For many, the appeal of this stylistically unremarkable Nissan is something of a mystery, but it’s rapidly become the world’s favourite SUV. You’ll have to work hard to find a four-wheel drive as versions are rare, and you probably won’t want to drive it very far off-road, but there are other reasons to consider the ubiquitous Qashqai

 TARGET RANGE:  £5,000 – £25,000 

The Qashqai has to be one of the most surprising success stories of our age. Not only has it been the only SUV to consistently feature in the top ten best-sellers list in the UK, demand worldwide has been so great that the Sunderland factory has been churning them out at the rate of nearly one a minute, with over half a million of the latest-generation models built in less than two years since its launch.

What is it that makes this car so popular? The styling is as mainstream as it gets and we’ve always considered the interior to be the most uninteresting we’ve ever been in, but then we are off-road enthusiasts and tend to look for the traditional off-road hints that nowadays are really only visible in Land Rovers, Jeeps and a few hard-core Toyotas. As with most other modern SUVs, four-wheel drive is no longer the essential requirement, so most versions of the Qashqai, particularly those with the smaller, more efficient engines and transmissions, are front-drive only. Even so, it’s hard to see the Qashqai appealing to everyday motorists on account of its styling alone, so we’re left with the feeling that it’s just plain good marketing with eye-catching advertising, wide availability and keen pricing that have won this car so much favour. Whatever the reason, the popularity of the Qashqai means a huge selection of second-hand models to choose from – just check that the one you’ve laid eyes on at that local dealership actually does have four-wheel drive.

When it was launched in 2007, the Qashqai was a conventional five-door five-seater, but a year later the Qashqai+2 appeared, with a longer wheelbase and longer body to incorporate a third row of seats, though in fairness these are only big enough to accommodate children. Otherwise the Qashqai+2 is mechanically identical to the original. Either version could be specified with 1.5 dCi turbodiesel or 1.6-litre petrol power, but 4WD versions were available only with a choice of 2.0-litre petrol or turbodiesel engines. These in turn could be specified with either six-speed manual or automatic transmission, a conventional six-speed type in the dCi turbodiesel or a CVT type with the petrol engine, this latter combination promising to be more economical than the manual. The four-wheel drive system is amusingly described as All Mode, which is a lie since it doesn’t have the key off-road feature of low range gearing; however, the system does mean the Qashqai drives through the front wheels when the going’s good but seamlessly adds drive to the rear wheels when required in slippery conditions; there’s also a lock function that engages 4×4 permanently at low speed to help with more tortuous off-road conditions.

A facelift for the 2010 model year saw a front-end restyle aimed at giving the Qashqai a better air of sophistication and enhanced street presence. The bonnet is restyled, along with the bumper, grille and headlamp treatment, while the rear features red LEDs in the tail light in place of the conventional bulb of the original. The dashboard design is also better, with more oddment storage. Top models get a speed limiter and the Tekna gets quality Bose speakers.

One of the more controversial enhancements for 2010 was the installation of diesel particular filters in the exhaust systems of turbodiesel variants. While undoubtedly effective in improving the quality of diesel exhausts the DPF has an annoying tendency, especially in cars used almost exclusively for short city drives, of clogging up and disrupting engine performance.

More significantly in late 2011 the 1.6 dCi engine was made available with 4WD offering improved economy, especially when specified with the stop-start system. Ultimately only this and the 2.0-litre dCi were offered.
The current model from 2014 is available only with the 1.6 dCi unit, and brings the Qashqai right up to date with the latest technological driving aids. Nissan’s ‘Safety Shield’ features on high-specification versions include forward emergency braking traffic sign recognition and parking assistance. What it doesn’t offer is the seven-seater option since it’s built on a new compact floorpan, but refinement is better and the braked trailer rating is up from 1400kg to 1800kg.

 Our verdicts 

Nissan is only one of many manufacturers who’ve claimed to have invented the crossover concept. The Qashqai was something of a late arrival in that respect, but we still felt the need to explain Nissan’s thinking in replacing the conventional but nevertheless popular Almera and Primera hatches with a more unconventionally-styled car belonging in the more niche-like SUV corner of the market. In our introductory report on the new car, in the April 2007 issue, we explained: “Nissan’s research shows drivers of mid-range family cars want something other than a traditional hatch, saloon or mumsy MPVs. Nissan decided they’d like something that looks like an SUV, but doesn’t necessarily need a 4×4 drivetrain. This is that car.” Were they right in shrugging off the traditional hatch image? The best-selling cars in the UK last year were the totally traditional Ford Fiesta, Vauxhall Corsa, Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf – but the new Qashqai was right in there in fifth spot. We didn’t foresee that level of success at the time, mainly because we weren’t sure about the styling. We wrote: “The snub nose, raised haunches, well-defined wheel arches and protruding bonnet ‘muscles’ set the Nissan apart from its dumpy Korean 4×4 rivals. The rear three-quarter view even has more than a whiff of Audi Q7 or Hyundai Santa Fe about it. Shame the effect is spoilt by the flowing waistline terminating at such bug-eyed headlamps.”

We summed up the situation in the March issue of 2008, when we published our first road test of the Qashqai: “The ever-changing face of 4×4 motoring has never been so eclectic…”, which made it quite difficult at that time to find suitable rivals for the Nissan: is it a crossover? An SUV? A soft-roader? The answer is none of these, though the 4×4 version has SUV pretensions. Hence in our comparison we pitted it against another oddball city pose vehicle, the Jeep Patriot, and the slightly more off-roady Hyundai Tucson. We decided the Jeep was affordable and spacious but didn’t like the plasticky interior; the Tucson was cheap but dated with a dull interior, which left the Qashqai an easy winner with its quality feel and practical loadspace. We said: “It drives as smoothly as a premium sector saloon with a smooth ride, sharp handling and refined engine performance.” It fared less well as an off-roader – the best we could say about it was that, “it’s no greenlaner.” In October of that year we welcomed the arrival of the seven-seater Qashqai+2; We reported Nissan’s claims that the +2 is not geared for adventurous off-roading: “The All-mode 4×4 system provides enhanced ‘family-safe’ traction on icy or mud-covered tarmac roads.”

We damned the Qashqai with faint praise when it featured in our 4×4 Of The Year comparison for 2009. We described it as, “another crossover variation that’s introduced the term ‘urban SUV’ to the UK 4×4 market. The Qashqai is selling like hot cakes thanks to keen pricing, though most of the range is 2WD-only. Though a tad dumpy in appearance this city-friendly 4×4 is roomier than a des-res flat in Knightsbridge and can carry a lot more luggage than a hotel bellboy, while build quality and equipment count is closer to prestige levels. Not expected to tackle anything more than a soggy field or a stony track.”

In the Winter 2013 issue our 4×4 Of The Year feature included the 360, the last significant addition to the Qashqai range before the arrival of the all-new 2014 model. Apart from describing the all-round parking-assist view afforded by the four-camera setup, we at last made our true feelings about the Qashqai’s interior known: “We can’t help wondering if the popularity of the Qashqai has something to do with the understated interior which must appeal to the many who can’t cope with having lots of gadgets and switches to play with. The styling of the interior is ordinary to the extent of being quite dull, particularly in the mass of plain plastic of the heavy-looking dash panel.”

