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Archive 32
Car Review

Stuart Bladon examines a wide cross-section
of the market in large, boxy four-wheel
drive estates - the off-roaders

n spite of high running costs, especially for fuel, demand for big off-roaders with four-wheel drive seems to continue unabated, making one wonder what the attraction is. These vehicles are difficult to park or to thread through congested traffic, they devour fuel, and tyre bills can be horrendous. The answer, it seems, is that drivers feel very safe in them. Even lorry drivers are less inclined to bully, and the wonderful practicality of a vehicle where you don't have to worry overmuch about space and taking care of the interior adds to the appeal. Less important, but also one of the big advantages, is the evident immunity to fears of getting stuck. No matter how soft the car park, or within reason, how deep the flood, tough going holds no trauma.

   Because of the extra weight and complication of providing drive to all wheels, off-roaders are also relatively expensive, with even one like the Nissan X-Trail in cheapest petrol-powered form costing £16,750. The Mazda Tribute - one of the few off-roaders available in two-wheel drive form - puts it into perspective, with an extra cost of £1k just to add drive to the rear wheels in addition to the front ones.

   The six chosen for assessment here cover a wide spectrum, from the very appealing and reasonably priced Honda CR-V to the horrendously expensive Range Rover at just a whisker under £60,000. As usual in this series, the mpg figures quoted are 'real life' consumption measured on typical, varied use, and the acceleration figures are given as a significant basis for comparison, without any suggestion that these should be indulged over here, any more than is meant by quotation of maximum speeds. Most drivers would not employ the full throttle and rushed gear changes necessary to obtain such figures, but it's still good to know what the cars can achieve and how they compare.


Honda CR-V SE
Sport Honda's off-roader is very much in the role of the SUV - Sport Utility Vehicle - with the emphasis more on its appeal as a very handy and capable family car rather than for serious mud-plugging work. That is not to imply at all that it can't go off-road, and indeed it has a very capable system to give the advantages of front drive in normal motoring, with automatic addition of drive to the rear wheels when lack of grip calls for it. Hydraulic pumps at each end identify, from the pressure difference, the moment when the front wheels begin to spin, and immediately transfer torque to the rear wheels.

   It also has a very practical interior, and parents with young children in the back will appreciate being able to get through from front to rear to attend to them without having to go out in the rain. One of the features which contributes to this is that the handbrake has been moved up to a location alongside the console, where it is easy to reach and frees the centre floor between the seats.

   Open the bonnet and you see the delight that comes with a Honda: an immaculately well-finished and neatly engineered power unit. We can be proud of the fact that this delightful machinery is built in Britain at the Swindon plant. It's a 2-litre petrol engine with 16 valves and varying valve timing, enabling it to develop a lot of power - 150 bhp - with the result that performance is lively without need for a lot of gear changing.

   Indeed, Honda could well have used higher overall gearing with benefit for its fuel economy. Once or twice I thought it must be in third gear, but it was actually in fifth. Although not noisy, the engine does sound a bit busy: an engine speed of nearly 4,000 rpm at 80 mph is very high by today's standards. Higher gearing would undoubtedly help the rather poor fuel economy of 24.2 mpg. Automatic transmission is available, adding £900 to the price.

  With its fairly high seating position, accurate steering and good controls, this is a very easy and uncomplicated car to drive - one in which you enjoy a good view and feel well in command. The suspension is all-independent and gives a comfortable ride with good absorption for big bumps such as speed humps.

   A lot of clever thought is shown in the CR-V's interior design. The rear window can be opened separately by a touch on the key fob, just to drop in some shopping, or the whole door opens easily and swings to the right using the big exterior handle. The spare wheel is carried on the door in a secure container, and does not obscure the rear view.

  Standard equipment is good on the SE-Sport as tested. It includes: air conditioning with climate control plus an electrically operated glass sunroof - which can be open at all speeds without causing roar or wind buffeting - remote central locking, and jet washers for the headlamps. In this form, the CR-V costs £17,995; the standard SE is £16,695.

