Environmental Talk: Do we need Sports Utility Vehicles or SUVs?
An increasing number of SUVs in Kampala.

Environmental Talk: Do we need Sports Utility Vehicles or SUVs?


Land of the Pajero.

By Ivan Kibuka-Kiguli
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First published: March 10, 2007


For those that are lucky to escape the claws of poverty in Uganda (by escaping to greener pastures or finally 'landing in things' in Uganda) owning a car is usually a must. For some people, just any car will not do. They opt for nothing less than a Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV). SUVs are commonly referred to as 4WD cars in Uganda (although most small Japanese models have 4WD versions now).


Up until the late 90s, SUVs were more popular with American drivers probably because of the relatively lower cost of fuel in North America compared to most other parts of the world and the prestige attached to owning one. Due to the increasing cost of fuel worldwide, American drivers seem to be opting for smaller vehicles now. This explains why the Japanese car makers are faring better in the US while GM, Chevrolet, Ford etc are floundering. For some reason however, SUVs are becoming a must-have for any Ugandan that considers themselves 'arrived'. The rate at which Toyota Prados, RAV4s, Mitsubishi Pajeros, Honda CRVs, Suzuki Vitaras, etc are accumulating on Ugandan roads is too phenomenal to be ignored. In Europe, the habit is also cottoning on but is facing stiff crictism from the media, environmentalists and some town councils. In UK for example, SUVs have been nicknamed Chelsea Tractors to point out how impractical it is to own an SUV that spends 99% of its working life in the centre of London and never meets off road terrain.

Let us examine whether Ugandans who buy SUVs are justified in doing so.

An increasing number of SUVs in Kampala
An increasing number of SUVs in Kampala.

Most SUVs have higher ground clearance than ordinary cars and therefore suffer less scrapes to the under body and broken exhaust pipes, etc compared to the latter in off road conditions (which are almost everywhere in Uganda, including Kampala city centre). They are slightly more spacious than their ordinary counterparts and can carry a little more cargo. This is valid only for the large SUVs as the smaller ones (Honda CRV size) are comparable to ordinary cars in this respect. People who drive SUVs tend to feel safer as they are seated a little higher than most traffic around them. To feel even safer, they fit large chrome bull-bars at the front and sometimes the rear. Now they are ready to take you on.

I have had the opportunity to drive a few relatives' SUVs in Uganda. For starters we all know they are not cheap to purchase and are more likely to be hijacked and robbed than ordinary cars. I am not sure if it is a common design fault but these cars seem to be quite unstable at highway speeds. The 'safety' you feel when riding through town evaporates above around 70km/h. When off road in Kampala's potholed infested streets the ride quality sticks out as a poor one. The suspension seems to swing forever unless you really creep around the potholes. And while they are at it, the engines guzzle far more fuel and pollute the environment more than ordinary cars do. Maintenance costs are also rather high because of the pricey parts. Try buying a new set of tyres for the Pajero and you will understand this better.

They are not as agile and nimble as ordinary cars are. You will prove this when you attempt a U-turn on Uganda's narrow roads. When you go off-road in slippery conditions, the grip on the road is poor until you engage the 4WD function. In normal SUV driving, it is the rear wheels which provide traction and because the back is lighter than the front, the amount of traction obtained compared to ordinary cars (the majority of which get their traction through the heavier front) is poorer. Most SUVs have turbos fitted to their engines which is a good idea if you really like speeding but this brings other problems if not carefully maintained. Engines fitted with turbos experience higher temperatures than normal engines and if not given very good care in tropical climates like that in Uganda, the engine might overheat and create break downs for you.

The smaller ordinary cars to their credit are cheaper to purchase and maintain than SUVs. They are miles ahead in stability at higher speeds and generally offer a more comfortable ride because of their lower centre of gravity. For 2WDs, they offer better road grip since the front axle (which carries the engine and most of the driver and front passenger) is held down and it is usually through the front wheels that traction is obtained in these cars. Besides, there are less chances of being carjacked in an ordinary car than an SUV (although this also depends on the make and model of car).

On the other hand, the low ground clearance of most ordinary cars leaves a lot to be desired considering we have to cope with craters on Uganda's road network. If you are also in the habit of carrying heavy foodstuff from the village every weekend and have a large family, this type of vehicle may be unsuitable.

So, what kind of car owner are you? Are you a hardcore SUV junkie or do you own or want to own one because you really need it? Do you own an ordinary car and hate SUVs because they are bigger and look meaner than your car? Those of you in the Diaspora also take note as you are fond of coming to Uganda and driving monsters.

By Ivan Kibuka-Kiguli
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First published: March 10, 2007
The author is a pollution control equipment engineer/consultant and a proud active member of UGPulse.