Ian Rose, 45, a consultant from Cambridgeshire, is interested in the new four-wheel-drive estate cars from Volvo, Audi and Subaru. He does not want to spend more than £20,000 and wonders if these cars are really worth the extra.

Yes. it is that age-old dilemma. Well, one from the early Nineties, anyway. Do we really need a 4x4 for everyday motoring? Of course, the answer is no. But that never stopped the Chelsea farmers in their Range Rovers or the rest of the country following that trend in Suzuki Vitaras, Jeep Cherokees and Vauxhall Fronteras.

If you are going to tow stuff, four-wheel-drive is a great help. But even country-dwellers can manage without a 4x4. My rural neighbours tackle snowdrifts and single-track roads in 15-year-old Renault Savanna estates and centuries-old Austin A35s. So for the school, station and supermarket runs, a two-ton truck is daft. Especially when 4x4s drink so much fuel, bounce uncomfortably over potholes and handle only averagely well.

To answer such criticisms, manufacturers have come up with a breed of so-called lifestyle 4x4s more car-like to drive and less intimidating. The upmarket offerings from Audi and Volvo are clever and well made, but they are also a clever way of getting you to pay more for an estate car.

A car for the head

If Mr Rose wants the prestige badge, practicality and the reassurance of four-wheel-drive there are several options. A 2001 Audi A6 Avant2.5 TDI 180 Quattro SE is spacious, well-built and has a powerful diesel engine. The A6 has amazing build quality and the four-wheel-drive system is well-proven and highly effective.

Then there is the Volkswagen Passat estate. The 2.8 V6 4MOTION combines four- wheel-drive with a powerful V6 petrol engine. These models depreciate rapidly so Mr Rose could pick up a well-equipped model months old for well under £20,000. If he wants to buy new, and fancies off-road design chic, it has to be a "soft-roader".

Two models stand out, the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV 4. The Toyota has a wider choice of engines, with two petrols, a 1.8 and 2.0, and a diesel. The RAV4 is a high- rise hot hatch, with the 2.0 petrol engine with impressively sharp handling and well-laid out dashboard and controls. It can also perform all sorts of people-carrying tricks with sliding rear seats. The RAV 4 is a genuine multi purpose vehicle.

A car for the heart

I get the feeling Mr Rose secretly wants that chunky off-road styling combined with a high-image badge, and he has identified Subaru as such. Since 1998, the Forester 2.0 S-Turbo has combined soft-roader style and ability with hardcore Impreza running gear.

Off roaders with attitude are fashionable, from the BMW X5 to the Audi All Road, but the Forester got there first. It undercuts the nouveau off-road riche arrivals on value and because it is a Subaru, it will not break down. The mild 2.0 litre model is good, but the Turbo delivers real overtaking performance.

What Mr Rose may not like is the tacky interior plastics and lack of design flair. Compared to the cockpit of an Audi the Subaru seems low rent, but maybe he can live with that. The Forester is well made, does not feel like a compromise and has bags of character. With prices starting at £16,445, it is good value, and a discount on a top-of-the- range turbo means Mr Rose can buy for just under £20,000.

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