Motoring: Big brother is watching

After the success of the Shogun, Mitsubishi's new 4x4 has a lot to live up to.
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Road Test

Barring a major recession, sales of 4x4s in Britain will comfortably exceed 100,000 this year. And that's not counting "utility" vehicles, such as the Land Rover Defender, or the various all-terrain pickups. What was once largely a wellie-brigade niche market, accounting for fewer than 5,000 registrations annually, has evolved into a mainstream one.

Land Rover's Freelander is top of the pops, followed by its Discovery stablemate. Bully for Rover: it needs the cash and the kudos. In third place, confirming that newcomers tend to expand the market rather than dent the establishment, is Honda's CRV. Toyota's Rav 4 was fourth, Vauxhall's Frontera fifth and that old stalwart, the Mitsubishi Shogun, sixth.

However, the position of the respected Shogun, which has been at the heart of Britain's loony romance with 4x4s since the early Eighties, could now be threatened by an in-house rival.

High-waisted and low-roofed, the new Challenger is not everyone's idea of perfect wheels. Mitsubishi's contention that it has great street cred ("just the sort of distinctive vehicle to have on the driveway") overlooks certain innate 4x4 disadvantages, not least that of performance-blunting weight. Economy isn't a strength, either. Nor, by luxury saloon standards, is ride comfort or agility.

At pounds 20,000-pounds 25,000, depending on engine and equipment, the Challenger splits the Freelander and the Discovery on price. Billed as a sports utility, it is seen by Mitsubishi more as an off-road estate, rather than the last word in mountain scramblers.

Like the Shogun, it has part-time four-wheel drive (on Tarmac only the back wheels are driven), giant tyres, stilt-like ground clearance, high- and low-ratio gears and huge towing muscle - all the attributes expected of a butch off-roader, even though they are rarely used.

So what makes the ornately toothy Challenger different? Not a lot. Being of modest stature and width, it will fit most garages and car-parks, just like a normal estate. Rear legroom is also surprisingly generous. The high floor is a mixed blessing: it provides a lofty, over-the- hedge view - good for safety and rubber-necking - at the expense of easy loading.

Humping hefty luggage into the big boot calls for a winch. Getting in and out without soiling your clothes on the old-fashioned running board is also tricky.

The Challenger's well-appointed cabin may be as welcoming in decor and finish as that of any uprange saloon, but it is not so comfortable. I could not fault the Challenger's excellent front seats, but its compromised suspension makes for a knobbly ride.

Although performance of the diesel version on test felt no more than adequate, the engine is impressively smooth, thanks to vibration-killing balancer shafts. It is the gearing that is flawed, with top being far too low for relaxed motorway cruising - at 70mph, it sounds as though you're stuck in third. The quicker, more expensive petrol V6, expected to be the minority seller, is far quieter and more relaxed at speed than the fussy diesel. If price and economy are not your priorities, it is the model to have.

Specifications

Make, model and price:

Mitsubishi Challenger 2.5TD, from pounds 20,365 on the road. Engine: 2477cc turbo-diesel, four cylinders, eight valves, two balancer shafts, 98bhp at 4000rpm. Transmission: five-speed manual gearbox, high and low ranges, two- and four-wheel drive. Performance: max speed 90mph, 0-60mph in 18sec, fuel consumption 22.4mpg combined.

rivals

Chrysler Jeep Cherokee 2.5td, from pounds 19,520. US-built Cherokee (ninth best-selling 4x4 in UK last year) is that bit quicker than the Challenger but is not so roomy.

Land Rover Freelander 2.0di five-door, from pounds 19,420. Britain's best-selling off-roader is not so roomy as the Challenger, but it's quicker and more economical. Better off-road, too.

Nissan Terrano 2.7tdi five-door, from pounds 22,395. Terrano (11th best-selling last year) is pricey but good - if you can stand gawky looks.

Vauxhall Frontera 2.5tds five-door, from pounds 19,945. Looks like old Frontera, but much improved. Once second in 4x4 sales, could recover if reliability sorted.

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