   A rear blind to cover luggage is readily removable, and the 40/60 divided rear seats fold down on to the cushion and can then be tipped forward making huge load space available. A small drop-down compartment in the roof provides stowage for spectacles and the combined cupholders and oddments tray between the seats can be folded sideways so that it does not obstruct access between the seats. There are also folding inner armrests for the front seats.

   This Honda CR-V offers most of the versatility of some of the big off-roaders that people tend to drive, often for nothing more arduous than taking children to school, but is a lot more handy, nippy and manúuvrable. It looks and is eminently versatile and practical.

Honda CR-V SE Sport 2.0i VTEC £17,995
Engine - 1,998 cc atmo indirect injection
0-80 mph - 17.6 sec
Maximum speed - 110 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 90,000 miles
                   - 6 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 24.2 mpg
CO2 emissions - 216 g/km (tax band D £155)
Insurance - Group

Nissan X-Trail Sport 2.2 Di
Japanese manufacturers made a rather belated entry into the diesel market and the engine in the X-Trail is not a match for the smoothness and quietness found in, say, VW or Peugeot products. It is a 2.2-litre, inclined to be a little bit throbby at speed, and never likely to be mistaken for a petrol engine. On the other hand, it pulls well and returned the best fuel economy of this whole group. A 2-litre 140 bhp petrol unit is the alternative power source for the X-Trail, costing £1,000 less.

  This was also the only one of our half-dozen off-roaders to have a six-speed manual gearbox. It has an easy change, well positioned, and normal drive is to the front wheels. Three switches on the right of the console give choice of 2WD - the normal position - AUTO, and LOCK. In AUTO, permanent four-wheel drive is selected, with torque evenly distributed to each axle according to demand. The LOCK button secures four-wheel drive with the centre differential blocked to give 57:43 torque split front/rear. Even in the two-wheel drive mode, four-wheel drive is automatically switched in if severe wheelspin occurs.

   Fairly heavy understeer makes the X-Trail feel a little ponderous through corners, and the car seems large and hefty on the road. Suspension is independent and gives a generally comfortable ride - though not as good, I thought, as the Tribute, and there is a fair amount of thump from the wheels over bumps. Steering column adjustment is vertical only, but as there are no instruments behind it there is little need for this. Instruments are positioned centrally - easy to see but not without looking down at them, unlike those in the normal position behind the wheel, seen in peripheral vision.

   Durable plastic with cloth outer parts covers the seats, which are a good shape but have no height adjustment except for a small degree of tilt at the back of the cushion by turning a winding knob. The seating position is fairly high anyway, giving a good view forward. The rear seat backrests (divided 60/40) drop down on to the cushion, or the cushions can be tipped forward to achieve a very level load platform extension.

   Standard equipment on the Sport model as tried includes a number of small features such as an alarm, side airbags, and a rear ski slot through the back seat, but the main item for the £1,200 extra is a radio with cassette and single CD player, which proved very fiddly to use, with labels for the switches so small that one almost needed a torch and a lens to read them. So the X-Trail S at £17,750 might be considered better value.

   The tailgate is top-hinged and opens easily; the rear aspect generally looks a lot less fussy than those with a spare wheel mounted on the back. In the X-Trail it is tucked away neatly beneath the floor. A spoiler at the back of the roof identifies the Sport model, though this is deleted with the next trim level SE, which brings in such features as leather upholstery and a six-CD autochanger. All models of X-Trail have a generously large electric glass sunroof.

   Four-wheel drive is inevitably expensive, as this survey of six from the market shows, but for what it offers, the X-Trail is good value as a competent comfortable 4x4 promising reasonable running costs.

