Motoring: The Independent Road Test: High but not so mighty: The Nissan Terrano 2 is tall and manoeuvrable but lacks power, says Roger Bell

IMAGINE an estate car on stilts and you have a good impression of the Nissan Terrano 2 and its Ford Maverick twin. Apart from details - badging, front grilles and equipment, for instance - the latest recruits to the burgeoning 4x4 leisure market are identical.

Rather than design and build its own mudlark, Ford arranged with Nissan to buy Maverick-badged, Spanish-built Terranos for sale in its own showrooms. Thus both partners in slime achieved the economies of scale needed to be competitive in a sector that shows no signs of stalling. Land Rover, makers of the best-selling Discovery, shrugs aside the new opposition, asserting that it will simply expand the 4x4 sector, just as the Vauxhall Frontera did, without eroding its own dominant share.

Nissan describes the Terrano 2 (Terrano 1 was never imported) as an all-road vehicle that feels like an ordinary car to drive and ride in. There is nothing in it of the sumo wrestler, nothing that intimidates. Narrowing the body has done the styling no favours - loftiness needs to be balanced by width - but it does facilitate manoeuvrability, especially when squeezing through gaps between traffic or trees.

In cabin layout and design, the five-door Terrano (there is also a short-wheelbase three-door) is much like a seven-seater estate. Versatility is a keynote: the second and third rows of seats can be arranged in several ways, though the fold-away mechanism is rather complex. Beneath, big, knobbly tyres and high ground clearance clearly signal an affinity for bogs and burrows.

You sit comfortably, with a commanding view, behind a bland but friendly car-like dashboard. The only unfamiliar control is a second gear lever, used to engage four-wheel drive (rear drive only is used for the road, saving on fuel and tyre wear) and low ratio, employed for steep scrambling. Adequate muscle for wild terrain is provided by a refined and flexible 2.7-litre turbo-diesel which develops less top-end power (and less boomy thrash) than the alternative 2.4-litre petrol engine. It yields more torque, and that is what counts when lugging off-road, but all out on tarmac, neither engine delivers better than Ford Escort 1.4 performance, which is underwhelming for such an expensive vehicle.

Lightweight controls make the Terrano/Maverick feel more like a car than a truck. The assisted steering is mushy but easy, the gear change is light. Despite the lofty build, there is no impression of top-heaviness when hustling through corners. Big tyres grip the road well and firm suspension maintains an even keel. There are snags, however. The spare wheel, mounted on a side-hinged rear door that obstructs loading from the kerb, masks the view aft, making reversing tricky. The ride is also firm and fidgety, if not so gut-jarring as that of some rivals.

As a heavily compromised all-road vehicle, the Terrano excels only at being a jack of all trades; it masters none. For normal motoring, an ordinary estate (or multi-purpose vehicle) is quicker, quieter and smoother riding. It might well be cheaper and more economical, too. Although the Nissan's green-lane ability far exceeds the modest needs of most owners - banks and quagmires that

a 4x4 car would not even look at are broached with alacrity - there are better scamblers for the serious off-roader.

Prices range from pounds 15,000 (base three-door petrol Maverick) to more than pounds 20,000 (five-door turbo-diesel loaded with options - and there are many to choose from). Ford has the wider model range, Nissan the advantage of slightly lower prices, though exact comparisons are clouded by differences in specification.

SPECIFICATIONS

Nissan Terrano 2 five-door SLX, pounds 18,775 (equivalent Ford Maverick GLX pounds 19,700). Engine: 2.7-litre, four-cylinder turbo-diesel; 100bhp at 4,000rpm. Transmission: five-speed manual gearbox with normal and low ratios, part-time four-wheel drive. Performance: 0-60mph in 20 seconds, top speed 90mph. Economy: 25-32mpg derv.

COMPARISONS

Isuzu Trooper five-door turbo-diesel, pounds 19,149. New-look Trooper much better than old model; 3.1-litre turbo-diesel gives stronger performance than Terrano 2, but poorer economy. Go for Contender for class leadership.

Jeep Cherokee Limited 4.0, pounds 18,995. Muscular yank tank. Refined, fast and thirsty - comes only with four-speed automatic transmission and low-tech petrol engine. Good value but modest accommodation.

Land Rover Discovery five-door 2.5TDi, pounds 20,400. Big, butch and expensive. Style and social standing strong, though diesel engine rough, performance sluggish, handling ponderous. Cabin roomy, off-road ability outstanding.

Vauxhall Frontera five-door turbo-diesel, pounds 17,105. Whacky Thunderbirds styling disguises civilised five-seater estate, also sold with faster petrol engine. Best on-road handling of all the off-roaders, though cabin is dated. Keenly priced.

(Photograph omitted)

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