Our final comment on the latest model may suggest we’re out of touch with motoring reality, considering the sheer public popularity of the Qashqai. It’s partly because we are – to repeat the point yet again – off-road enthusiasts so can’t take the Nissan seriously as a 4×4, but it’s also partly because we’re driving enthusiasts, and the Qashqai doesn’t kick our butts there, either. In our 4×4 Of the Year comparison for 2016, published in the recent Winter edition, we commented: “With the lusty 128bhp engine the Qashqai performs well, but it can hardly be described as a car that’s exciting or memorable to drive. It’s a car you drive because it’s a requirement for efficient family transport rather than one that demands to be taken out on a Sunday afternoon just for the thrill of it.”

Not saying we’re wrong, but the many thousands of satisfied Qashqai drivers can’t be wrong either, so if a popular, well-equipped, practical and roomy family car is what you want, a Qashqai might be the ideal choice.

 Which one to buy 

There were originally three equipment grades, all well-equipped with electric windows front and rear, electrically operated and heated door mirrors, Bluetooth integration, air conditioning and remote central locking. Even the entry-level Visia has a trip computer and stereo, front, side and roof airbags and automatic door locking. Hard to say how much you’d pay for an early one of these, since we haven’t seen any on sale anywhere, but around £3000 for a well-maintained one would be a fair guess. The mid-range Acenta has rain sensing wipers and automatic headlamps, cruise control, rear park distance sensors and remote controls for the stereo. The air conditioning is upgraded to a dual-zone system and there’s a six-disc autochanger in the dash. Expect to pay up to £10,000 for a reasonable-mileage later example with a good service history, earlier examples are significantly cheaper, we spotted an ’08 model with 86,000 miles on it but with a full service history on offer for £4993 at GP Cars of Hatfield (01992 843852).

The range-topping Tekna gets the panoramic sunroof as standard along with Xenon headlamps, front fog lamps, 17inch alloys and an added touch of luxury in the leather upholstery with heated front seats. Brand Trading of  Westwood, Nottingham (01773 607808) was offering a 73,000-mile 2010 metallic silver car with the 2.0 dCi engine, full service history, four new tyres and a year’s MOT for £9750.

The facelift for the 2010 model year saw the arrival of the N-Tec, the key equipment upgrade (shared with the Tekna) being the Nissan Connect system which integrates Bluetooth connectivity with a five-inch touch screen satnav and upgraded stereo with MP3 and USB connectivity and a colour reversing aid camera. The N-Tec also has 18inch alloys to offset the rear privacy glass and satin silver roof rails. What you’ll pay for one will depend on condition and mileage: we spotted a 2011 2.0 dCi with just 23,000 miles going for a smidgeon under £14,000 at KC Jones of Oswestry (01691 721964).

Petrol examples are rare, but potentially less troublesome than an older turbodiesel – no turbocharger or DPF filter to go wrong – so worth considering if you don’t do a high annual mileage; we saw a smart one owner 2010 Tekna in creamy-brown Caffe Latte with 32,000 miles on it, with the CVT transmission, going for £12,000 at Available Car of Cannock (0800 804 6503). Whether you’ll choose a 360 over an N-Tec or Tekna is almost purely a matter of whether you need the gimmicky all-round camera parking aid; there are dozens of used 2013 360s around, but very few are 4WD versions; we did see a Storm White example at MJA Car Sales of Walton (01932 509944) for £18,000.

Best buys must be the many nearly-new models being offered at good discounts by dealers nationwide – many of them 4x4s ordered in expectation that four-wheel drive versions would have more appeal, but ending up ‘on the shelf’ as 2WD versions proved more popular. Look out particularly for ex-demonstrators, many of which will have had optional extras fitted and will therefore be better value than their face-value price may suggest. High-specification versions are particularly worth looking at – we’ve seen several 1.6 dCi Tekna models, original list price over £26,000, going for anything from £20,000 with under 5000 miles on them. One of the keenest deals we saw was the £27,290 being asked for a red 2015 Tekna, an ex-demonstrator with 5000 miles and over £3000 worth of extras, including the protection pack, 19inch black alloys, detachable tow bar, hood deflector, illuminated side bars, sports pack and chrome design pack, a Nissan Cared4 vehicle on sale at Trenton of Hull (01482 763997).

The 4×4 versions of the Qashqai all have engines with chain-driven camshafts, so won’t suffer the fate of so many of the 2WD 1.5 dCi versions that experienced premature cam belt failure. However, it pays to beware of higher-mileage 2.0 dCi cars that have an air of hard use about them, as it seems that consistently revving the engine to the red line to get the best performance from it can lead to premature main bearing failure. Some cars have had the chances of this reduced by an adjustment that reduces the power and torque output, which in the longer term might be a good thing. An extended warranty was applied from late 2013, if buying a nearly new car check that this warranty still applies. Otherwise make sure the car idles and drives smoothly, later models with diesel particulate filters can suffer from clogged filters if used purely as urban runabouts – the DPF needs a regular long run on a motorway to burn out the collected carbon deposits. Also listen for excessive whistling or whining noises from under the bonnet, accompanied by excess black exhaust smoke on acceleration, which might indicate a failing turbocharger.

If the car has manual transmission make sure the changes are smooth and baulk-free because linkages can wear prematurely. Also reject any car where the clutch does not release and engage smoothly or requires excessive pedal movement to release. The high torque of the 2.0 dCi engine can cause excessive clutch plate wear if you’re in the habit of letting it slip as, for instance, when waiting for a gap in traffic or waiting for the lights to change. The automatics are generally more reliable though the high sixth gear may not actually engage automatically when cruising around at city speeds and may need to be selected via the manual mode; if top gear doesn’t engage fuel consumption may suffer. Rear differentials can be problematic, listen for excessive whining or clanking from the rear end, more importantly make sure the car proceeds smoothly in a tight turn without any jerky feeling through the steering or scrubbing of the wheels, which might indicate that the vehicle’s All-Mode four-wheel drive system is actually engaging unnecessarily, which could be the cause of damaging strain on the rear differential.
A common fault on early cars is premature wear to the rear damper bushings, resulting in a rattling noise when driving on a less-than-smooth road. Replacing the bushes need not be an expensive job but have it done before you pay for the car or look for one that’s already been repaired. The causes of this problem were supposedly sorted for the 2010 facelift, so ought not to affect later models. Check the brake discs for excess wear or scoring, on a test drive make sure that the brakes work smoothly with no juddering, as warping of the discs is fairy common.

Some cars seem to suffer from excessive condensation on the inside of the windscreen, possibly as the result of a poorly sealed screen. If there’s a damp smell inside the car reject it. Check that the air conditioning works effectively, failure caused by a deteriorating condenser matrix is not unknown. Check for any sign of cracking on the windscreen or the panoramic sunroof. The boot is a good size, check that the plastic panel over the latch is properly secured, using it as a lifting handle can break it. Also note that the folded rear seats don’t give you the completely flat floor that you’d expect from a practical SUV. If you’re regularly going to carry three passengers on the rear bench, make sure whoever gets lumbered with the centre position is comfortable there – most people find it awful, because the bench is so clearly shaped for two. A hi-tech problem that could apply to many modern cars is that the Bluetooth system may not work properly with android or Windows phones, worth checking before buying.

