Do not be put off by the thought of driving a vehicle that is longer, wider and higher than the biggest Range Rover. The five-door Mitsubishi Shogun's size belies surprising agility. That, allied with almost sporting acceleration, is why vehicles of this type - equipped with four-wheel drive and originally aimed at country folk - have become remarkably popular in recent years. The so-called off-road sector of the British car market has expanded by almost 800 per cent since 1983.

That has more to do with attitude than with need, because very few of these big, thirsty machines ever tackle axle-deep mud or the other challenges for which they were designed. They attract people who might otherwise be driving big estate cars or such sensible alternatives as the versatile Renault Espace. Riding head and shoulders above the hoi polloi is one explanation for their popularity. But the main reason, in most cases, is the very human desire to be different.

Those who admire the Range Rover's conservative styling tend to be sniffy about the Shogun's appearance. The same applies inside: some people joke about the instrument panel's altimeter, inclinometer and compass, but the compass was a blessing when I was slogging across unfamiliar territory late at night and without a map. I knew we would reach the M1 if I kept heading due east.

Off-roaders used to be synonymous with agricultural engines and sloth-like performance. This one is wafted along by a smooth, high-revving, 3.5-litre V6 for which no driver need apologise to his passengers. The main drawback is a serious drink problem shared, with other contenders in this class.

Suspension that enables the Shogun to corner almost as confidently as a big car is enhanced by adjustable shock absorbers. A push of a button changes the settings from soft to medium to hard. The system soaked up a lot of punishment during an off-road session in Wales, where the Shogun proved undaunted by challenges far tougher than 99 per cent of owners would ever attempt.

Land Rover favours permanent four-wheel drive for the Defender, Discovery and Range Rover. Mitsubishi provides the selectable alternative, so there is a risk of being caught napping by an sudden change in conditions. Good points include the all-wheel-drive system's off-road efficiency and the illuminated display that clearly indicates which axles and wheels are being driven.

Being able to see over walls, hedges and most other vehicles makes the lofty driving position a real advantage as well as a psychological plus. As for comfort, sitting relatively upright in a seat whose relationship with the steering wheel and pedals is not compromised by the need to save space makes this type of vehicle a good bet for long journeys. But legroom in the back is only just sufficient for adults. Extra seats, which fold when not needed, are suitable for children or small adults.

Shogun prices start at pounds 21,219 for the three-door with the 2.5-litre turbo-diesel engine. The version I tested complements its sophisticated petrol engine with a list of standard equipment that includes an anti-lock braking system, leather upholstery and heated front seats, air-conditioning, cruise control, a compact-disc player and a glass sunroof big enough to be mistaken for a swimming pool when seen from low-flying aircraft.

The new Shogun 3500 emerged from a 1,000-mile test as a worthy rival for the long-serving Range Rover. Doubts about this sort of vehicle making sense in city traffic evaporated when it looked as if we would miss the curtain-up after driving 200 miles to see Elaine Paige in the title role in Evita. Even hard-boiled London cabbies give way to a mountain of metal.

(Photograph omitted)

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