Tony Lane is a 66-year-old retired professor who is moving to South Wales to live in the country, at the end of a half-mile long unmade road. He needs an economical car, five or six years old, with good load space and better ground clearance than his Honda Civic estate. He definitely does not want an off-road vehicle. A Citroën Xantia has been recommended as a good buy.

AS WE have written on these pages many times before, you do not need a four-wheel-drive vehicle just because you are going into a rural area. Never mind that an off-roader is absolutely essential in the rough tough urban environment to cope with those dangerous supermarket car-park inclines, in the countryside just about any car can and will cope.

Provided you drive carefully and according to the conditions, in normal on-road use there is little difference between a two- and four- wheel-drive car.

Most cars on the market are front-wheel-drive and in most conditions this is the safest layout because you are effectively tugged around corners. Rear-wheel-drive, mainly the preserve of luxury and sporting cars, can be upset in slippery conditions by over-enthusiasm. Four-wheel-drive can give you traction in muddy and icy conditions and can allow you to travel faster than you could in a normal car.

Drive within your limits, and in everything but deep snow, any sensible motorists can cope with the conditions. Ground clearance and four-wheel-drive becomes an issue only after you truly stray off road, which is what Professor Lane intends to do.

A car for the head

Quite rightly, Professor Lane has been told to consider the Citroën Xantia. This is a spacious, practical and clever old car with an undeservedly poor reputation.

Its big trick is that the ride height can be altered by the simple press of a button. So, when fully loaded with people and luggage and driving up the unmade road, Professor Lane will not be in danger of bottoming out; in effect, the Xantia body will not hit the road. The other great thing about the Citroën Xantia is that it is a great-value buy and with just a few thousand pounds Professor Lane can get himself an estate that has plenty of room and also the very economical delivering more than 50mpg.

A 1999 2.0 HDi with average mileage should be no more than £3,000. What Professor Lane must do is to buy wisely, and ideally from one caring owner or a Citroën specialist. But the hydraulics may cause problems if neglected.

So any obvious fluid leaks are bad and if Professor Lane can take a peek at the oil itself, it should be a clear, bright green, not brown or black. Otherwise, it is a tough car and the diesel engine will run easily up to 200,000 miles.

A car for the heart

If If Professor Lane can get on with the Xantia, he might also enjoy its big brother in the shape of the Citroën XM which is a big, loveable car and has the same trick suspension.

Prices are often lower than for the Xantia and it has no reputation for reliability to live up to. Like the Xantia, the XM has to be bought and checked very carefully and, despite offering masses of room and value, it may be just a bit too complicated for Professor Lane.

Hold on, there is yet another Citroën that can come to the rescue. We have mentioned the Berlingo before, which is essentially a van-based, compact people-carrier, which has a decent amount of ground clearance. Professor Lane should go for the five-door model which offers much better access for all the family.

But he probably will not be able to afford the 2.0 Hdi diesel. The 1.6 petrol manages 38mpg, although the 1.9 D diesel betters that at 42mpg although it is very sluggish. Professor Lane will have to budget on spending about £4,000 for a 2000 Forte model.

The cheapest way into Berlingo is with the 1.4, but it may not have the engine power to cope with a family even though he will pay under £3,000 for a 1999 model.

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