 Or you could consider… 


The latest generation Kuga is an impressively high-tech car, with a surprising feel of quality about it, while the superb traction and stability controls combine with good performance and excellent road manners to make it one of the more engaging SUVs to drive. All versions have the Ford SYNC system offering voice activation to make phone calls, select a CD track or have a text message read out to you. Equipment levels are excellent throughout the range, with extras including the clever ‘kick-ass’ boot release, which opens the tailgate when you wave a foot under the rear bumper – as long as you have the key on you, of course. Four-wheel drive is an ‘intelligent’ self-acting system, like the Qashqai aimed more at on-road traction than off-road adventuring, but the styling is arguably more adventurously SUV and the interior is far more interesting.

The styling may be a little off the wall but there’s no doubting the practicality of this more estate-like urban SUV not to mention the value-for-money pricing. It may be a dated design but the facelift of 2014 included more efficient engines and up-to-date technology, plus the introduction of the Outdoor version with enhanced off-road features. Build quality is good, it has impeccable road manners and if specified with the 167bhp 2.0-litre turbodiesel it has more the feel of a Golf GTi than an SUV. Look out for high-specified versions with electronic park assist, a useful feature in any city-bound car. The Yeti is hardly designed or styled for hard-core off-roading but it’s worth looking for examples with the ‘rough road’ package installed, which includes a thermoplastic tray designed to protect the engine and transmission and covers for the fuel and brake lines.

Once a niche-market fun car, the RAV4 has transformed itself into another mid-range crossover-cum-SUV clone, but then it’s not a car you buy for its looks, its appeal is the promise of the traditional Toyota strengths of  good build quality and excellent reliability. It’s as big and comfortable as the Nissan, possibly more practical with its easy one-movement rear seat fold giving a completely flat load floor, and it has a more interesting interior if you don’t mind the excess of chrome trim on the higher-spec versions. With four-wheel drive you get the 2.2-litre turbodiesel or a 2.0-litre petrol engine, neither of them offering exhilarating performance, but the Toyota is at least a bit more involving to drive than the Nissan Qashqai. However, a used Toyota RAV4 will probably be more expensive than a similar-spec Qashqai, but should also hold its value.


When Porsche decided to enter the lucrative SUV market it didn’t go half measures, even though it had to share the drivetrain with makers of more sedate vehicles. High performance versions of the Cayenne are as hot and spicy as the name suggests

 TARGET RANGE:  £10,000 – £20,000 

We weren’t the only 4×4 enthusiasts who thought there was something faintly ridiculous about a legendary sports car manufacturer deciding to produce an SUV, and our lack of awe was hardly budged by the realisation that the Porsche crossover would be based on a Volkswagen and assembled in Bratislava. That, of course, was before we drove one.

In fairness to us, we were already familiar with the Volkswagen Touareg, which hadn’t overly impressed us in spite of its build quality and opulent but rather sedate interior, it lacked off-road credibility, was a bit cumbersome to drive and we described it as looking like a bloated Passat; the only thing we liked about it was the superb V10 turbodiesel engine in the top model.

The Cayenne was different, even though from the rear the styling wasn’t far off the blandness of the VW. The front had a distinct aggressive Porsche look to it, but what really counted was the feeling from behind the wheel – this was, as you’d expect from a Porsche, a driver’s car with lusty performance from its 4.5-litre V8, even in non-turbo form, and crisp roadholding matched unusually to a superbly comfortable quality of ride. The Turbo was quite breathtaking, a car that in spite of its size had much of the feel of a two-seater roadster in the way it seemed to respond almost symbiotically to the thoughts of the driver.

Excited as we were about the Cayenne’s on-road behaviour, we remained skeptical about Porsche’s claims that the car was also an excellent off-roader, since the four-wheel drive system is similar to that used in the 911 Carrera 4 to enhance its on-road handling. It’s a permanent system, with 62 per cent of the drive going to the rear wheels and 38 per cent to the front, but with an electronically controlled clutch that can add drive to the front whenever necessary. Allied to this is a stability programme that takes control of engine power and braking on individual wheels to keep the car on track even through fast corners on a slippery surface, making this a true high-speed long distance sports cruiser. Off-road the basic four-wheel drive system is as good as any other modern traction-controlled 4×4, in that it allows controlled progress over slippery or undulating ground, the only limitation being ground clearance. Even that, however, ceases to be a problem in a car with the height-adjustable air suspension, allowing it to go places where it actually needs the low range gearing.

First cars into the UK had the 4.5-litre V8 engine, in normally-aspirated form producing 335bhp, enough to launch the Cayenne from 0-60mph in seven seconds, mated to a six-speed manual or automatic transmission; the Turbo upped the output to 443bhp, cut getaway acceleration to 5.4 seconds and boasted a top speed of 165mph, asking nigh on £70,000 for the privilege. For the less wealthy, Porsche introduced a 3.2-litre V6 ‘base’ model shortly afterwards, but the racy heritage was not forgotten; during 2006 the Turbo S burst on to the scene with 520bhp from its bi-turbo 4.5 V8, followed a year later by a facelift and the introduction of the more efficient 4.8-litre V8 in the GTS.

With a completely new model due in 2010, the run-out range for 2009 included a 3.0-litre turbodiesel. With only 240bhp this was the dullest-performing Cayenne but it could return better than 30mpg if driven carefully. This proved popular enough with sensible drivers and there is a good selection of used examples available, though we – being enthusiasts – can’t quite understand why anyone would want a dull-performing Porsche when for a mere £10,000 you could enjoy the full excitement of true Porsche lifestyle in a stonking 160mph Turbo. Whichever version you opt for, you’ll find it a comfortable, well-equipped five-seater family estate with good luggage capacity, though the rear seat fold is a bit fiddly and an electric opening tailgate was optional. Many will have the optional metallic paint and big alloy wheels, but even without these the first-generation Cayenne still has eye-catching style and muscular road presence.

 Our verdicts 

The first chance we had to sample the Cayenne in earnest came when Porsche chose to launch the 3.2 V6 version on the icy roads of a wintry Finland. We wrote: “The key to driving well in these conditions is a combination of concentration and smoothness – no sudden steering or accelerative inputs, seamless gear changes and forward planning. In the Cayenne, however, there feels to be lots of grip, much of the credit for which goes to the Porsche Traction Management system. Sensors measure forward speed, lateral acceleration, steering wheel angle and the position of the accelerator pedal, and the system calculates the optimum amount of drive delivered to each axle. It works in conjunction with the Porsche Stability Management (PSM) which intervenes when the vehicle is close to its limit of adhesion, preventing the onset of oversteer or understeer.” We were impressed by the Cayenne’s off-road ability, first trying it on a hillclimb designed to show the Porsche Drive-Off Assistant, more sophisticated than the usual hill-hold system in that it will apply the brakes automatically on a steep hill if the driver releases the clutch after pulling away. A later ditch-crossing exercise showed off not only the efficiency of the Cayenne’s traction control as it lifted wheels clear of the ground, but also the Advanced Off-road Technology Package consisting of side sill protection and a steel plate under the radiator, plus a locking rear differential and electronically demountable front and rear anti-roll bars.

Then it was on to an icy skid pan. We wrote: “With PSM activated, even a bootful of acceleration has the Cayenne obediently following its intended line, with only the occasional flash from the dashboard to show that the electronics are undertaking serious activity. The 350bhp S and 450bhp Turbo might have been more fun in this situation, but the V6 doesn’t disappoint. In fact it’s a thoroughly competent piece of kit.”

