MOTORING / Auto Biography: The Isuzu Trooper in 0-60 seconds

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I CAN'T see an off-roader without recalling Alan Coren's story about the pair that crashed in the snow outside his house and had to be towed out by a minicab driver. But the Isuzu Trooper, the square-rigged, high- stepping dirtbuster, seems more unassuming than most - and doesn't leave such deep tyre tracks on your bank statements.

You don't see many Isuzu Troopers in town. Down in leafy Gloucestershire, however, they come at you round every corner, which is why we took one there, just to go with the flow. Isuzu is re-promoting the restyled, softer-lined Trooper, just in case anybody has taken the model for granted in the five years since the first versions came to Britain. The Trooper does have bags of appeal, with a lot of hardware, user-friendliness and practicality for a price that comes nowhere near Range Rover altitude. Plenty of private and public buyers, from rugged weekenders to police forces, are now convinced by it. And the Trooper is part of a galloping trend; last year there was a 50 per cent increase in off-roader registrations.

So we took a Trooper to the dappled byways of Gloucestershire to count the number of identical relatives (lost count on the first day) and see how much sense it made as a vehicle that could cope with both town and country. A gritty diesel with a big 3.1-litre turbo engine (the petrol versions are more refined), it was comfortable, spacious and easy to drive. But it took a while to get itself seriously rolling, and was a little prone to bounciness and sway over such excrescences as speed bumps.

The original Trooper's rustic cart-springs have been replaced by a linkage system, the wheels are bigger and there are ventilated discs all round. The consensus among rugged types is that, with these improvements, it now gives the Discovery and the Shogun a serious run for their money in carrying on where the road stops. But there are some engineering drawbacks: the four-wheel drive can't be selected when the car is on the move; the gearing is such that even the basement-level ratios don't decelerate this hefty car as much as they might when descending steep inclines; and the gearshift is rather truck-like.

Other negatives include a dated fascia and switchgear, with a temperature knob like one on a junk-shop electric iron, and a cabin as grey as an October day. But for a modest premium you can buy a folding set of furniture for the long wheelbase model that makes it a luxurious six-seater, and the handling is good. Above all, it is value for money that has rightly put the Trooper at the front of the queue.

GOING PLACES: A bit ponderous and noisy on build-up (0-60mph in approx 16 secs) in four-cylinder turbodiesel version (excellent refined engine in petrol V6, 0-60mph in 12 secs), but quiet and powerful at cruising speed - imposing torque figure of 192ft/lb at only 2,000 revs, so very practical for country use and for towing caravans. Clunky gearshift, with low gears not offering as much engine braking downhill as the weight demands.

STAYING ALIVE: Good handling and stability for the size and height, though over-enthusiastic cornering induces some controlled roll. Easy to drive and park, power steering standard, all-ventilated disc brakes effective and progressive. Anti-lock braking available only on top-range Citation models. No airbags yet. Ride quality very good in general use, slightly inclined to pitching on urban lumps.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Very spacious, particularly in long wheelbase version (clever folding seats available as a six-seater optional extra). Good rear legroom, easy access to the boot with low-silled cargo door, 60/40 split folding rear seats. Comfortable seating, good climate control, drab interior and instrumentation. Four-speaker stereo standard throughout the range; air conditioning available for Citation models.

BANGS PER BUCK: Power steering, central locking, rear wash/wipe, and electric windows and mirrors. Fuel consumption approximately 22mpg in town, 20mpg at motorway speeds. Price: pounds 8,648.

STAR QUALITY: Class-leading offroad capabilities, space, performance, value for money, long warranty. Petrol V6 version excellent.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Naff interior, utility image despite upgrade.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Land Rover Discovery Tdi ( pounds 21,548): not so thirsty, better image, very good recent restyle, much costlier; Mitsubishi Shogun TD ( pounds 20,799): very adaptable 4WD options, practical, charismatic, expensive; Nissan Terrano/Ford Maverick 2.7 TD ( pounds 16,250 approx): slower, less adept, nicer inside, a bit bland.

(Photograph omitted)