Nissan X-Trail Sport 2.2 Di £18,995
Engine - 2,184 cc turbo direct injection
0-80 mph - 24.4 sec
Maximum speed - 103 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                   - 12 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 33.6 mpg
CO2 emissions - 190 g/km (tax band D £160)
Insurance - Group 9E

Mazda Tribute V6
It's rather unusual for an off-roader to be offered in two-wheel drive form, but that is the case with the Tribute model which Mazda added to its range in October 2001. This makes good sense, as many buyers are attracted by the purposeful, high stance and generous interior accommodation of the typical off-roader but have no intention of actually leaving the tarmac. So the two-wheel drive with 2-litre engine starts the range at £15,995, followed by two four-wheel drive versions, each £1,000 more than the one before, and the line-up is topped off by the subject of this test, with V6 3-litre engine, four-wheel drive of course, and automatic transmission.

   This V6 engine is a very good unit, always emitting a small amount of background 'growl' when working hard, but very smooth and with excellent power response when called for. Appealing to the American market, the Tribute's transmission selector is column-mounted. It is a bit clumsy to operate but never a problem. Selections are marked 1-2-D-N-R-P, and third is obtained by pressing a button on the end of the selector when in Drive position, which lights up a little 'OD OUT' legend on the facia - the Americans still think of fourth gear with an automatic as being 'overdrive'! Changes are smooth, and the automatic also changes down willingly without need for the driver to use the 'third' button.

   Four-wheel drive can be selected by a touch on the button on the console, but when this has not been invoked, drive is to the front wheels only unless loss of grip is detected. The moment the front wheels begin to spin, up to 50 per cent of the torque is transferred automatically to the rear wheels.

   The Tribute handles in easily manageable style with very light yet accurate steering, and the ride comfort is impressive. Although the brakes are drums at the rear, response is reassuring. Used for a long caravan tow, which it managed very well indeed, giving no hint of instability and none of the vertical pitching sometimes experienced when towing with a tall off-roader. The steering column adjusts vertically only - no provision for reach adjustment - and cruise control switches are on the steering wheel cross-bar.

  The seats are leather trimmed, and a twist-knob at front and rear of the driving seat gives a small degree of height adjustment as well as the ability to alter the angle of the cushion, but only through a very small range of movement. The rear seat is divided 40/60, and each backrest drops down after first pulling forward and then tipping the cushion, providing a very level extension of the load platform.

   Good features are the generous size of the centre locker between the seats - so that it is actually useable instead of just a cubby hole for a couple of cassettes - the standard fitting of a large sliding glass sunroof, and generous interior lighting and map lights. A 12-volt power point is provided as well as a cigarette lighter socket.

   A neat arrangement in the tailgate allows the rear window to be opened separately, just to drop in some shopping. There are two concealed releases beneath the plinth on the tailgate, one opening only the window and the other freeing the tailgate.

  One wouldn't expect too much in the way of fuel economy with a V6 3-litre engine and automatic, but the solo consumption of 20.5 mpg was perhaps a little disappointing. When towing, the figure fell to 14.8 mpg.

   The Tribute is comfortable and very easy to drive, while meeting most needs for off-road capability as well. It is just a pity that there is no diesel version.

Mazda Tribute V6 3.0 £21,495
Engine - 2,967 cc atmo indirect injection
0-80 mph - 17.0 sec
Maximum speed - 118 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                   - 6 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 20.5 mpg
CO2 emissions - 305 g/km (tax band D £155)
Insurance - Group 12

Mitsubishi Shogun LWB 3.2 DI-D
Who would ever have thought that a 3.2-litre diesel engine with only four cylinders could be as smooth and quiet as the one in the Mitsubishi Shogun? There's rather a lot of the characteristic diesel rattle at tickover and some growl when it's working hard, but at all other times it is a very refined and unobtrusive unit offering ample reserves of power.

   From the wide range of Shoguns available, beginning at just under £22,000 for the three-door, we tested the 3.2-litre diesel with Equippe trim, long wheelbase five-door body and automatic transmission. It's a five-speed automatic, with choice of manual or automatic mode. In manual mode, selected by knocking the floor-mounted selector over to the left, an illuminated digit on the facia shows what gear has been engaged. If the Shogun is slowed down or stopped, the gears will automatically change down, but the driver has to remember to select manual 'up' changes on moving off, or to put the lever back into automatic mode.