We put the Cayenne up against its key competitors in 2005. The report in the April issue of that year gave the Cayenne Turbo a clear win over its Touareg counterpart in 5-litre V10 form, the BMW X5 4.4i Sport and the Mercedes ML 500. Our verdict: “These German tourists flaunt the virtues of mechanical muscle and quality engineering, each seeking to establish itself as the master in its class. The Mercedes, even with big V8 power, is too mild-mannered to convince as a true iron-fist. In a straight duel between BMW and VW it’s usually the Bavarian that delivers the winning lunge, but in this case even the big V8 BMW takes a points bashing from the mighty V10 Touareg – its engine has to be experienced to be believed. Nothing, however, can match the sheer exhilaration of a flat-out country-road drive in the Porsche Cayenne Turbo.”

Porsche caught us by surprise a few years later, as recorded in our April 2009 issue. We wrote: “No spark plugs in a Porsche? Well, I’ll be darned. The 2009 Cayenne is the first production Porsche to have diesel power.” We quickly figured out why: “Last year 86 per cent of premium SUV sales were diesels, making the Cayenne’s unleaded-only line-up sound thirsty and out of touch.” We didn’t mock the result. Using the same 3.0-litre V6 TDI used in the Audi Q7 and Touareg, tweaked with a variable geometry turbo, the Cayenne shows strong acceleration over a broad rev range and responds well driving through the six-speed Aisin automatic transmission. We did, however, note the fact that diesel wasn’t something Porsche wanted to shout about: “Don’t expect to spot any on UK roads – they’re in disguise. Porsche says customers want their frugal form of propulsion kept hush-hush; the only distinguishing feature – apart from the audible rattle from the TDI engine – is the 6000rpm rev counter over the usual 8000rpm version.”

 Which one to buy 

The choice of which Cayenne you want will depend largely on how much driving excitement you associate with the Porsche name. If you’re of a frugal nature and feel uncomfortable at anything over 70mph the 3.0 TDI V6 might well be the car for you, though like drinking decaff coffee and chewing sugar-free gum you just won’t know what you’re missing. However, if you are on an adrenaline-free automotive diet you might like to call Brookside of Hildenborough on 01732 838866 in case they still have the metallic blue example with just 63,000 miles and complete with satnav, black leather interior, park assist, roof rails and 20-inch wheels they were offering at a reasonable £18,890 including a new MOT and 6-month comprehensive warranty.

The price of a used Cayenne will vary not only depending on the mileage, but also on the level of equipment. They all have the basis of a luxury specification including a stereo, a high-end 14-speaker Bose system in the Turbo versions, electric windows, central locking and such like, but the options list is a long one ranging from cruise control, mobile phone preparation, leather-piped floor mats, roof rails and automatic climate control at a few hundred pounds apiece to panoramic sunroof, uprated leather interiors and 20-inch wheels at over £2000 each, so if one 10-year old Cayenne seems ridiculously more expensive than another, check the spec and you’ll find out why. Note that the 21-inch wheels could have cost over £4000 when new, you won’t want to go off-road with them since there’ll be very little flex in the low-profile tyres and you’ll easily wreck the alloys. It really pays to shop around to find a car that has the specification you prefer at the price you’re prepared to pay, check for that off-road package if you intend to do any mud-plugging.

If you’re a little more adventurous a 3.2 or later 3.6 V6 will provide more performance and significantly more refinement, you could pick up an early example for a little over £5000 though it will be a high-miler, closer to £18,000 for a pristine newer model, such as the 2008 Tiptronic S in black with full grey leather interior, satnav, electric tailgate, privacy glass and 20-inch Cayenne Design alloys, 65,000 miles and going for £17,450 at Saxton 4×4 of Chelmsford (01254 351234).

The least you should be looking for is a 4.5 S if you really want to boast about having a Porsche, though we’d be wary of picking up a £5000 high-miler, most will have well over 100,000 miles on them and several we’ve seen at that price have caveats about noisy tappets which could actually be a more serious problem like excess cylinder wear that would require a major overhaul or even a replacement engine. Better to pay from £10,000 for a well-maintained lower mileage example like the ’05 automatic one-owner black 70,000-miler with recently replaced Continental tyres and new timing chain, with cruise control, 18-inch wheels, satnav and stainless steel skid plates, £10,495 at Select Cars of Harrogate (01423 202882); for £20,000 you could get into a later 4.8 V8 S, Hills of Lymington (01590 670777) had a 60,000 miler from 2009 with over £7000 worth of upgrades including the metallic paint, parking sensors, power tailgate, satnav and 20-inch alloys asking £19,990.

The same money could secure a reasonable-mileage GTS though a year older, Castle 4×4 of Castle Donington (01332 391771) were selling a stunning red one-owner example at that price with full black leather interior, 88,000 miles with a full Porsche service history and new MOT, £14,000 worth of extras including Bose sound system upgrade with rear entertainment, cruise control, power tailgate and 21-inch alloys.
If you have red blood in those veins, or at least a can of Red Bull to knock back before getting behind the wheel, it will have to be a Turbo. Little bit of a pity. The same money could secure a reasonable-mileage GTS though a year older, Castle 4×4 of Castle Donington (01332 391771) were selling a stunning red one-owner example at that price with full black leather interior, 88,000 miles with a full Porsche service history and new MOT, £14,000 worth of extras including Bose sound system upgrade with rear entertainment, cruise control, power tailgate and 21-inch alloys.

If you have red blood in those veins, or at least a can of Red Bull to knock back before getting behind the wheel, it will have to be a Turbo. Little bit of a pity that for £20,000 the later 4.8 Turbo might be out of reach unless it’s a high miler, but our choice purchase would be the 4.5 Turbo S that ABC Cars of Ashton-Under-Lyne (01613 438211) had a £20,000 price tag on, a metallic blue 2006 model but with just 33,000 miles, in immaculate condition with new brakes front and rear, 20-inch alloys, satnav, sunroof, privacy glass and the Comfort Pack, forget the £500 road tax and 18mpg consumption, spur the 520bhp into five-second 0-60mph action and live the true hot ’n’ spicy Porsche legend.

The Cayenne isn’t the only Porsche model to suffer from ticking, clattering and rattling V8 engine problems, the main cause seems to be excessive cylinder wear or scoring blamed on a whole raft of possibilities, from overheating caused by coolant loss through cracked plastic conduits or poor shielding from the turbo, to poor lubrication from missed service attention or low-grade oils, or even claims that the high-tech aluminium-silicon cylinder material just isn’t strong enough. Whatever the reason it’s not a cheap one to repair, the usual remedy seems to be a replacement engine, all the more reason to insist on a full service record, avoid higher-mileage cars and listen carefully on idle for ticking noises that shouldn’t be there. The turbodiesel may be the less exciting option but it’s less problematic, though check for excessive exhaust smoke that could signal worn injectors.
The gearboxes are reliable enough, however it’s always worth checking that a manual changes smoothly and that the clutch is progressive and doesn’t require excessive pedal movement before releasing. A Tiptronic transmission should shift almost seamlessly and kick down responsively, reject any car that shudders or jerks when switching between Drive and Reverse. Paddle shifters on the steering wheel were optional on most models, if they’re there, make sure they work. The main problem is the centre bearing on the propshaft carrying drive to the rear wheels, this has a habit of failing at around 80,000 miles so on a car of this age check to see if a replacement has been fitted, if not argue £1000 off the asking price because that’s what a Porsche main dealer could charge to do the job.
High-performance versions will almost certainly have the air suspension, check that the car sits level and that the height adjustment function works, since compressors have been known to fail. Wheel alignment can be critical, check the front tyres for uneven wear; if the car has new tyres keep an eye on them since scrubbing to the inside of the tread could show up after 1000 miles or so. On higher-mileage cars listen for knocking noises from the front suspension, which may simply be worn bushes, but ball joints may need replacement; check that the steering is positive and has no free play. Check the state of the brake discs, pitting is quite common on early examples leading not only to excessive pad wear but to the possibility of ‘grabbing’ the pad resulting in erratic braking.
Build quality isn’t always as good as you’d expect from a Porsche, so check that the door shut lines are as neat as they should be, that the bonnet opens and closes tidily, and that the tailgate operates snugly. It’s unlikely that any Cayenne has been heavily off-roaded, but it’s always worth checking the sills for signs that scratches have been hidden under paint or colour polish, and on a car with the ‘off road’ pack of steel skid plates, check that the steel remains scratchless and dentless as well as stainless. On the inside check the state of the leather, particularly on the rear seats, as seat belt buckles can snag the fabric when the seats fold down.

