In the motor trade almanac it was once possible to read winter entries such as "December's dawning, used off roaders are roaring", or "February's icy I'm shifting those second hand 4x4s really nicely". But not any more. In the used-car market, the off roader is now judged on the same merits as any other vehicle. Far from being a high-profit special case, they now have to fight for attention. And this means that it has never been a better time to buy a used 4x4.

The quantity of 4x4 models being produced has depressed used prices. Not only that, the off roader has become the latest in a long line of insurance industry bogey vehicles. Premiums are on the rise and many owners are questioning why they actually own a 4x4.

Until recently, used 4x4s fell into two distinct categories: either rural Land Rover or Chelsea Range Rover. Things are no longer that simple and the used market is cluttered up with all sorts of exciting new off road options. At the bottom of the mud-plugging pack are the largely recreational, often garishly decorated, semi sporty vehicles as epitomised by the Suzuki Vitara. This is the 4x4 as fashion accessory and prices can start at pounds 4,000. Although the short wheelbase (stubby styling, no overhangs front and rear) makes them ideal for serious off roaders, few ever get their tyres muddy. Ditto Daihatsu's less stylish Sportrak and almost workmanlike Fourtrak.

The best off road substitute for a hot hatch is the Toyota RAV 4 which has proved incredibly popular. Instead of the usual compromised, choppy ride of rival models, this handles just like a car on tarmac. Prices are very firm and the buyer of a 1994 model which has covered 10,000 miles will pay about pounds 2,000 less than the new cost - making, pounds 10,995 the bottom buying line.

By contrast, Ford entered this marketplace with the Maverick but has found the going tougher in this terrain. There are lots of Mavericks on sale and a 2.4i which cost pounds 15,000 new in 1993 is now valued at pounds 8,500 on the forecourt after 45,000 miles.

Another relatively new category is that occupied by the Land Rover Discovery and other middle-class, mid-size off roaders. Bought as up-market estate cars and like the small sport 4x4s, they rarely get their big tyres muddy. The Discovery is the biggest selling model of all, but the all-important image keeps prices firmer than most. Diesels are very sought after, while the underpowered 2.0 MPi and thirsty V8 are the real sub pounds 10,000 bargains. Other manufacturers have tried to cash in: General Motors has a two pronged attack with the Vauxhall Frontera and lsuzu Trooper, also badged as the Vauxhall Monterey. Only the Jeep Cherokee with its high levels of equipment and car-like performance has rivalled the Discovery. There are no Jeep bargains, unless the specification is low - and that means no leather upholstery.

In the increasingly blurred big league, there are big 4x4s which are bought as alternatives to limousines, with all the extras but none of the driving comfort. Only the high specification Jeep Grand Cherokee bridges the gap at an affordable price. It holds its value well and is currently an expensive used buy. By contrast, the new-shape Range Rover has not proved to be popular, being expensive and worst of all, anonymous. At least its transatlantic styling makes for bargains of a kind on the used market. Equally, there are the usual Oriental opponents in the shape of the Mitsubishi Shogun and Toyota Landcruiser which at above average mileages offer very good value when combined with the high specification and excellent build quality which often puts the British Land Rovers to shame.

Probably the best reason for buying an off roader right now is that the majority are used as glorified estates, or second cars and so are unsullied by mud. lt is the perfect opportunity to acquire an "as new" off roader at a second-hand price provided they have a service history, undamaged bodywork and interior and ideally come with a comprehensive dealer warranty.

However, off roaders have to start somewhere and I found my 4x4 entry level was pounds 1,000 for an N-registered diesel-powered Land Rover. This was a 1974 model. It was solid enough and the private seller was willing to negotiate around pounds 800.

A better, if more basic, prospect was at Radio Garage. They described an H-registered Lada Niva Cossack as usable and very cheap - which at pounds 2,495 it certainly was. If you genuinely need four wheel drive and don't care what anyone else thinks, these Russian trucks are perfect. For the image conscious, there was a Mercedes 300G Wagen with an automatic gearbox and that distinctive 3-pointed star on the grille for just pounds 5,495. Off road it has few rivals, but on the road it looks very ex-army and has none of the Range Rover's class or poise.

At Boundary Garage I saw two Suzuki Vitara - unashamed attention grabbers. Both were 1993 models, one hard, the other soft top, all colourful graphics, bull bars, body kits and alloy wheels. The asking prices were pounds 9,999 and pounds 9,499.

Raising my on-road budget to pounds 20,000, I moved on to West One Carriage Co where I saw a forecourt full of Discoverys and Range Rovers which tipped the pounds 19,995 scales. So finally, after a day that had started with a pounds 1,000 Land Rover, I finished by peering into a rather more expensive one. At a saving of pounds 10,000 on the new price, this 1995 Range Rover could have been mine for just pounds 35,995. It proves that there are 4x4 bargains to be found if you look hard enough.

Radio Garage 01366 384600

Boundary Garage 01702 554 586

West One Carriage Co 0181-906 8800

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