roaders. They seem to be as irresistible in the urban jungle as they are forceful off the beaten track. To the end of September, sales this year had reached 46,000 - up nearly 50 per cent on 1992. The only niche market to show greater growth, according to Toyota, was that exemplified by its Previa people-mover.
The better to cash in on the 4 x 4 boom, Toyota has launched its 4Runner to fill the gap between the utilitarian Landcruiser II and the big, expensive Landcruiser VX. The 4Runner is not really new - it has been in other markets as a derivative of the Hilux van since 1988 - but the Mk 2 version looks set to stir the muddy waters here.
There are two models: the 3.0-
litre petrol V6 costs pounds 22,292; the 3.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel (which is new), pounds 23,211. Both have lofty five-door estate bodywork notable more for butch good looks than roominess; grab-handles and running-boards help you clamber into a cabin that is pleasantly trimmed and very well finished - but cramped.
Although it has a big boot, reached by a window that is electrically lowered into the fold-down tailgate, rear passenger space is tight compared with that of the cheaper Discovery. Knee room is especially poor. There is no great feeling of spaciousness up front, either: tall or corpulent drivers would feel hemmed in.
Technically, the 4Runner is low-tech conformist. It is based on a girder chassis carried by big alloy wheels, huge tyres, and tough, long-travel suspension. Generous articulation, a high ground clearance and short overhangs indicate serious off-road ability. Normally, only the back wheels are driven through a five-speed manual gearbox. When the going gets gruelling, four-wheel drive and super-low 'crawler' gears are engaged with a second lever.
Compared with a similarly priced luxury car, the 4Runner is slow, cumbersome, uncomfortable and thirsty - as are all off-roaders. By peer-group standards, however, it acquits itself well.
Although the petrol V6 is as quiet and smooth as any 4 x 4 I have driven, the slightly noisier high-torque diesel suits the 4Runner's rugged character better, especially when towing or scrambling. Engine balancer shafts (like those used by Porsche) smooth away endemic vibration, and massive torque - the product of a whistling turbocharger - gives lively mid-range acceleration and a respectable cruising gait. The 4Runner puts on a more convincing performance than the laboured 2.5-litre Discovery TDi.
Controls are light and easy, the dash laid out like that of a conventional car. Although the assisted steering is vague and lifeless, you can hustle through bends securely, without unsettling body lean. The ride is restless and agitated on anything but smooth roads - situation normal for a 4 x 4 - but the traditional chassis isolates road rumble, keeping noise levels down. Other refinements include a tilting steering wheel, driver height adjustment, folding rear seats, electric windows and a powered sunroof.
There are faster and roomier off-
roaders than the 4Runner, but few with a fuel-saving diesel engine that performs as well on motorways as on the gymkhana fields. Although this worthy new Toyota, backed by a three-year/60,000-mile warranty, will not challenge the Land Rover Discovery's sales lead, it could well push the 4 x 4 sector close to saturation point.
Ford Maverick 2.7TD five-door, pounds 18,200. Ford-badged Nissan Terrano, made in Spain. Easy to drive, with car-like cabin and decent space. Part-time 4 x 4 transmission gives adequate off-road ability. Better value than up-market Toyota.
Isuzu Trooper 3.1 TD Citation five-door, pounds 23,350. The 4Runner's nearest rival with similar styling, 'big-four' diesel engine and performance. Same-price V6 petrol engine gives better performance, poorer economy.
Jeep Cherokee Limited, pounds 18,995. Fast and thirsty petrol-only Chrysler. Good off- road, relatively nimble on it. Cabin shoddily finished and short on room. Good value.
Land Rover Discovery TDi five- door, pounds 20,700. Good looks of best-seller let down by sluggish diesel engine. Roomy cabin and smart decor. Social standing and off-road ability high.
Toyota 4Runner Diesel, pounds 23,211. Engine: 2,959cc four-cylinder turbo-diesel, 123bhp at 3,600rpm. 218lb ft of torque at 2,000rpm. Five-speed manual gearbox, part-time four-wheel drive. Performance: 0-60mph in 16.4 seconds, top speed 93mph. Consumption: 22-28mpg.
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