 Or you could consider… 

Volkswagen TouaregBMW X5Mercedes-Benz ML

It’s built on the same platform as the Cayenne, but with its soft and ultimately forgettable urban styling it’s a very different type of SUV from the racy Porsche. Blisteringly quick in 4.2-litre petrol V8 form, economical with the 3.0-litre turbodiesel, the Touareg is an ideal choice for anyone who wants a prestigious car with good road manners and good towing ability, but without the ‘look at me’ highway presence of the more charismatic Cayenne. It’s as good off-road as any other pretentious road-biased modern premium crossover. Latest models come only with turbodiesel power, even the base SE is leather-upholstered and features a fuel-saving coasting function on the eight-speed automatic. Best news is that £20,000 will get you into a reasonable-mileage 2011 model with the 240bhp 3.0 TDI, which is all you need in this luxurious Volkswagen.

In terms of practicality there’s nothing to set the BMW ahead of the Cayenne, so it may boil down to a simple matter of brand preference, with the BMW perhaps exuding a little less street cred simply because it hasn’t tried to lift itself stylistically above other road-only BMW products. The X5, unless in M Sport form, isn’t really the driver’s car it should be, so we were only enthused by the high-performance V8 versions. The 3.0d turbodiesel is an exceptionally smooth and pleasant engine, making it the sensible choice, and the xDrive 4×4 system is adequately competent on and off the road. There is a huge selection of reasonable-mileage examples on offer second-hand, £20,000 could get you into a Porsche-baiting 4.8i M Sport with 65,000 miles on it or a milder but still luxurious and very refined 2010 30d SE; there are also seven-seater versions.

We’ve always considered this to be the blandest of the luxury 4x4s, but not short of performance in V8 and particularly AMG versions; even so a high-power ML can’t excite the way a Cayenne does. The ML does have the advantage of being able to outperform both Cayenne and BMW off-road, so it’s a better bet if you do want a car for some rough-country adventuring. It’s a comfortable five or seven seater with a big boot, equipment is as luxurious as the first buyer’s choice of extras makes it – shop around for one with the features you’d prefer. A sensible buy would be an ML350 CDI Blue Efficiency, £20,000 should secure a 2010 Sport with reasonable mileage, but if you’re thinking of Porsche performance against Mercedes class and practicality there’s quite likely to be an ML63 AMG on offer at the same price with under 80,000 miles on it, though probably a 2007 model.

What does the Toyota Land Cruiser have in common with veteran actress Maggie Smith? Dated chassis dressed to kill, basically long in the tooth, but still magnificent and totally reliable. Worth considering, obviously

 TARGET RANGE:  £18,000 – £50,000 

The updated Toyota Land Cruiser for the 2010 model year was in fact little more than a facelift and a rationalisation of the range, the significant improvements being the addition of all the leading edge electronic driving and off-road traction aids, necessary features to counter the advanced technology appearing on Land Rovers. Hence the structure of the car is the same as the predecessor in that it remains a body-on-chassis design with independent front suspension and a rigid rear axle, a dated design for a modern luxury 4×4. One improvement was the fitting of enhanced body-to-frame bushings to reduce the transmission of road and mechanical noise, but these can’t quite match the refinement of a modern all-independent monocoque design, so even with coil springs all round or the air springs of the top model, the Toyota has a rather agricultural feel that’s rather at odds with the sleek styling and the luxurious equipment specification. Toyota’s thinking is that they want their Land Cruiser to remain a hard-core off-roader to satisfy demand in key markets such as Australia, where off-roading is a necessity rather than a pastime. Discerning buyers in more fashion-conscious countries will be happy to trade off this heavy-duty approach against long-term reliability, an area where the Toyota undoubtedly succeeds.

The base LC3 is a five-seater, but LC4 and LC5 are seven-seaters, with a neatly-designed Easy Flat feature that drops the rearmost seats down to floor level at the touch of a button – one set just inside the tailgate, another just behind the second row of seats. One significant advantage over the previous model is the amount of rearward adjustment available on the second row of seats, which can be shifted back to provide almost twice the legroom in the previous generation.

The key innovation for many will be the uprated engine, the 3.0-litre D-4D turbodiesel modified to meet Euro 4 emissions requirements, but at the same time offering 12bhp more and better fuel consumption, claimed at 34.9mpg for the combined cycle in the range-topping LC5. This is mated to a six-speed manual or, more commonly, a five-speed automatic.

Four-wheel drive credentials are good throughout the range, all versions have permanent four-wheel drive with a driver-selectable centre diff lock, the LC5 also has a rear axle diff lock.

All versions have a good selection of electronic driving aids including traction, stability and hill descent controls plus hill start assist, but the LC5 includes the Multi-Terrain Select system, which adjusts engine torque output and transmission settings to suit a range of conditions. It can be set to mud and sand, loose rocks, mogul or rocks – the ‘mogul’ option presumably referring to awkward humps and ruts. There’s also a ‘crawl’ function whereby you can set a suitable speed for traversing difficult terrain, which the car will maintain regardless of climbs, descents or rocky outcrops that it may encounter. One of the features that allows the multi-terrain system to work is the Adaptive Variable Suspension with three height settings, while LC4 and LC5 also have the Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System which works to limit body roll in fast corners, resulting in more positive steering feel in general driving as well as more stable cornering.

During 2011 a three-door version joined the range, this was only available in base LC3 trim with manual transmission and although it lacks the clever air suspension and trick electronic driving aids it still seems like the best bet as a more dedicated off-road plaything for anyone who prefers to apply personal skill to off-roading rather than letting the car do all the work – not every mud-plugging enthusiast will appreciate Toyota’s claims for their LC5 that, “all you have to worry about is the steering.”

The Land Cruiser was facelifted for the 2014 model year, the most significant outward changes being a more aggressive frontal treatment with a deeper bumper and sharper light clusters, and the engine was developed to meet Euro 5 requirements with a power increase to 188bhp. Electronic gadgetry was also updated to include – on top models – a new touch-screen media centre, lane change and blind-spot monitors and surround-view cameras.

