Motoring: A money-spinning Discovery

WHILE sales of most cars are sinking, one category is, perhaps appropriately, riding roughshod over the rest: the off-roader. Sales of four-wheel-drive off-road vehicles are up about 35 per cent this year. The Land-Rover Discovery and those trendy little Suzukis that hairdressers and PR types drive (a Which? test once found one to be tipsy) are showing particularly handsome sales increments.

But why? Off-roaders are obviously not being bought for their prowess over mud. Most Discoveries never discover anything more than tarmac under their tyres. And Suzukis rarely venture outside major conurbations; take one on a motorway and you'll understand why.

Nor are they high on green credentials. The Suzukis are thirstier than conventional equivalents (their brick-shaped aerodynamics don't help), and petrol-powered Discoveries and Range Rovers (sales of which are holding up well) are among the most fuel-profligate of all vehicles. The automatic Range Rover V8, long a favourite of oil sheikhs, is every bit as thirsty as those V12-engined Mercedes saloons, often berated as fiends of the earth.

No, city slickers love off-roaders because their chunkiness and driving height seem to impart a feeling of security. And they're different. In today's homogeneous market, cars that offer something other than a Euro-bland body and Euro-bland driving characteristics are exceptional. Never mind that in this case exceptional means noisier, thirstier, less comfortable, slower and pricier than their conventional saloon counterparts.

In many ways, cars such as the little Suzuki Vitara, which is selling particularly well, are the true successors of those trendy open-top sports models of the Sixties. The MG Midget and its like were never very good vehicles; they were merely characterful. Nor were they very fast. They were sporty only in the sense that they were uncomfortable and had no roofs (just like the Suzukis).

More four-wheel-drives are on the way. Jeep, the grand-daddy of them all, aims to re-enter the UK market in January with a couple of chunky, well-priced products. And next summer Ford, the UK market leader, is to introduce its own off-roader, slightly smaller than the Discovery.

THE INCOMPETENT Vauxhall Astra GSi 16V is to be revamped in January, well over a year after it first hit the streets. The sportiest Astra boasts the best engine in its class, but - and here's the problem - the worst suspension. Its four wheels just can't handle the power.

Vauxhall is well aware of the problem. The car was castigated by much of the press (including the Independent). Soon afterwards, all GSi models were withdrawn from the Vauxhall press fleet, the pool of cars loaned to the media for evaluation.

Opel, the German wing of General Motors, which also owns Vauxhall, develops all GM cars for Europe, and was responsible for the Astra GSi. On the smooth west German roads on which the Opel engineers do much of their work, the GSi is fine. But introduce a few bumps, the sort that blight British blacktop, and the Astra soon loses its composure. At speed on British B-roads, the car can be almost undriveable.

Quite why General Motors, the world's biggest car company, forgot to take into account British conditions when it developed a car that is actually made at Ellesmere Port is extraordinary. Insiders say that the revamped Astra GSi, which gets heavily revised suspension, is a big improvement over the old. It will need to be.

YOU SAW it here first: after the Cortina, the Sierra, the radical-upstart-turned-elder-statesman; after the Sierra, the Mondeo, a new front-drive 'world' car to be launched next March. The Mondeo has been developed by Ford engineers in Europe and America, with a name intended to evoke images of worldliness (le monde etc). This is the first time Ford has manufactured the same car on both sides of the Atlantic since the old Ford V8 of the Thirties. The Mondeo is a smart, glassy, roomy machine, available as a four-door saloon, hatchback or estate, with a choice of three four-cylinder engines, all from the new Zeta family. An American-made 2.5-litre V6 is promised within 12 months.

This column will appear monthly.

(Photograph omitted)

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