Motoring: The cars that came in 4 by 4

Jeeps, the original, legendary American off-roaders, make excellent second-hand buys.

IF YOU fancied a 4x4 a few years back there was not a great deal to choose from. You either bought a basic Land Rover, or a smart Range Rover. That was it. A farmer's hack or a landowner's hide-trimmed country seat.

These days there are more 4x4s on the new and used market than you can shake a muddy stick at. However, there is one make of 4x4 which has become a phenomenal success. It is the brand that started it all, indeed the one that inspired Land Rover in the first place: the legendary all-American Jeep.

Today, used Cherokees, Grand Cherokees and Wranglers can represent excellent value for money with early examples costing only pounds 5,000 to pounds 6,000.

It is not hard to understand why we have taken Jeeps to our hearts. Previous off-roaders were proving to be overpriced and under-equipped. The marque initially made an impact back in the Seventies and Eighties, when the first wave of Jeeps were imported to fill a gap left by the Range Rover, for which there was a two-year waiting list. John Bunce, who now runs north London's Just Jeeps, one of the country's leading specialists, was there when holders of the Chrysler Jeep franchise brought in left- hand drive examples.

"We would take the standard Jeep and trim them out with electric windows and leather, basically whatever the customer wanted. None of that was done in the States where it was still regarded as something to be used down on the farm."

Official imports of the Cherokee began in January 1993; the car soon became the first vehicle to be built in right-hand drive for export by an American car manufacturer.

The Cherokee quickly established a solid reputation for quality, reliability, rugged style and of course value for money. Within 15 months Glass's Guide to Car Values reported that second-hand examples were appreciating in value. Today, good early examples average pounds 7,000-pounds 8,000.

The Cherokee was updated in 1997, with a fresh interior and less boxy exterior, but it wasn't the only Jeep available. The Grand Cherokee answered the critics who said that the Cherokee was too small. Here was a true Range Rover rival, with the space, long equipment-list and low price to beat the old Brit. Expect to pay pounds 16,000 for one now. Also part of the Jeep line-up was the traditional-looking Wrangler. Distantly related to the famous Second World War Jeep, it has a raw appeal and loyal following. They are basic, but fun and good value at around pounds 6,000.

When it comes to looking at a used Jeep, either buy from a specialist, or get it inspected by one. The engines are very durable, the six-cylinder units are referred to as the "whispering sixes" and they also sail to six-figure mileages. Gearboxes are equally tough - but be wary if gear engagement is difficult. As with any 4x4, put it on a ramp and look for off-road damage. Rust isn't a problem on cars imported since 1993.

At Doves in south London, I spotted a 1995 Cherokee 4.0 Sport in black with leather, which had covered 25,000 miles and cost pounds 12,995. A 1996 Grand Cherokee 4.0 Limited cost pounds 16,995, but had covered 73,000 miles. Both were in excellent condition. I also looked through the classified ads in a copy of Jeep World, and could find CJ-7 models, the Wrangler's 1980s predecessor, advertised from as little as pounds 2,500. In other words, your next high-class 4x4 doesn't have to have a Land Rover badge on the front.

Doves, 0181-681 3508; Just Jeeps Sales Spares Servicing Repairs, 0181- 340 0988/1048; Yankee Jeep Club, 01924 249261

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