It can be difficult finding a car flexible enough for town and country while avoiding opprobrium, says James Ruppert

Aubrey, a Volvo owner, is interested in acquiring a four-wheel-drive model powered by a diesel or petrol engine. As he lives in London and also has a home in Yorkshire, he needs the off-road ability of a 4x4, but he could do without the Chelsea-tractor image and the environmental problems associated with running a large SUV.

He's thinking about buying second-hand, perhaps about three years old or so, and with low mileage, which he reckons should be no more than 30,000 miles on the clock.

When I drive my Land-Rover, I don't feel like a planet-killer - but then I own one in a rural context, which is OK, plus it's rusty and doesn't have any rear seats. Once SUVs go all urban and mildly bling, then they are all about footballers, their wives and their drug-dealer mates. Hence the potential image problem.

Aubrey's right. He doesn't want one of those, and he probably doesn't need the huge ground-clearance or air-suspension systems and other sophisticated engineering that often comes with an upmarket 4x4. Also, getting from London to Yorkshire and back swiftly and comfortably really needs a vehicle that is going to be good to drive, rather than top-heavy and a little bit clumsy, as most full-size four-wheel-drive cars are.

That's the other problem with 4x4s; they are not like driving a normal car, even though the most modern off-roaders have all sorts of electronic assistance. However, there is a middle way - cars that offer 4x4 but not the usual bulk of a proper SUV. Aubrey can have everything he needs in a much more conventional, car-shaped package.

A CAR FOR THE HEAD

I know Aubrey is aware of the Volvo XC70 estate car. Available in petrol and diesel format, it would be what he is used to, although it sits higher on the road. The equipment levels are very high, but it does have perhaps a few too many faux-4x4 styling cues and looks a little naff as a result.

Not cheap at £30,000 when new, the better 4x4 Volvo is the more hip XC90, which is easy to live with but is a "proper" SUV and thus looks like the Fulham 4x4 that Aubrey rightly fears.

I think he should consider an Audi A6 quattro. There is an off-road version, the Audi A6 allroad quattro, but it really depends on how much mud Aubrey is going to be tackling. Like the XC70, the allroad is a high-rise estate car with matt-black mouldings to remind you that it is a 4x4. Mostly, though, I think part-time off-roaders just need the standard quattro version fitted with an economical diesel engine.

These big Audis are well equipped and, after a few years, are great value for money. The quattro four-wheel-drive system is more than adequate, and the fit and finish of an Audi that is just out of warranty should be as new. A 2003 A6 2.5 TDI quattro SE with 30,000 miles should be not much more than £16,000.

A CAR FOR THE HEART

I would like to recommend, unreservedly, the Subaru Legacy estate, which is underrated and offers sensational value. Subaru has been making 4x4 saloons and estates for years, and they have a good reputation.

The Legacy has standard four-wheel-drive, which means excellent road-holding and a slightly higher ride height, so it has the ability to cross a field, if that's what you need.

But the trouble is that the sprightly flat-four-cylinder engine is not the most economical, although it has improved in the last few years. These cars are, however, understated, unusual, good value and extremely well built, which means that they can take high mileages.

The real appeal of the Legacy is the build quality and technology. It has the ability to extricate itself from a muddy field or negotiate a snowbound road thanks to permanent four-wheel-drive technology. Not surprisingly, grip level is incredible - even under extreme conditions, it is hard to lose control. The Outback is an interesting variant, which Subaru proclaimed as the world's "first sport utility estate". With 8in of ground clearance and fatter tyres, it can cope better than most with the rough stuff, yet still be very refined on the road. All Subarus are smaller than the "Chelsea tractor" archetype, although Subaru is going to launch a full-sized SUV, the Tribeca, this year.

Along with all that is a very slick gearbox, although the luxury version of the Outback has a standard (very smooth) auto box. The brakes are reassuringly firm, as is the ride, although it is still comfortable. A 2003 Outback with 30,000 miles costs about £12,000.

www.jamesruppert.co.uk

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