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Archive 8
six off-roaders assessed

Mud, mud, glorious mud - goes the hippopotamus song,
and Stuart Bladon is amazed at the depth and stickiness of
it that a good 4x4 off-roader can take in its stride.
But how good are they on the road? Six prime contenders
show their paces in both conditions.

een to demonstrate how well their new off-roaders can cope, manufacturers often invite journalists to try them in appalling conditions - through deeply rutted and glutinous mud, up and down frighteningly steep gradients, and even through rivers. Often there's an expert giving warnings and advice over an installed CB radio. It's great fun, and over the years I have learned a lot about handling 4x4s in such conditions. All the time there's the reassurance that if we get stuck, it's no problem - the back-up team will soon be along with a rescue vehicle equipped with a winch.

   But do it on my own, and perhaps get bogged down miles from anywhere? No thanks! So I suspect that many owners feel the same way - good to know that the vehicle has the capability, but they never come anywhere near taking it to its limitations. Many of them probably don't even know how to operate things like low range transfer gearboxes, and differential locks, and are content to know that it will get them out of a muddy car park or keep going on the rare occasion when there's snow actually settling on the road.

   So it prompts the question: do you really need an off-roader, or are you just seeking that feeling of sturdiness and immunity to other traffic which a bullish off-roader brings? If so, an MPV such as we covered in the last issue might prove more appropriate. But many buyers do want the full off-road capability; and we look here at a selected half dozen over a wide range of prices, covering important aspects such as how they behave on and off the road, and how easily the off-road controls operate.

   Designing a vehicle which will have the necessary ground clearance and range of suspension movement to cope with rugged terrain and yet also be comfortable, stable and reasonably quiet at speed on a motorway is not easy, but some manufacturers have achieved remarkable success in making their 4x4s very suitable to both conditions.

   Another very pertinent question, as fuel prices near the appalling level of 1 per litre, is whether a petrol engine in a vehicle that is necessarily heavy and unaerodynamic is sensible. It's sound advice to think hard about going for a diesel engine, if you have an off-roader in your sights. Fuel consumption in our data panels is usually what the car gave on test, but an asterisk shows that the official figure has been given. For this group we have four petrol cars and two diesels.

On the southern Caribbean island of Aruba where I enjoyed a brief holiday earlier this year, the choice of cars for hire was a bit limited. "You'll need a 4x4," we were told, and when we explored the north-east side of the island we found they were right. Appallingly rugged and rocky tracks gave a tough test for the Suzuki Vitara hired for three days.
   It was in pretty dreadful condition, as might be expected in a hire car that had been battling about on the island's rough tracks for a couple of years, but everything worked and my party were delighted to have an open car. The rear hood was non-existent, but you don't need a roof in Aruba. A cover over the front two seats folds back in one easy movement.
   The one we hired was the old model, of course. The new one, called the Grand Vitara Soft Top, became available here last June. It has a much more rounded and stylish frontal shape, considerably better suspension and a 16-valve 2-litre engine giving 126 bhp.
   What hasn't changed is the fun of a compact little off-roader which can quickly be made almost fully open, with the safety factor of a rigid roof bar and side supports running up to the windscreen. The rear door carries the spare wheel, and is side-hinged on the right.
   Catering for the American driver, the Suzuki I hired was equipped with automatic transmission, with a switch on the side for 'cutting out overdrive', or more simply, selecting third. Automatic is available here for 950 extra. Normal drive is to the rear wheels, but moving the range selector lever forward adds front-wheel drive, which can be engaged on the move. For low range, it's necessary to stop, put the main selector into neutral, and move the other lever to the left and forward.
   On some of the very steep climbs we tackled in Aruba, we certainly needed to use low range with first gear hold, and were then most impressed at the way the Vitara clambered over everything the island could throw at it!
   The new version is even more competent, of course, although it's still a bit bouncey and prone to wander due to the short wheelbase.
   It was not possible to measure fuel consumption accurately, but the officially claimed 28.8 mpg for the automatic should be readily achievable if there is not too much off-road work. The manual model is claimed to top 30 mpg.

Suzuki Grand Vitara Soft Top - 13,495
Four-wheel drive - selectable
Low range - stop, select with lever
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                 - 6 years anti-corrosion
Maximum speed - 93 mph
Fuel consumption - 28.8 mpg*
Insurance - Group 12