   Drive to the wheels is also left very much to the driver to choose, using a four-position lever to the left of the transmission selector. The first move forward engages four-wheel drive, which can be done on the move. The next position, obtainable only with the vehicle at rest, is 4HLC, giving four-wheel drive with the centre diff locked for maximum traction. Finally, with the lever fully forward, low range is obtained for tackling the severest gradients or tasks such as pulling a huge boat up the slipway. In addition to this, the rear differential can also be locked separately by a switch, so there's not much risk of the Shogun getting stuck, no matter how severe the conditions.

   The steering is adequately positive and the wheel is height adjustable but not for reach. The Shogun's handling gives confidence in spite of an initial slightly top-heavy feel, and although the brakes at first seemed a little disappointing, they respond very well to a firm press. With its all-independent coil spring layout designed to keep the wheels vertical even on full suspension travel, the Shogun gives a very comfortable ride with little tyre roar or wheel thump over bumps.

  The Shogun was used for over 300 towing miles which it accomplished with great ease - showing effortless power to pull the caravan up long gradients, and never any trace of snaking or vertical bounce. What was noticed was that if the transmission is left in automatic mode, it tended to stay much of the time in fourth, with detrimental effect on the economy. In manual mode, fifth can be selected, which it pulls very easily at speed even when towing. Normal solo consumption was 28.7 mpg, falling to a still very reasonable 20.4 when towing.

  Soft velour-type upholstery is used, and the seats are well shaped giving good back support. The rear seat backs can be folded down on to the cushions, or the cushions can be tipped forward first giving a more level extension of the load platform. Seats for two more occupants to travel at the back pull up out of the floor. The centre armrest between the seats slides as well as opening to reveal compartments at two levels. A large glass sunroof is standard in the Equippe specification. The tailgate is hinged on the right, and opens easily despite the hefty weight of the spare wheel carried on it.

  One of the few disappointments on the Shogun was the optional navigation system, which provides a map well-placed at the top of the console, but made some very wild and even misleading choices of route, and it's irritating that even with a passenger there the vehicle must be at rest to be able to do anything in the way of choosing a destination. At one time it took us off the main road, along about six miles of little lanes, and back on to the same main road only a couple of miles farther on!

  But in all other respects the Shogun can certainly be recommended as a very comfortable off-roader with the ability to tackle the most demanding terrain.

  Just before the end of the year, Mitsubishi launched the 2003 Shogun range. They are mechanically the same, but the revised interior layout is much more attractive and practical. Deeper front bumpers, now incorporating the front part of the wheel arch surround, identify the new model; previously, the front wheel arch surround was all in one piece. Diesel prices are not changed, but the petrol V6 version is cheaper so that petrol or diesel power with Elegance trim is now offered at the same price, £32,495. The Equippe automatic comes only with diesel power and is £1,000 less than the Elegance.

Mitsubishi Shogun LWB Equippe 3.2 DI-D £31,495
Engine - 3,200 cc turbo direct injection
0-80 mph - 23.2 sec
Maximum speed - 106 mph
Warranty - 3 years, unlimited mileage
                   - 6 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 28.7 mpg
CO2 emissions - 278 g/km (tax band D £160)
Insurance - Group 16

Mercedes-Benz ML 500
Some like their cars to be big, and few are quite so dauntingly vast as the big Mercedes-Benz off-roader in the ML series. But although it inevitably needs plenty of width to thread through dense traffic, it is not as alarming to drive as might be feared. The high seating position helps, while a tight turning circle also makes it easy to lock round in confined spaces.

   Since the original launch in 1997, the 4.3-litre ML 430 has been superceded by one with an even bigger engine - the 5-litre, offering enormous torque and 292 bhp power output. There are also a version with V6 3.2-litre engine and the diesel (ML 270 CDI) with five-cylinder 2.7-litre engine. For this feature we tried both the diesel 2.7 and the petrol 5-litre, and inevitably the diesel showed enough fuel saving to be worthwhile - 32.2 mpg instead of 17.3 with the 5-litre, but the V8 is certainly a magnificent power unit giving forceful acceleration when opened up and much quicker acceleration. On noise level there was not a lot to choose between them, the ML 270 being impressively quiet for a diesel.

