As we reported in the last issue of Action Briefing, large four-wheel drive vehicles (4x4s, called 'sports utility vehicles' in the US) include some of the most environmentally damaging, fuel-hungry vehicles around. So we were surprised to find car makers Toyota exhibiting a hulking 4×4, complete with a poster board headed "Toyota – committed to the protection the environment", inside the Bullring, Birmingham's largest shopping centre.

The model on show was the ravenous Toyota RAV4, which, although it's by no means the worst offender out there, still emits 207g carbon dioxide per kilometre, enough to merit a bottom rating in the new Vehicle Environmental Labelling Scheme (see 'How green is your car?', below). Was it possible that they really just hadn't noticed? Birmingham Friends of the Earth decided to do some investigating.

Toyota GB have teamed up with local dealerships and a marketing company to run promotions in major shopping centres. The Bullring promotion ran from 31st Jan-10th April. When Birmingham FoE campaigner Rob Pilling dropped by on 12th March, two of the three models on display had carbon dioxide emissions ratings in excess of 200g per kilometre.

Rob got talking with Mark, a Toyota rep. Mark agreed that the cars like the ones on display were not the most environmentally friendly options. He accepted that the message was inconsistent, but said the sign reflected Toyota's wider environmental policies, for example their work on alternative fuels and development of the hybrid Prius.

Mark said that the larger cars were a recent addition to the exhibit and that earlier in the campaign they had had smaller, low emissions vehicles on display. Shouldn't they take down the environmental poster when they used the larger cars, then? Mark grinned, but would clearly be doing no such thing.

Rob asked if Mark thought that promoting 4x4s in an urban centre like Birmingham was a responsible marketing strategy. Mark thought it was and suggested (rather missing the point of the question) that in any case the RAV4 performs poorly off road. Like its BMW equivalent, the RAV4 is not a true off-roader but a smart road car made to look a bit rugged.

Rob then asked whether, if a customer from, say, Shirley wanted a brochure about the Land Cruiser (a real brute), Mark would question the customer's choice of vehicle, perhaps pointing out that such a large, unwieldy choice was not ideal for urban driving. Mark said he would not. Do Toyota ever try to persuade customers to reconsider their choice of vehicle in the light of environmental impacts? Mark said, 'not really. We’re here to give the consumer what they want.'

Toyota's Prius has proved more of a hit in mainland Europe, but Mark thought that UK car buyers too were becoming more conscious of fuel economy and carbon dioxide emissions. Initiatives like the differential tax on business cars are influencing buyers' decisions. "It is certainly affecting the choice of car," said Mark. "Hitting them in the pocket really works."

Despite Mark’s assurances, the fact remains that Toyota are actively promoting 4x4s for urban driving and make little effort in their campaign to persuade consumers to make a more environmentally responsible purchase. And it's difficult to imagine Toyota going out of their way to disabuse prospective buyers of any green associations that might have rubbed off on the more polluting vehicles from the corporation’s high-profile, flagship products and projects.

How green is your car?
The Government's 'Vehicle Environmental Labelling Scheme' was launched in February for new cars and is due to begin later this year. In a recent survey, more than two thirds of motorists polled for Auto Express magazine said they would be influenced by the new scheme, which all major manufacturers have signed up to.

The scheme grades vehicles in bands from 'A' to 'F' according to the amount of carbon dioxide (g) emitted per kilometre travelled (g/km). Vehicles will display coloured stickers in showrooms and on websites: red for the biggest gas guzzlers, through to green for the most fuel-efficient. Nearly all 4x4s will display red stickers.

Band A (less than 100g/km) e.g. Honda Insight (80g/km)
Band B (101-120g/km) e.g. Toyota Prius (104g/km)
Band C (121-150g/km) e.g. Fiat Panda 1.1 Active (135g/km)
Band D (151-165g/km) e.g. Citroen Xsara 1.4i Forte (159g/km)
Band E (166-185g/km) e.g. Ford Mondeo 1.8 SCi Ghia (179k/gm), Rover 45 1.4 (168g/km).
Band F (more than 185g/km) e.g. BMW 520i SE (219g/km), Land Rover Discovery TDV6 manual (249g/km) and Range Rover V8 4.4 petrol (389g/km), Lamborghini Murcielago (500g/km).

True, even 'A'-rated cars are not emissions-free, and they still contribute to congestion, noise, pressure for road building, and social exclusion. We desperately need to reduce our dependence on private cars, cut out unnecessary journeys, and take a larger proportion of our journeys by public transport, walking and cycling.

That said, this scheme is long-overdue. If it was combined with reduced Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) for greener cars and new higher tax bands for gas-guzzlers, car buyers would have the information and the incentive they need to make more sustainable choices.