According to Mitsubishi's industrious press office, Pinin stands for Prestigious, Innovative, Niche market, Inexpensive, and Nippy - but a more likely explanation is that this model was evolved by the Italian stylist Pininfarina, as their first adventure into designing a 4x4. It certainly has a very smart looking and functional three-door body, offering a lot of space in compact dimensions.
   It also has a very good engine, the four-cylinder 1,834 cc GDI engine - not a diesel, as might be presumed from the letters which stand for Gasoline Direct Injection. It's a very quiet and refined unit giving unusually relaxed fast cruising - normally the weak point with this kind of vehicle. But at low speeds in traffic it tended to be a little jerky.
   Normal drive is to the rear wheels and, as the range selector lever is pushed forward, there's an intermediate position between four-wheel drive and low range, which gives four-wheel drive with locked centre differential for tackling very slippery conditions. Auto transmission at 1,000 extra is available for GLX and GLS.
   The Pinin is certainly very competent on rough terrain, with suspension which absorbs big bumps, ruts and potholes very well indeed. The comfort of the ride is undoubtedly one of the very good features of the Pinin, and the vehicle also handles well within the limitations of a short wheelbase. The power steering, by rack and pinion, is reasonably precise.
   Good brakes are fitted, with discs front and rear, and although there was no ABS on the GLX model tested, the wheels are not prone to lock. ABS is standard on the GLS among additions which account for another 1,000 on the price.
   Seating is comfortable, with lever ratchet height adjustment for the driver, and the rear seat is centrally divided to fold down on to the cushion for extra load space. The spare wheel is mounted on the tail door which is side-hinged on the right and easy to open.
   Equipment includes an electric sliding roof and remote central locking, but air conditioning comes only with the GLS. The test car also featured an optional navigation system with compass, available amongst a mass of optional equipment. The central display, shared by the navigation system when fitted, is standard on all models and gives a lot of useful computer information such as fuel consumption and radio programme.
   In the true mould of the full-size Mitsubishi Shogun, the Pinin version is a pleasing answer where there is need for a compact three-door off-roader which should prove inexpensive to run.

Mitsubishi Shogun Pinin GLX - 14,995
Four-wheel drive - selectable, with diff. lock
Low range - stop, select with lever
Warranty - 3 years, unlimited mileage
                - 6 years anti-corrosion
Maximum speed - 104 mph
Fuel consumption - 29.7 mpg
Insurance - Group 11P

Several features are unique to the Forester in this class, notably the body style with its frameless glass windows - a Subaru tradition, the flat-four engine with the cylinders horizontally opposed, Porsche-style, and the dual-range transmission which makes it effectively a 10-gear car. Other 4x4s, it's true, have a low range transfer box, but they tend to be specially low ratios for coping with extreme loads or gradients. With the Forester, the range change can be used on the move, unlike most off-roaders which call for a halt before the low range can be engaged.
   Forester can be accelerated away in low range to, say, 60 mph at 4,000 rpm in fifth. Then the lever, conveniently placed near the handbrake, is just pushed down to change into high range, dropping the engine speed from 4,000 to 3,000 rpm. Th clutch pedal needs to go down as for an ordinary gear change.
   The engine itself is most impressive, being free to rev up to 6,000 rpm, as well as giving exceptionally smooth and vigorous low-speed torque.
   The result of all this is a vehicle which is very easy and satisfying to drive, backed up by such other good features as an impressively level and well damped ride which copes equally well on or off the road, accurate steering and very responsive brakes - albeit with drums at the rear.
   Anti-lock control is standard and the rear suspension has self-levelling to cope with heavy loads. Four-wheel drive is engaged all the time, and with this and the low centre of gravity provided by the flat-four engine, the Forester corners well.
   This big and very roomy estate car has just come in for a package of improvements which included a better arrangement for the rear seats, now divided 40/60, restyled front and rear body, and most importantly a clean 1,000 knocked off the price. This makes it now very good value.
   The only items missing from an otherwise very comprehensive specification are air conditioning and a sunroof, though these are available along with a number of other additions in the 'All Weather' pack, but costing another 2,800. It's a pity, too, that Subaru does not offer a diesel engine for the Forester, but most buyers will probably be well satisfied with the performance of this economical flat-four 2-litre petrol engine.

Subaru Forester - 15,950
Four-wheel drive - permanent
Low range - select with lever on the move
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
               - 6 years anti-corrosion
Maximum speed - 111 mph
Fuel consumption - 32.7 mpg
Insurance - Group11

In its latest form as the series II, introduced at the beginning of this year, the Nissan Terrano was not much altered - they were mainly styling and equipment changes. Among these was the introduction of water repellant glass - a Nissan first, but cold, dry weather throughout the test gave little chance to assess this feature.
   Engine choice is as before, two four-cylinder units, a petrol 2.4-litre with three valves per cylinder, or a turbo diesel of 2.7-litre capacity. For such a big and hefty off-roader, the diesel is the wiser choice, but it's a rather harsh and lumpy engine which calls for a lot of gear work since it doesn't like pulling much below about 1,500 rpm. It's also rather slow to fire up from cold, needing about five seconds for the glow plugs to heat up.
   It helps that the Terrano has a light and positive five-speed gear change and a light clutch. Normal drive is to the rear wheels and an additional lever to the right of the gear change is pulled back for four-wheel drive, then across and back again for low range.
   The suspension is independent by torsion bars at the front and gives a comfortable ride on the road, but when tackling rough terrain there's a lot of violent reaction. Traction on slippery mud was also a bit disappointing, requiring a second go at one test hill.
   Big attractions of the Terrano are its spaciousness and carrying capacity, with seats for six in the five-door model, and the luxuriant interior especially in the SE+ model tested. This version is available only with the turbo diesel engine and adds leather upholstery as well as a CD autochanger beneath the front passenger seat.
   Three-door versions are also available (not SE+). The tail door is side-hinged on the left (the wrong side for rhd markets) and is a bit heavy to operate since the huge spare wheel is mounted on it.
   There is a tasteful look to the centre console with its simulated wood surrounds and the instruments are neatly formed as a single unit with fuel and temperature gauges between the outer circular rev counter and speedo. There is no height adjustment for the seats, but the standard setting is fairly high. With the leather trim of the SE+, one is inclined to slide about a bit, so it might be wise to go for the ordinary SE model, saving 1,650.

