicles: A survey released last month by AA Personal Loans reported that 16 percent of Londoners planning on buying a car in the next year will buy a four-wheel-drive vehicle, whereas only 8 percent of people in more rugged Scotland aspired to do so.

Continental Europe has shared Britain's affinity for SUVs -- in 2005, more than 14 million new SUVS were registered. The cars make up 7 percent of all cars in the European Union, up from 2.7 percent just a decade ago. But some spectators think that the trend is a particularly British one.

''Our European neighbors don't see cars as quite the status symbol that we do in the UK," said Ian Crowder, a spokesperson for Automobile Association Insurance, which is similar to AAA in the United States. ''The trend towards SUVs is certainly an American import, and Great Britain has greater ties with the States than any other European country."

Still, as SUV sales in the United States slow down with the rising costs of fuel, they show no signs of doing so in Britain. If the trend is a particularly British one, there has been little stereotypical British politeness in the response to the cars.

Take, for instance, the comments of London Mayor Ken Livingston, never one to mince words, who called SUV drivers in London ''complete idiots." His office talked about charging SUVs more to drive in the city, but found that such a penalty would be impossible to enforce.

Britain's energy minister, Malcolm Wicks, recently said he wanted to take action against the ''crass irresponsibility" of SUV drivers. The 2006 budget adds a tax of about $366 on vehicles that produce more than 250 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer, or about 0.90 pounds per mile. A Range Rover emits 389 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer, or 1.4 pounds per mile, while a Toyota Prius Hybrid emits about 104 grams per kilometer, or 0.4 pounds per mile, according to Britain governmental fuel economy figures.

In Europe, similar policy initiatives have been discussed. In Rome, there is talk of charging SUV drivers three times the normal rate to drive through the city's center. Paris's city council passed a resolution condemning the cars for their polluting ways.

But activists in Europe have yet to shut down a Land Rover plant, as Greenpeace did in England's West Midlands last year, by chaining themselves to unfinished vehicles on the assembly line, protesting against the cars' emissions.

An active advocacy group -- the Alliance against Urban 4x4s -- was founded in a London pub two years ago, and doles out fake parking tickets to SUVs that read ''Poor Vehicle Choice." The group has recently turned its ire on soccer players, who allegedly drive many different models of the ''Chelsea tractors" -- a jab at the wealthy neighborhood where the cars seem especially popular.

Aside from assertions that SUVs pollute the air and hog the roads, some in Britain have a different complaint -- that the cars represent everything that Britons despise.

The trend toward SUVs ''is not really part of the British psyche -- it's just conspicuous waste," said Sian Berry, a founding member of the Alliance against Urban 4x4s -- who has been called a sandal-wearing hippie and tree-hugger by irate SUV drivers unhappy about being targeted by her campaign. ''It is people who refuse to even look at the dial to see how much fuel they've been using."

Representatives of the automotive industry question this criticism. SUVs in Europe are smaller than those in the United States, and emit less pollution than some types of cars on the road, like large estate cars, said Keith Lewis, a spokesman for Britain's Society for Motor Manufacturers.

He said that even as more SUVs hit the market, the amount of carbon dioxide they emit is falling.

''What you have here is the politics of envy," he said. ''People are buying cars because they have the money, and they're being picked on because they have the money."

Art dealer Knowles was barely aware of the loathing her SUV inspired until her assistant used it to run an errand. He came back ashen-faced, she said, traumatized by people who had gestured obscenely and cut him off on the road.

''It's bling and brash, and English people hate expensive, blingy cars," she said. ''But there was a three-month waiting list when I bought mine, so then again, maybe they don't."