Motoring: Auto biography: The Nissan Terrano in 0-60 seconds

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ANYONE who has read P J O'Rourke's essay 'High Performance Characteristics of Pickup Trucks' may find off-roaders hard to take seriously. He maintained that all-wheel drive simply enabled you to get four wheels stuck in the mud instead of two. Pick-up brakes were no good, he argued, but the spare wheel compensated by falling out of its mounting and producing drag. What's more, in the aftermath of a crash, all pick-up drivers had to tell the police was 'A deer ran into the road'.

Times have changed. There is now a runaway fashion for high-built, big-wheeled, fence-bumpered machines that are off-roaders from the waist down and dentist's waiting rooms from the waist up. All sorts of market analyses are wound around what was a 35 per cent growth sector in 1992 (more weekend second-homers who want ruggedness with comfort, family estate-car owners who want something less boring) but I blame gridlock. Off-roaders combine the dream of jumping the jam and hacking across the fields, two fingers triumphantly held aloft, with the real advantage that if you're stuck for an hour, at least you're high enough to see how slowly they're digging up the road ahead.

The off-roader is turning into what the industry calls the 'all-roader' - state-of-the-art handling and performance technology in a jeep. The latest incarnation is the Nissan Terrano, aka the Ford Maverick (a joint development by Nissan and Ford to keep the price down; you can buy virtually identical cars with either badge and have them serviced at agencies for either company). This is the vehicle that Nissan heralds, without apparent irony, as 'Rambo in a dinner suit'.

In diesel form, the Terrano's initial acceleration is ponderous. But its handling is so sharp that it stands comparison with many nimble saloons and hatches on twisty country roads. It's impressively quiet, and the big tyres and excellent suspension effortlessly dismiss routine city potholes. Visibility for parking isn't wonderful and the Terrano/Maverick can't handle rough country any better than Land Rover's Discovery. But on open roads the success of the compromise is remarkable, and it looks prettier than most of the genre. Even P J O'Rourke would probably concede that it's hard to put this one into the woods.

GOING PLACES: Powerful 2.7-litre diesel engine - slow off the mark (0-60mph in 19 secs) but responsive under way, cruising quietly in top. Clunky but quick gearshift, with four-wheel-drive shift to its left, selectable at speeds up to 25mph.

STAYING ALIVE: Reinforced safety beams in doors, strong chassis, but no anti-lock brake option. Tall body results in some motorway side-wind effects, but handling excellent with well balanced power steering, and agility suggesting a smaller car. Forward visibility good, truck-like door mirrors terrific. Rear visibility over headrests, tailgate and spare wheel not so good. Door-style tailgate can be locked open when loading, so no trapped fingers on windy days.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Bland but comfortable, spacious interior. Driver's position good, with rake-

adjustable steering, though height and lumbar-adjustment available only on Ford Maverick GLX. Three- door rear-seat access good, with folding and sliding front seats. Elbow room generous, boot space tall and narrow, so loads have to be stacked.

BANGS PER BUCK: Power steering, rake-adjustable wheel, central locking, electric windows, sunroof and mirrors, intermittent rear wash- wipe, four-speaker stereo. Fuel consumption around 27.5mpg in town. Price: approximately pounds 16,500.

STAR QUALITY: Refined, good- looking, comfortable and practical all-terrain machine. Standout qualities are the high driving position, excellent country-road performance and luxurious in-town ride.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Slow initial acceleration, but the boot is awkward to load.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Mitsubishi Shogun 2.5 3-door Turbodiesel ( pounds 17,900): more extras, but thirstier, not so pretty or agile. Isuzu Trooper 3.1 Turbodiesel ( pounds 16,850): boxy- looking, but comparable in its performance and price, costlier to run. Land Rover Discovery 2.5 TDi ( pounds 17,495): quicker, class-leading in off-road performance but not as lissome on the road, roomier. Vauxhall Frontera 2.3TD ( pounds 16,150): charismatic-looking, spacious, but less crisp in handling.

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