 Our verdicts 

We were suitably impressed with the new Land Cruiser for 2010. Our debut report in the January 2010 edition commented: “Following in the Land Rover style of featuring a plethora of electronic wizardry the Land Cruiser, already a highly capable off-roader, just got even better. The interior is plusher and sports the aircraft console-type layout that is de rigeur these days. Exterior tweaks have created a more muscular stance, characterised by an oversize bumper, and the rear wheel arches flare towards the rear. This truly is an off-road machine that is vying with the Discovery 4 for on- and off-road dynamics.”

With that last comment in mind, we had to pit the new Land Cruiser against a Discovery 4. The head-to-head twin test appeared in our May 2010 issue, and although the Toyota lost out to the Land Rover it was a close call. One of the factors that chipped some of the gloss from the equipment-packed Toyota was the complexity of its off-road features compared with the very intuitive set-up in the Land Rover. We wrote of the Land Cruiser’s Multi Terrain System: “Without reading the instruction manual – a very handy separate off-roading guide – you would never know how to access the Multi Terrain Select. It is all rather fiddly in comparison. It was quite a faff to select low range – in Neutral – then if you want the impressive crawl function the selector has to be in anything other than Park or Neutral. To select all the extreme off-road functions, such as the manually locking centre and rear differentials takes a while and involves quite a number of different operations and switches.” Nevertheless, once we’d managed to work out how it all operates we found the Land Cruiser well up to the extreme off-road task: “Engine braking in first low was perfectly adequate for the slippery steep descents on our test route. On really steep terrain it’s advisable to use the crawl settings, although they are accompanied by the usual teeth-sucking graunching noises that these systems produce.

“In the axle-twisting rocky section we noticed that the Land Cruiser picked up a wheel quicker than the Discovery, and in deep, wet, greasy ruts it needed a bit more work to pull itself out of the mire. Not quite as smooth in operation as the D4, but still very effective.” We felt the on-road ride was noticeably more wallowy than the Discovery, and we criticised the protruding rear bumper, which makes it difficult to load heavy objects.

Our 4×4 Of The Year comparison for 2011 gave us a chance to pit the Land Cruiser against all its key rivals. We wrote: “The LC5 is impressive, packed with enough toys and luxuries to keep gadget fans happy. It’s certainly in a different league to the Mitsubishi Shogun, Nissan Pathfinder and the Jeep Grand Cherokee, but when pitched against the Discovery it’s not quite good enough.

“The Toyota is a great off-roader and its systems are superbly effective once deployed, but the 4×4 selection procedure is complicated. There’s a protracted system involving dials, buttons and scrolling menus. Some are dash-mounted, some are on the steering wheel and some are by your kneecap. In short it’s a bit of an ergonomic mess that we hope someone at Toyota is fixing right now.”

Someone did just that, on the facelifted range for the 2014 model year, which features a restyled dashboard with all the 4×4 controls grouped on a panel in the central console. We recorded that mid-term facelift in our 4×4 Of The Year for 2013, but weren’t overawed, commenting: “The Land Cruiser reinvented itself last year and there has been no change.” That was meant in general terms; one coincidental change was the shift to the more emotive Active, Icon and range-topping Invincible nomenclature, but in spite of the stronger styling and enhanced electronic gadgetry our experience with the car did no more than reinforce our overall feeling: “Reliable and conservative are words that tend to sum up Toyota’s approach to their iconic off-roaders, values that may well excuse the reluctance to drag the Land Cruiser into the 21st Century. It’s the last of the big players to cling to the concept of a separate steel chassis and while the engine has been tweaked to meet current emissions regulations it’s an ageing design linked to a conventional five-speed automatic. It can’t be helped, then, that the Land Cruiser feels like a bit of a lumbering brute in comparison with its more advanced rivals.”

 Which one to buy 

LC3 is nominally the entry level and lacks the third row of seats, but nevertheless has the key electronic aids including hill descent, hill start and traction control, plus vehicle stability, Bluetooth, electric windows and mirrors, six-speaker stereo with CD player, front, side and curtain airbags, smart entry and smart start. The wheels are 17-inch alloys but no spare was included, just a tyre inflation kit – check, because some owners paid the extra for a full-size spare. Buy a high-mileage early example for £18,000, if it’s in good condition, more like £20,000 for anything with no more than 50,000 miles. One of the keener deals we spotted was Arnold Clark of Ayr (01292 518703) asking £19,000 for a blue one-owner 2010 example with 57,000 miles; a clean low-mileage 2012 model will command at least £25,000 in mint condition.

Three-door versions might be a good choice for more serious off-roading, these haven’t sold in great numbers so are rare second-hand but reasonably priced, Robinsons of Hillsborough (0289 221 0808) had a smart metallic grey 2011 example with 45,400 miles priced at £17,950 and a pearlescent white 2013 Active with just 11,000 miles at £25,950. There are quite a few nearly new examples around, as well as new stock with around £1000 knocked off the new list price – the same dealer was asking £32,900 for a new 2014 metallic silver one with 50 miles on it and £34,900 for a 2015 example with 100 miles on it.

The LC4 gets leather upholstery and three-zone climate control, with additional convenience features such as rain sensors and automatic lights, cruise control and an HDD sat nav. The stereo is upgraded to a 14-speaker JBL Synthesis Premium Surround Sound System with storage for 2000 CD tracks. The suspension includes the self-levelling TEMS system and the wheels are18-inch alloys – including a full size spare. Pay £24,000 for an early example with reasonable mileage, like the 60-plated metallic black 62,000 miler, with power sunroof, at Braidwood Motor Company in Livingston, West Lothian (01505 321910), though you could be asked £29,000 for a five-year old car with low mileage and perfect service record. Expect to pay around £35,000 for a low-mileage three-year old car with some of the original five-year warranty intact.

The LC5 is so luxurious as to be the least likely car to go off-road, yet it’s the one that has the multi terrain select system with the four-camera multiview monitor; good news is that prices aren’t stupidly higher than for the already well-appointed LC4. Lodge Motors of Yateley (01252 860900), for instance, were asking £28,990 for a 60-plated 49,000-miler, two-owner car in dark blue metallic with beige leather interior, while Stebbings Car Superstore of Kings Lynn (01553 387911) put a £35,500 tag on a 27,000-mile example in black on a 13 plate with up-to-date service history and clear HPI check. Look around for low-mileage nearly-new cars, Motorline of Horsham (01293 976737) were asking £39,995 for a 190-horse 2013 example in Astral Black with 13,000 miles, or keen price cuts on 2014 unregistered new cars, like the £49,975 being asked by Boss Performance of Bury, Lancashire (0161 763 3000) for a white Invincible with panoramic sunroof, remarkable since the listed new price for an Invincible is over £53,000.

For 2011 Toyota celebrated its long Land Cruiser history with a 60th Anniversary special edition, the upgrades being mainly cosmetic with carpet mats, walnut trim, chrome exhaust finisher and clear-finish rear light clusters, but still desirable. Saxton 4×4 of Chelmsford (01245 351234) had a 49,000-mile 2011 example in Astral Black priced at £31,950. Handpicked Cars were a bit over the top asking £44,495 for a 2012 example, but it is a pristine one-owner car, 28,000 miles with two main dealer services, sold with new tyres and a year’s MOT, plus an additional three months warranty on the engine and gearbox.

