There has rarely been a better time to buy a used four-wheel drive, says James Ruppert
It must be a jungle out there. Why else would the streets be crawling with off-roaders? In the cut and thrust of suburbia there is no better vehicle to tackle the incline at Tesco's car-park and jostle for position during the school run.

Although 4 x 4s don't really make sense unless you farm, field sport, or join HM Forces, they make a statement, can be fun and are definitely fashionable. Too fashionable. The insurance industry has seenflocks of fashion victims swap their GTi's for 4 x 4s, and have hiked premiums accordingly. Yet if you could really do with a four-wheel drive vehicle and fancy saving a few bob, now has never been a better time to buy a used one.

Years ago you either roughed it with a Land Rover or lorded it in a Range Rover, but now the choice is not so simple. Although there really isn't any rival for the tough old Land Rover Defender, when it comes to comfy, up-market Range Rover clones, used-car buyers are spoilt for choice. Mitsubishi's Shogun is one of the most popular oriental off-roaders. The build quality is very high and, most importantly, the economy from the turbo-diesel is a remarkable 33 miles per gallon during normal touring. You'll pay around £12,000 for a 1990 example which has led an easy life and racked up a 50,000 mileage.

Almost as competent is the Isuzu Trooper. It is easy to drive, with a friendly, car-like interior and is built to last. Less sophisticated are the older Toyota Landcruisers and Nissan Patrol. Both are immensely strong, but are fairly basic, with square-cut commercial vehicle styling which makes them less than attractive. A curious mixture of utility and luxury is the Mercedes G-Wagen. Not a class act like the Range Rover, it is still a great off-roader and general haulage workhorse. What you also get is superb build quality and, unusually for a Mercedes, low prices: £5,000 for a clean, mid-Eighties example is very fair.

There are also some significant new off-roaders on the used 4 x 4 lot. The Jeep Cherokee has been a storming success because it is well equipped, comfortable and gives excellent on-road performance. Off-road it flounders, but that does not matter, it's cheaper than a Range Rover. Also cheaper is Land Rover's very own Discovery, a best-seller - especially the diesel - which makes three-door petrol V8s seem very cheap. Ford's off-roader, the Maverick, also badged as a Nissan Terrano, has not caught on, odd Fiesta-on-steroids styling has not helped sales, so there may be nearly- new bargains at your local Ford dealer. Vauxhall's entry into the marketplace with the Frontera is a little disappointing. The build quality has not been brilliant and the 2.0 litre engine is raucous. But it certainly looks the part, and if you shop around prices can fall. The plaything end of the market is crowded with the ubiquitous Suzuki Vitara, the cheap and agile Daihatsu Sportrak, and stumpy short-wheelbase versions of the Frontera.

At this point it is worth asking yourself why you really want a 4 x 4. Running costs are higher due to poor fuel consumption, and although they are more durable, expensive parts and insurance premiums are rising by the day.

The rules of 4 x 4 buying are simple enough. Stick to the specialists and avoid farmyard and company hacks. Anything that looks battered should be given a wide berth, while family owned, full service history 4 x 4s that have never strayed off tarmac or done anything more strenuous than a run to the shops, should be top of any buyer's list. That's why I made my first call to the Norfolk Motor Group in Norwich who specialise in late, low mileage, off-roaders that have been properly maintained.

Most of the stock is oriental, although there were a couple of highly valued 20,000 mile Discovery turbo-diesels between £17,000 and £19,000. I'd be inclined to save a few pounds, though, and opt for one of the Far Eastern alternatives with bigger, 50,000 mileages, but with barely a mark on them. The choice was between two turbo-diesel Mitsubishi Shoguns. The great thing about looking at these off-roaders is that the huge ground clearance means a buyer can check the vulnerable underside for damage and fluid leaks without too much bother.

Both the vehicles were very impressive from this angle and all I needed was either £12,495 for the higher miler, or £13,999 for the younger example. But because the off-road high season was coming to a close and I had no part exchange, NMG were willing to negotiate the price downwards by a token few hundred.

Over at a smaller specialist Moulton 4 x 4 Centre there were more older and affordable examples. A 1986 Toyota Landcruiser with turbo-diesel engine cost just £5,995. But if you are prepared to tolerate low fuel consumption and go for a less frugal petrol 4 x 4 then the prices get even more reasonable. A tidy E-registered Nissan Patrol with all the usual bull and tow bar trimmings was just £3,995. Less sparse and more prestigious was a quite remarkable 11-year-old, one-owner Range Rover Vogue, with a full service history and gas guzzling V8 engine, which cost just £4,995.

In the mood for some fun, I went to County Caravan & Car Sales. On the huge site I sorted out some short-wheelbase playthings. It's hard to overlook the ever popular Suzuki Vitara, especially when it is finished in Glacier white paint. A 1992 limited edition Mustique (based on a 1.6i JLX, but with eye-catching graphics and a rhino on the spare wheel cover) had just 20,000 miles on the clock; this soft top looked almost new and had an asking price of £8,595.

Not far away was the most popular Vauxhall Frontera, the 2.0i Sport. A one-owner example, it looked purposeful and pricey at £10,995, but then it had only covered 9,000 miles. None of those miles had involved getting muddy, judging by the condition of the alloy wheels and the deep shine on the Lagoon blue paintwork. Like most 4 x 4s, the Frontera and Vitara are pampered playthings. After all, it's only an urban jungle out there.

Norfolk Motor Group, 1 Wroxham Road, Norwich NR7 8TN (01603 401044); Moulton 4x4 Centre, 65 High Road, Moulton, PE12 6PE (01406 371174); County Caravan & Car Sales 308-314 Eastfield Road, Peterborough, PEU 4RA (01733 60631).

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