JEEP THRILLS

AUTO BIOGRAPHY A brand new four-wheel drive for less than pounds 8,000? Surely not. John Fordham puts this and two other lower-cost trucks to the test

WHENEVER you find yourself grooving past the abandoned roadworks, highway protests, mad cows and paranoid foxes of the revivifying English countryside, a panoramic view of the surrounding drizzle-darkened landscape enhanced by the tennis-umpire driving position of your all-weather vehicle, the partner of your dreams softly intoning imprecations in your ear that you didn't opt for the bargain Eurostar break in Paris instead - just comfort yourself with the thought you can blame it all on Spen King.

Who he? A yak-skinned ancient Nordic god of the adventure holiday, architect of all puritanical leisure-consumption, an unforgiving, silent man in horns from whom you couldn't even get straw on the floor for a bed unless you'd driven through sulphurous swamps to check in?

Nope. Spen King invented the Land Rover.

Students of post-modern culture and style will doubtless track down many other dimensions to the four-wheel drive, utility vehicle cult that has carved out such a substantial slice of the automobile market in recent years, but a pragmatic angle on it would finger Spen King. He was Rover's chairman in the postwar years when the British motor industry was trying once again to remember how to build vehicles that didn't only come in khaki, and his brother drove a war surplus Jeep. What are you going to do when the Jeep blows up, Spen enquired. Get another, said the brother.

I can do better than that, Spen said. He got the Rover team working on a Jeep-inspired donkey of a vehicle that looked like a shed on top of a farm trailer, and by 1951 it was outselling Rover's cars two-to-one. Fifteen years later, as a Sixties economic upturn encouraged leisure, King and the company merged the Rover 2000 saloon's comfortable ride with the Land Rover's four-wheel drive ruggedness, and the Range Rover - still top of the off-roader heap - was born.

Now the car market is littered with big, high-riding, wardrobes on wheels, and though the latest Range Rovers border on being as quietly persuasive as luxury saloons in the Mercedes and Lexus class, there's not much change from pounds 30,000 for them. Is it possible to shave at least pounds 10,000 off that figure, and still have fun? Not only that, but you can shave a lot more, if you're prepared to trade off some of the cosseting qualities that Spen's unintentionally inspirational brother would probably never have believed should have belonged in an off-roader anyway. But that guilty void in the middle-class psyche about the widening social abyss probably didn't exist in briefly classless 1947. Now the issue is: want to show you're a hands-on, no-bullshit, drive-through-mud-for-a-good-cause people-person, despite that electric fence round the house? Drive a truck!

There are, of course, less tendentious explanations for the popularity of these machines, and the weekend break, the better-off younger family, and the often-quoted sensation of control imparted by the high driving position are all ingredients. At the bottom of the pile, the cheapest all-wheel vehicle on the British market is Russia's Lada Niva (pounds 7,995), currently going out under the eccentric title of the Hussah. On the low-middle rung is Daihatsu's charismatic Fourtrak (pounds 13,995-pounds 17,995), a high-built, chunky, noisy, but appealing off-roader that has undergone a facelift this summer. Chrysler revamped their excellent Cherokee Jeep for this autumn, rounding the corners and adding some curvaceousness to the interior, but in Grand Cherokee guise it is still painfully close to pounds 30,000. The smaller Cherokee 4.0 Sport, a shade under pounds 20,000, has to be the bargain of the mid-range off-road bunch. How do they compare? Well in some ways it really isn't fair to compare the Lada with machines substantially above its price-range, but then almost everything in the same category is.

The Daihatsu, powered by a thumpingly gutsy 2.5 litre turbo-diesel engine, has the formidable torque to climb precipitously muddy inclines if you fancy it (hardly anybody really does - Michelin recently ran a survey establishing that 50 per cent of off-roaders never leave the road, and over half the Range Rover population is registered in London), but the point is that this is an economical and probably all but indestructible engine in a car that has an undeniable, high-stepping charm. The interior is rather flimsy and plasticky, and the leg-room in the short wheelbase models isn't all it might be, but the handling and suspension has improved considerably on the original version, despite noticeable roll on corners. But for anybody who fancies a practical, reliable, utility-style vehicle with off-road skills, but without going to the bottom of the price league, the Fourtrak deserves checking out.

The Lada Niva Hussar is nobody's idea of a machine at the cutting edge of 1990s technology, but by looking back to the pre-free-market era of Russian history (instead of an essential item that hardly anybody can afford, it's an inessential item that almost everybody can afford) it manages to have real appeal. It's smaller than the Daihatsu, it rattles like a van, its gear-train sounds as if it has 100,000 miles on the clock, the seats may have been appropriated from a bus shelter, and the interior looks as if it's been painted with an emulsion brush. But I liked it a lot. The engines have a reputation for longevity, and though you wouldn't want to go rallying in it, it handles well enough in sensible use and strangely enough, it's fun to drive. At least it's different, and that's a scarce commodity in the contemporary motor business.

The Cherokee 4.0 Sport is the serious buy. It handles well on demanding roads, the six-cylinder engine gives it considerable urge, and though it's a little restricted in the back for a car of this type, it's wonderful value and holds its price on the second-hand market. Automatic transmission, anti-lock braking, remote locking, optional two or four-wheel drive and a three-year warranty all help. The facia, full of stark-looking oblongs reflects the square corners of the body design, but it doesn't look dated. Pick of the bunch. If it weren't for Jeep being Range Rover's hottest rivals, Spen would undoubtedly approve.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Lada Niva Hussar: pounds 7,995

Daihatsu Fourtrak: pounds 13,995

Jeep Cherokee 4.0 Sport: pounds 19,410

GOING PLACES

Lada: noisy mechanicals, slow but willing; five-speed four-wheel drive system with high/low ratio selection.

Daihatsu: powerful, sonorous turbo-diesel, good dramatic pulling-power on inclines and hard acceleration.

Cherokee: quietest of the three, and much quicker - pulling-power also improved in the 1996 versions.

STAYING ALIVE/HANGING OUT

Lada: tinny bodywork, dull but stable handling, brakes effective but need some decisive bootwork, no air bags or anti-lock.

Daihatsu: chunkier, more engaging to drive and handle, bumpy, no air bags or anti-lock, visibility good.

Cherokee: no ballet-dancer on the road either, but responsive and predictable, anti-lock brakes, driver's air bag, well-built.

CREATURE COMFORTS

Lada: none (more upmarket Cossack Niva has central locking, plusher interior, Blaupunkt stereo etc, but for almost another pounds 2000).

Daihatsu: power steering.

Cherokee: power steering (tilt-adjustable), electric windows and mirrors.

BANGS PER BUCK

Lada: low initial outlay, three year warranty, average fuel consumption 27mpg.

Daihatsu: modest-priced off-roader of character, average fuel consumption 28mpg (diesel).

Cherokee: very well equipped for the price, but average fuel consumption around 22mpg.

STAR QUALITY

Lada: unintentional originality, cheapness.

Daihatsu: big, brash style, powerful engine.

Cherokee: class at a bargain price, high specification.

TURKEY QUOTIENT

Lada: noisy, old-fashioned.

Daihatsu: cramped considering overall bulk, bumpy.

Cherokee: cramped at rear, old-fashioned cabin.

AND ON MY RIGHT

Asia Motors Rocsta (pounds 9,900): army jeep-clone, close to Niva on price, but more basic and noisy; Ford Maverick (pounds 15,000): roomy, fair prices, quite refined though engine noisy; Toyota RAV4 (pounds 13,750): the best of the cheaper fun cars, stylish, quick, limited off-road. !

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