Nissan Terrano II 2.7TD SE + - 24,750
Four-wheel drive - selectable
Low range - stop, select with lever
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
- 6 years anti-corrosion
Maximum speed - 96 mph
Fuel consumption - 23.2 mpg
Insurance - Group 14

After nine years in production, the Discovery appeared in improved form at the Paris Show of 1998, with choice of just two engines - the 4-litre V8 petrol and a new five-cylinder turbo diesel with direct injection. Unless someone else is paying the fuel bills, the diesel is the wiser choice and it's a good unit. A little clattery on initial start-up, it becomes commendably quiet when cruising, but it never seemed very sprightly and gives the impression of having to work rather hard. This is confirmed by the disappointing acceleration time of 28.3 sec from rest to 80 mph.
   Four-wheel drive is engaged all the time and low range can be selected while still on the move - but below 5 mph - just by moving forward the short lever ahead of the gear lever. A hill descent switch, as first introduced on the Freelander, uses the anti-lock brakes to keep the Discovery under control when descending very steep and slippery gradients.
   Self-levelling air suspension is standard for the GS in the form as tried (7-seater), and as well as providing good absorption of small bumps, it gives the facility to alter the ground clearance at the back by remote control. This is particularly useful for towing, allowing the towball height to be altered for hitching up or unhitching. It also helps to give a resilient ride on very rough terrain, but is a little loose and wallowy on undulations. The power steering is also rather imprecise, though not as bad as remembered from the original launch of Discovery back in 1989.
   All the interior fittings and furnishings are attractive and very appropriate to this kind of rugged vehicle. There are many clever features in the Discovery, among them being the way in which the occasional seats in the rear fold upwards and then sideways to stow out of the way at the side of the load space and the folding step for rear access. It pushes down quickly with the foot and then returns slowly to the stowed position.
   Everything about the Discovery feels very solid and sturdily made, but perhaps also a bit heavy. It's also rather expensive even in this form and the range tops out at over 35,000.

Land Rover Discovery GS Td5 - 27,855
Four-wheel drive - permanent Low range
                         - selectable below 5 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
              - 6 years anti-corrosion
Maximum speed - 98 mph
Fuel consumption - 28.2 mpg
Insurance - Group 13

One of the most spectacular off-road test routes of the many I have enjoyed was the one which Jeep arranged in Scotland last year for introduction of the new Grand Cherokee. It certainly provided a most convincing test for the clever Quadra-Drive system, designed to ensure that the Grand Cherokee will keep going even if only one wheel has traction.
   No amount of ploughing through deep ruts, and even at one stage bouncing over the rocks in a fast-flowing river, seemed too much for the vehicle's ability to go clambering on through all conditions. Ground clearance is impressive, and the suspension travel is big enough to swallow up huge bumps.
   Two versions were tried, one with the 4-litre six-cylinder engine and the other with the 4.7-litre V8. Although the V8 certainly offers tremendous torque and acceleration, I actually preferred the six-cylinder. Both these Jeeps have four-speed automatic transmission as standard. To select low range - which is needed mainly for very steep gradients - it's necessary to stop, engage Park or Neutral and then pull the low range lever back. The automatic is a four-speed, with button on the side of the selector to hold third.
   On the road, the Grand Cherokee is impressively comfortable and refined for an off-roader, as well as being effortlessly fast, but there is a fair amount of noise especially with the V8, whose new automatic transmission gave rise to quite a lot of whine, plus some wind noise from the roof rack runners. The steering is a bit 'American', inclined to be rather vague.
   Inside, the Gand Cherokee looks very attractive with its seats sumptuously upholstered in leather. The pseudo wood embellishments have been made to look much more realistic than the obviously painted metal imitations revealed at the launch. Frantic buzzers sound all the time, telling you to fasten seat belts when putting the car into the garage, or to take the key out even at a brief halt to change drivers!
   Heavy fuel consumption - only 19.3 mpg with the V8 but a more acceptable 20.8 with the six - is the main drawback of the Grand Cherokee. In terms of value for what it offers, the 4-litre is fairly priced especially as it still costs the same - under-30,000 - as fixed at the launch 15 months ago. A 3.1-litre turbo diesel is also now available.

Jeep Grand Cherokee 4.0 Limited - 29,995
Four-wheel drive - permanent
Low range - stop, select with lever
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                - 6 years anti-corrosion
Maximum speed - 117 mph
Fuel consumption - 20.8 mpg
Insurance - Group 16


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