   Both cars were fitted with five-speed automatic transmission. The diesel can be ordered with six-speed manual, but there is no manual option for the 5-litre. Four-wheel drive is engaged all the time, and for a very steep hill or a tough towing job, low range can be selected at touch of a switch provided one has remembered to stop and select Neutral or Park first. The control layout for this automatic is one of the best, without any complication of having to select a Tiptronic mode first. At any time, the selector with its big simulated wood knob is just knocked over to the left to bring an immediate change down, and then back to the right to go up again. Surprisingly, even with the V8 5-litre it was sometimes useful to do an overriding change down in this way, rather than leave it in Drive and press harder on the accelerator, occasionally producing an unwanted surge of power.

   Some off-roaders have harsh, bouncy suspension to cope with pounding over tracks and unmade ground, but the ML achieves a very good compromise between the needs for long wheel travel and comfort. On fast roads, especially with the ML 500, the quietness and mechanical refinement were uncanny for a vehicle of this kind; but there was always quite a lot of wind noise from the roof runners.

   The steering is light and accurate, taking the anxiety out of overtaking in places where there is not a lot of width to spare, and the brakes - by huge discs at the front, but surprisingly not internally vented at the rear - respond well but need fairly firm pedal loads in contrast with the almost feather-light touch of the brakes on some Mercedes cars. With familiarity, the foot-operated parking brake is very convenient, and pulling the release under the facia on the right soon becomes an automatic action when moving off.

   We were not too keen on the external spare wheel carrier, especially since there is massive wasted space for the spare to be carried under the floor. It means that to open the tailgate one must first release the wheel carrier and swing it to the left - easy enough, but fiddly. It also substantially limits the view rearward. However, despite its £850 extra cost, many buyers seem to be going for this option which gives an even more 'bullish' appearance to the ML.

  Upholstered in leather and with electric adjustment and three memory settings, plus electric heating, the seats are firm but well shaped. The rear seats are divided 60/40 and fold down on to the cushion, then the whole seat slides forward and down making a very level extension of the boot floor. A sun-roof was fitted to the ML 500, which also had a navigation system. Standard tests for on-board navigators are: is it easy to use without reference to the instruction manual; does it make a good choice of route; and does it recover quickly when for any reason you don't follow the instructions? Also, is the map (if fitted) high-mounted and easy to read, and can the passenger set a destination when the vehicle is on the move? In the ML 500 there was a bit of trauma and ploughing through the instruction book to sort it all out, but eventually it answered the other tests very positively.

   Looking hard at the prices, I can't help from thinking that there is not enough extra in the ML 500 to justify the hefty price hike from a not unreasonable £28,795 for the CDI, with its potentially much lower running costs, to £41,390 which is starting to look very expensive, especially with a long list of options to be paid for. The ML 500 test car totalled up at £47,595, including the £1,890 for the navigation system. But the cheaper ML 270 CDI is certainly a formidable machine for those who want a comfortable and really tough off-roader.

Mercedes-Benz ML 270 CDI £28,795/ML 500 £41,390
Engines- 2,688 turbo direct injection/4,966cc atmo indirect injection
0-80 mph - 20.7 sec/12.8 sec
Maximum speeds - 114 mph/138
Warranty - 3 years, unlimited mileage
                   - 30 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 32.3 mpg/17.3
CO2 emissions - 250 g/km (tax band D £160)/350 £160
Insurance - Group 16/19

Land Rover Range Rover V8 Vogue
After the new series Range Rover was introduced at a very limited attendance launch earlier in 2002, I was shocked to read about the prices being asked for this new model; and I still am. Five pounds is not a lot of change to get back out of £60,000, even though there are not many extras to be paid for. One can only presume that most Range Rovers are company purchases, and it is obviously priced to set it on the pinnacle as the absolute best of the off-roaders. Does it deserve this zenith?