The latest generation of the 3.0-litre common rail engine seems to be as reliable as it should be, nevertheless it’s worth checking the quality of the oil in higher-mileage cars for signs of the sludging that seems to have been a problem in the earlier model. Otherwise look for general signs of neglect, squeaks or even water stains hinting at possible water pump failure, excessive black exhaust smoke and erratic running under acceleration which could point to a failing turbocharger or worn injectors.
Chances are you won’t be able to check that the four-wheel drive systems are all working because they don’t really come into play until you’re all crossed up off-road. Nevertheless, play with the switches and satisfy yourself that nothing untoward appears to be happening. Transmissions are generally fault-free, though if you find a rare manual make sure the shift quality is smooth and engagement is positive and silent, reject any car where the shift feels baulky. This could be a wearing clutch, but even that’s a costly repair; the clutch should release and come in smoothly without requiring heavy pressure or overlong travel before releasing. Reject any automatic that shunts on gearchanges, allows too many engine revs during shifts or refuses to kick down responsively. Even on an automatic that behaves well, it’s always worth checking the level and condition of the fluid.
Higher-specification models can suffer suspension problems such as failed air struts and malfunctioning of the self-levelling system. Check that the height adjustment feature works properly, if it doesn’t it could just as easily be a fault with the sensors rather than the air struts, but either way it will be an expensive fix. Check that the car corners steadily without too much body lean, you should be able to feel the active suspension units jacking the car level, if there’s too much wallow and the steering feels vague reject the car. There shouldn’t be any problems with the steering and suspension bushes, reject any car that clonks or rattles when driven over potholes. Check the power steering works smoothly and silently from lock to lock, groans or hisses could point to a failing pump.
Corrosion shouldn’t be a problem in cars of this age, if the car’s been used for towing check the tow bar mountings and the state of the rear section of the chassis for signs that it’s been used to back a boat into sea water. The main thing to check is that all the electronic gadgetry is working properly, the downside being that there’s so much of it, even in the LC3, that you’ll need to work your way through the handbook to find out how everything works. If nothing else, check that the air conditioning works, rotting pipework can lead to failure that’s costly to put right. Check carpets for signs of water ingress from the sunroof and in seven-seaters make sure the electric seat operation is working properly.

 Or you could consider… 

Land Rover Discovery 4Mitsubishi ShogunJeep Grand Cherokee

The brand value of the Toyota is such that it’s unlikely that anyone considering a Land Cruiser would even look at a Discovery 4, especially since there’s still a lot of “Japanese is better than British” feeling about, not helped by Land Rover’s hardly pristine reputation for reliability. The Discovery 4 has shown itself to be a far more reliable product, however, and an enthusiast seeking a sort of ultimate refined on and off-road driving experience should really try a Discovery 4 because it might surprise. There’s a good reason why it’s proved to be such a popular premium SUV with its powerful 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel, superb on-road ride and handling, class-leading electronics and virtually unstoppable off-road agility, not to mention the clever stadium seating arrangement that seats seven adults in comfort yet folds flat to give van-like carrying capacity. For some users, of course, the Discovery’s impressive 3500kg towing ability alone might give it the edge over the Toyota Land Cruiser, which is rated to tow half a tonne less.

Another car that, like the Land Cruiser, is an uneasy mixture of old and new. Probably the nicest thing we could find to say about the Shogun is that it’s a perfect example of the old adage, that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. It can even (metaphorically) smirk at the complexity – and cost – of the electronic self-actuating four-wheel drive systems of its rivals, since Mitsubishi’s tried and trusted Super Select system is as effective offering the full range of rear drive, four-wheel drive, low range and locking diffs at the simple shift of a lever. The modern Shogun has embraced keyless entry, parking sensors, Bluetooth connectivity and traction controls, but it hasn’t yet reached the pinnacle of adaptive cruise control and collision mitigation systems. What’s left is a reasonably-priced, reliable alternative with moderate power and a dated five-speed automatic, but good ride and handling from its monocoque all-independent construction, good towing credentials, child-friendly third row of seats and quite good off-road ability, which is all many SUV drivers actually want.

The bold American (though built in Austria until 2010) is still something of an outsider in a marketplace dominated by Eastern and European players, yet offers excellent luxury equipment in a good value package with good performance and more than adequate ride comfort and handling crispness. The range-topping Overland has a leather-wrapped dash as well as leather upholstery, concert-quality stereo and latest versions have all the important electronic driving aids. The Grand Cherokee lacks the seven-seater facility of the other rivals referred to here, but it has the advantage in having exceptional off-road ability courtesy of the Quadra Drive system which effectively gives it auto-locking front and rear differentials. So how is it better than the Discovery off-road? It isn’t, but it’s cheaper and less complicated, not to mention being less precious, so a better choice as a luxury family car that really is going to be used quite seriously off-road. Also, if you really don’t care about fuel costs or keeping your driver’s licence, there’s the manic 5.7-litre hemi or 6.1-litre SRT-8 street racers to consider.

With so much excitement over new Range Rover and Evoque models it’s hardly surprising that the baby of the Land Rover range has drifted out of the spotlight. The Freelander 2 is still a superb compact luxury SUV, available and affordable with it

 TARGET RANGE:  £6,000 – £36,000 

A drive last year on the icy roads of a Canadian winter reminded editor Nigel Fryatt of what a competent, comfortable and pleasant car the Freelander 2 is. It was a reminder, rather than a sudden realisation, because we’ve always liked Land Rover’s compact SUV, it’s just that little has changed since the introduction in 2006, so we’ve not felt the need to reappraise the model on more than a few key occasions.

From launch the Freelander appealed to us more for its technology than for its styling – we felt some disappointment that it had lost some of the traditional visual off-road appeal of the original, describing it as ‘a baby Discovery, though it looks more like a road-going SUV.’

Like the original the Freelander 2 has ‘intelligent’ four-wheel drive, though with a more advanced Haldex central coupling which ensures quicker engagement of drive to the rear wheels when needed. A key improvement is that all but the base S versions have the clever Terrain Response system aimed at enhancing off-road capability. Build quality is also significantly better than the original, while the interiors are also more stylish and better equipped, with top versions offering Bluetooth connectivity and premium sound systems.

The original engine choice consisted of a lively 3.2-litre petrol straight-six – as used in the Volvo XC90 – or a 2.2-litre turbodiesel, jointly developed by Ford and Peugeot, offering refined performance, quite lively with its 149-horse output, and better fuel consumption. These promised better reliability than the K-series engines of the original, though they’re also more dependent on proper service attention with high-quality lubricants. The 3.2 i6 has a six-speed automatic; the Td4 could have the automatic or a six-speed manual.

For 2009 manual versions of the TD4 could be specified with stop-start – the first application of this technology to an SUV. Look out for the TD4.e badging, signifying the stop/start system, which cuts CO2 emissions by eight per cent and increases urban fuel economy by up to 20 per cent. Not to be confused with the eD4 versions of 2010, which are two-wheel drive.

The major improvement with the 2010 facelift was the switch to revised versions of the turbodiesel engine, the TD4 producing slightly less power but offering significantly more torque, thereby improving mid-range response and contributing to more relaxed highway cruising, the SD4 with an extra 30bhp providing much livelier performance with very little reduction in fuel economy, effectively replacing the six-cylinder petrol engine. The 2010 model year also saw a new grille with revised lamp and bumper treatment, while all manual versions gained start/stop technology.

