IF YOU want to boldly go where no vehicle has gone before, there is only one way to do it: in a Land Rover. Of course, there are dozens of imitators, but none equals its off-road ability. However, Land Rover has responded to the softer, mainly oriental opposition by making the spartan cabins more comfortable and improving the performance on tarmac. There is now a model to suit all comers, for on or off the beaten track, at a price they can bear. But the pitfalls can be deep.

Launched in 1948, the Land Rover was aimed at emulating the success of the American Jeep. The design principles were simple: a corrosion-resistant aluminium body bolted to a solid chassis powered by a reliable engine and with four-wheel drive. Forty-five years later, give or take a host of mechanical changes, those principles still apply.

The series I, II and III were the backbone of the range up until 1985, with options of pick-ups, vans, station wagons, military models, four doors, three doors, diesels, short and long wheelbase - proving that there is no such thing as a 'standard' Land Rover. In addition, the 3.5 V8 engine from the Range Rover became available from 1980. In the mid-Eighties the new One Ten (long wheelbase) and Ninety (short wheelbase) offered even more refinement, thanks to coil- sprung suspension. These models were revised and rebadged as the Defender range in 1990.

The biggest leap forward was the all-new Discovery in 1989. This was Land Rover's response to the success of Japanese 4 x 4s. For those who could not afford a Range Rover, this three- and later five-door model offered similar levels of refinement with the same diesel and V8 engines.

So if you want a Land Rover, the choice is bewildering. This means it is important to examine your reasons for wanting one. If you are switching from a car, the shock could prove fatal. At worst you may be disappointed by the spartan interior, droning engine, poor fuel consumption and sluggish performance. I donned the persona and Barbour of a potential purchaser to investigate.

At first I pretended to be a soft townie. I needed enough room to squeeze in the children, labrador and luggage for weekends at the cottage. However, I'd need something smart enough for business weekdays that would not hang around on the motorway. Oh yes, and money would not be much of an obstacle. I therefore needed a Discovery.

At Lex Land Rover, Maidenhead, I met the sales manager and found a 1992 V8i. I chose a five-door because they make more practical sense, although, if you are on a budget, early three-doors start at pounds 13,000. I also opted for the V8 engine, which means plenty of performance and comfortable motorway cruising.

So why not buy a Range Rover? Well, the Discovery is cheaper, a touch more nimble and very fashionable. This one was a year old, had come direct from Land Rover UK, with a 13,000-mileage record and a pounds 16,995 price tag. Open the tailgate and there are two extra pull-down seats that turn it into a seven-seater. In addition to the standard alloy wheels, electric windows and central locking there was a front roof rack, tow-bar and air-conditioning. It was in excellent condition, but inside there were slight signs of wear. Perhaps I needed something tougher.

Moving on to Pangbourne, I became a country-dweller. I still wanted plenty of room and a certain amount of comfort, but I was more likely to stray off the beaten track. I now kept a closer eye on fuel bills but was still prepared to pay for the best. I needed the Land Rover Defender that was on the forecourt at Wadham Kenning: a 110 TDi 12-seat County Station Wagon.

This may need some deciphering: 110 refers to the wheelbase length, so it's the bigger Defender; TDi means it has a 2.5-litre turbo diesel engine, as fitted to the Discovery and Range Rover; County is the specification level, which makes an otherwise austere cabin almost comfortable; finally, Station Wagon means it's a five- door estate car.

This was a one-owner 1991 vehicle with full service history, finished in red and with 23,000 miles on the clock. It was well maintained, although there was some mildew on the rear seats. Apart from the County appointments, a roof lining and door trims, there were nudge-bars and extra front lamps to help the countryside fauna out of the way. The pounds 13,750 tag was, however, less appealing once you added the VAT (the Land Rover is classed as a commercial vehicle - even second-hand it attracts VAT).

At Walton-on-Thames I still wanted a big, useful Land Rover, but was not quite so rich. Walton Motors' proprietor showed me a 1984 110 V8 County Station Wagon. With 127,000 miles on the clock, it proved just how durable these vehicles are. The engine started easily and ran quietly without blowing smoke and there were recent bills for a gearbox overhaul. It could have been mine for pounds 4,950 plus VAT.

Back in Berkshire, I was now getting serious about Land Rovers and wanted one as a workhorse, but the money was becoming tighter. So GDF Land Rovers near Reading managed to help me out with a 1984 Series III Hardtop. In Land Rover language this is a van. You can sit three abreast up front with optional bench seating in the rear. Being a short-wheelbase vehicle, it would be better over the rough. The economical diesel engine had covered 85,000 miles, and the bodywork was virtually unmarked. All this for pounds 3,500.

A Land Rover, you should know, is the ultimate mobile Meccano set. You can buy every part off the shelf to keep one alive indefinitely. On the mix-and-match principle, Keith Gott in Aldershot, Hampshire, takes former government vehicles, highly specified and well maintained, then custom builds them for each buyer, whether they are going down the shops or up the Alps. Prices start at pounds 2,000.

With Land Rovers, ideally buy from a specialist who understands the vehicles. And drive them] They take some getting used to, but are worth the effort if you really want to go off- road. But remember, there is no such thing as a cheap Land Rover: anything below pounds 1,000 is usually scrap.

(Photograph omitted)

Search for used cars