  Although with a V8 32-valve engine of 4,398 cc capacity it produces 10 bhp less than the admittedly larger Mercedes-Benz V8 and acceleration from rest to 80 mph is more than 3 sec slower. More importantly, I thought the engine to be by no means as quiet and refined as the one in the Mercedes, giving a subdued but definitely noticeable roar during acceleration. Once cruising, though, it settles down to be much quieter.

   All models, whether with six-cylinder diesel engine or V8 petrol have automatic transmission with Tiptronic-type selector: knock the lever to the left to enter Tiptronic mode, then it's a touch rearward to change down and forward to go back up. It's not awkward to use, but one wonders why bother with the Tiptronic position to the left. Why not just left and right movement from D position, as with the Mercedes M-Class?

  Four-wheel drive is engaged all the time, with a torque-sensing differential, and low range can be selected by a rearward touch on the switch near the selector, with Neutral selected and the vehicle at rest. There is also a hill descent switch - something inherited from the original Freelander - which enables the Range Rover to remain under tight control when descending a very steep hill on a slippery surface.

  Air suspension is the special feature of the Range Rover which gives the driver a choice of ride height, while at speeds above 60 mph the car is automatically lowered to the 'highway' level, for better stability. On arrival, a button on the door can be pressed a minute or so before stopping, which brings the ride height right down to the minimum for easy access in or out. This feature also proved handy when the Range Rover was used for a towing test: just lower the trailer jockey wheel and set the height to low, then as the release handle is operated the tow ball effectively disengages without need to use the winding handle on the caravan A-frame.

  Towing with the Range Rover was a great joy - no trace of pitching or wander is experienced, and indeed only the sight of the caravan in the mirrors reminds one that the trailer is still there. As sometime occurs with a big and powerful towcar, economy was not too seriously affected, the solo running average of 17.6 mpg falling to a still quite reasonable 16.5 mpg with a 950 kg caravan on tow.

  Ride comfort is generally very good, with soft suspension travel to absorb big bumps, and minimal wheel thump or tyre roar. For years, Land Rover stubbornly resisted calls for the beam axle layout of previous Range Rovers to be abandoned in favour of independent layouts, but now that they have gone fully independent, the result is certainly much better. The steering is also better although still feeling slightly vague at speed. The steering wheel is electrically adjustable for reach and height, and moves upward automatically as soon as the ignition key is removed, for easier access. Switches for cruise control and audio are on the centre part of the wheel.

   All is luxury inside this top model of the Range Rover with Vogue trim, the seats being trimmed in leather and fitted with multiple electric adjustment and memory settings, a six-pack CD unit in the glove box, and a generally very effective navigation system is standard. The unit also includes televison, and provides a very good picture. There is an informative computer and - something often omitted these days - an electrically operated glass sunroof is also standard. The ultimate luxury for those icy cold winter mornings is that the steering wheel is electrically heated!

  The rear seats are shaped as individual armchairs with a copious centre armrest, or the armrest can be folded back to form the centre seat. All rear seats fold and tip individually to make a very good flat floor extension of the load platform. The rear headrests remove easily, and need to be taken off when not needed to achieve good rear vision. A feature retained from the first Range Rover is that the tailgate is divided horizontally, the window section going up, and the lower part folding down where it can also serve as a platform. In spite of the huge size of the wheels, a full-size spare is provided complete with a wheel-lifting assistor to help get it out.

  The Range Rover Vogue is certainly a magnificent machine, but it is hard to see how its enormous price can be justified. Even in six-cylinder diesel form with standard trim it costs £42,995; and with every price for the six models offered ending in £995, one wonders if Land Rover really prices it according to what it costs to build, or what they thought they could get away with.

Land Rover Range Rover V8 Vogue £59,995
Engine - 4,398cc atmo indirect injection
0-80 mph - 15.1 sec
Maximum speed - 130 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                   - 6 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 17.6 mpg
CO2 emissions - 389 g/km (tax band D £155)
Insurance - Group 16

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