Motoring: Taking the rough with the smooth: The new Daihatsu Fourtrak remains less refined than its rivals, says John Simister

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Take heed: you are in the front row of Daihatsu's target audience. When a maker calls its new off-roader 'Independent' to flaunt the go-anywhere idea, you can be sure that this newspaper and its readers were in the minds of the folk whose task it was to baptise the product.

Baptism? Perhaps confirmation is more apt, because the Daihatsu Fourtrak Independent is more of a revamp than a new model. The chief change to Daihatsu's larger and longer-established off-roader (the Sportrak is its other offering) is in the front suspension, which forsakes the former solid axle for a new independent - that word again - suspension system. Together with new coil springs for the back axle, these changes should correct the Fourtrak's former failing of a rough, rumbly ride.

Those are the changes you can't see. Those you can include wider wheels and wheel arches, the steroid treatment completed by square-cut front grille and hunky bumpers.

Are these changes enough, along with the new instrument cluster and change of decor inside, to restore an ageing design's appeal? It's a timely question, because competition in what may be termed the middle class of off-roaders has become strong.

The choice used to be Fourtrak or nothing, unless you went for the cheapest version of Isuzu's Trooper. Now, your pounds 16,000 or so will buy a Ford Maverick (or Nissan Terrano if you want the same vehicle with a different badge). A lot of people will do that, for the Ford/Nissan is refined, stylish and thoroughly competent.

So the Fourtrak must fight its corner as never before. And it makes a fair fist of doing so, for the new suspension does give a better ride, with less fidget over small bumps and a flatter cornering stance. This leaves you confident to tackle corners at higher speeds than before, helped by ample tyre grip and surprisingly positive steering. But the ride remains a weakness compared with more sophisticated rivals, the on-road tautness turning into gut-wrenching abruptness over ruts and humps off-road.

Unless you take things slowly on the rough stuff, your passengers will soon complain. Luckily, the 2.8-litre turbodiesel engine - there is no petrol alternative - lugs its load well, thanks to its 181lb ft of torque. This peak of pulling power comes at only 1,900rpm, though useful acceleration remains up to 5,000rpm.

What's more, the power delivery is free of the delayed response that spoils some turbocharged engines. It is smooth, too, and way ahead of its predecessor here, thanks to new, fluid-filled engine mountings, a flexible exhaust pipe and modified fuel injectors. You could almost call the Fourtrak refined, in spite of its Lego- square architecture and dated demeanour.

Until, that is, you try a Terrano or a Maverick. Even in Fourtrak-rivalling turbodiesel form, they make the Daihatsu feel primitive. However, a roughneck ruggedness is part of an off-roader's appeal in many buyers' eyes, and the honest, no-pretence Fourtrak offers plenty of that. Let's just say that a scrape on the side of a Maverick would make you miserable, but on the Daihatsu would be worn with pride.

SPECIFICATIONS

Daihatsu Fourtrak Independent TDL, pounds 15,650 Engine: 2,765cc turbodiesel, four cylinders, 101bhp at 3,400rpm. Five-speed manual, four-wheel drive. Top speed 86mph, 0-60mph in 16.9 seconds. Fuel: 23-28mpg.

COMPARISONS

Ford Maverick 2.7 TD GLX 3-door, pounds 17,000 The Maverick blends car-like driving qualities with competence across country. The GLX is laden with extras; other Mavericks can be had with two extra doors, or a 2.4-litre petrol engine.

Nissan Terrano II 2.7 TD SLX 3-door, pounds 16,075 Just like a Maverick, apart from cosmetic differences and slightly less equipment.

Isuzu Trooper 3.1 DT, pounds 16,849 This has a short wheelbase, three-door body and impressive off-road ability. However, performance is hampered by weight.

Vauxhall Frontera 2.3 TD 5-door, pounds 17,490 Lowish-slung, stylish but mechanically old- fashioned, easy to drive but slow.

(Photograph omitted)

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