The next significant revamp came late in 2012 for the 2013 model year, mainly affecting the interior which has a redesigned centre console with more storage space and the original Terrain Response dial replaced by switches. Passive start means it’s no longer necessary to ‘dock’ the key in its dashboard slot, the car will start at the push of a button as long as you have the key somewhere about your person. Other useful gimmicks on top models include a reversing camera with trailer hitch assist, plus voice-activation for audio and sat nav. Top models also get a premium Meridian 17-speaker surround-sound system. The Freelander 2 has largely thrown off the veil of unreliability that tarnished the reputation of the original – regardless of which the original remained a hugely popular choice, and the Freelander 2 has proved even more so. In consequence there is a huge selection of good second-hand models available, with a particularly good supply of low-mileage nearly new 2013 examples on offer at dealerships around the country. Anyone seeking a well equipped, technologically advanced all-terrain multipurpose vehicle need look no further.

 Our verdicts 

When we watched the wraps come off at the unveiling of the Freelander 2 at the British International Motor Show in July 2006 we may have been underwhelmed by the styling – we thought it a somewhat bland road-biased design lacking the off-road cues that other Land Rover products exhibited so dramatically – but we were impressed by the high levels of new technology, the improved build quality, the enhanced luxury of the interior and equipment… and, of course, the price. At a heady £34,000 for the range-topping HSE the compact Land Rover was aiming high, as ought to befit a sibling of the all-conquering luxury Range Rover.

The Freelander 2 may have had urban styling, but we had an early opportunity to enjoy its wild-country behaviour. We were invited to get hands-on with one in South Africa where we were able to drive within yards of rhinos and elephants in the expansive Shamwari game reserve, even going as far as to offer the car’s services as a bushveld taxi. Our reporter wrote in the January 2007 issue: ‘Our passenger was a fully-grown Blesbok antelope with impressively sharp horns that had to be moved to another part of the reserve. It had been tranquillised by the vet, and it took four of us to lift it into the Freelander, which underlined its vastly improved passenger space. With the rear seats folded flat it swallowed the antelope and four adults. And for those owners whose daily drive will always be on tarmac, the great news is that the Freelander 2 is even better on road with ride and handling that would not shame a Range Rover.’

Our first opportunity to subject the Freelander 2 to a full road test was featured in the May issue of that year, in a shoot-out against the BMW X3 and a Honda CR-V. The Freelander 2 came out the clear winner largely on account of its superior off-road ability. We argued that the Honda had distanced itself too far from any off-road intention, while the BMW’s high price (the base X3 was £6000 more expensive than the range-topping Freelander 2) projected an overly exclusive image for this sector. We said: ‘In comparison the Freelander 2 is equally desirable, well-built, has better economy, is easier on the wallet and at home on any surface, a winning combination.’

In our February 2008 issue we pitted the Freelander 2 against four other key “soft-roaders” in an ultimate off-road test that measured hill-climbing ability, hill descent control, approach and departure angles. turning circle and ground clearance, and included a ramp test and a mud run. The Land Rover knocked the Honda CR-V into fifth place closely behind the Toyota Rav4, which was just beaten by the Vauxhall Antara, leaving the Nissan X-Trail in second place. We commented: ‘These soft-roaders will spend the majority of time on tarmac, but it’s the Freelander 2 that could make all the difference when going off-road is the only option.’
The Freelander 2 has been a regular contender in our 4×4 Of The Year competitions, never a winner but always scoring well in spite of increasing competition from more and more competent compact SUVs. The last word came in our 2014 contest (in the Winter 2013 issue) where we commented: ‘There’s an argument for buying a Freelander 2 just to get the premium Meridian audio system in the HSE… few others in the class can achieve the level of off-road extremes attainable by the Freelander, and it does it with very little fuss… still a very enjoyable car to drive and the only one to adhere to its all-terrain roots, but high price and fading image lose it points.’

 Which one to buy 

All versions of the Freelander 2 have the electronic traction and stability aids, including Hill Descent Control and roll stability control, and all have electric windows front and rear, split-folding rear seats and remote entry with push-button start. The base S has cloth upholstery, check for examples that had the optional climate control, electric sunroof, privacy glass and parking aids fitted. Expect to pay at least £6000 for an early example with over 100,000 miles, up to £8000 for a well-kept low-mileage example with extras.

The GS gains automatic headlamps and rain-sensing wipers, electric door mirrors, cruise control and Bluetooth connectivity; some will have had the optional leather upholstery, satnav and upgraded Alpine stereo system. Deans of Sutton Coldfield (07717 006697) were offering a high-mileage green 2007 2.2 Td4 GS with black cloth interior for £6290, again expect to pay at least £8000 for a low-mileage example in top condition.

The XS adds useful features such as parking aids front and rear and audio controls on the steering wheel, the SE adds satnav but the HSE is arguably the one to go for since it has the leather upholstery, sunroof, auto climate control and 14-speaker concert-quality stereo as standard, along with 18-inch alloys. One of the keenest deals we spotted was the one-owner 2007 3.2 HSE, green with Napoli leather upholstery, with only 79,000 miles going for just over £8000 at Glenfield of Kilmarnock (01563 532100). Yes, that’s with the petrol engine, but in view of the possible problems with the earlier turbodiesel, from clogging diesel particulate filters to failing high pressure fuel pumps, the petrol version offers an affordable way into luxury SUV motoring with lower overall long term maintenance costs.

Look out for an HST which made a brief appearance in 2008, less luxury than the HSE but with a sports styling pack with front and rear bumper aprons, side sill mouldings and a rear roof spoiler, along with 19-inch alloy 10-spoke wheels with shadow chrome finish, leather seat facings, privacy glass and metallic paint.

Stretch the budget to a 2010 model year example to take advantage of the uprated turbodiesel. New entry-level additions to the range for 2010 were the Black and White special editions, priced £2000 below the 2010 Hyundai Santa Fe 2.2 diesel yet including keyless start and stop/start.

Expect to pay £15,000 for a low-mileage 2010 TD4 S or GS, from £16,000 for a TD4 HSE with over 100,000 miles, £18,000 for an SD4 GS, though we’ve seen many of all of these asking over £20,000, so it pays to shop around for something like the 2010 GS in metallic black with full service history, 89,000 miles asking £12,490 from Johnsons 4×4 of Horsham, West Sussex  (01403 790699).

For newer models you may consider it something of a toss up between a luxuriously-equipped 2010 HSE or an up-specified 2012 GS –  Farnell of  Bradford (01132 425500) were offering one of each for the same money, £19,844 – the 62,000-mile TD4 HSE in Santorini Black with panoramic sunroof or the newer TD4 GS in Fuji White with only 11,000 miles, leather seats and stop-start technology. However, best buys would seem to be one of the nearly-new 2013 examples being offered by dealers nationwide, with mid-range GS and XS examples on offer from £25,000 (up to £5000 off the new list price) to SD4 HSE LUX models from £30,000, some £8000 under the new list price.

There are horror stories of Td4 engines self-destructing with broken camshafts and seized high-pressure fuel pumps, but these appear to be related to poor servicing such as missed or overdue oil changes or the use of low quality fuels – in diesels the fuel acts as a lubricant and cheap fuels may not have the correct additives. Nevertheless we’ve seen dozens of Freelander 2 Td4 models with over 130,000 miles on them apparently still going strong, so it’s really a matter of ensuring that any older model you buy does have a genuine and reputable full service history. Otherwise points to look out for are typical for any turbodiesel – if it blows too much black smoke on acceleration, or hesitates during acceleration, it could mean impending turbo failure; if it has a DP filter (optional on earlier models) make sure on a test drive that it accelerates well and cruises smoothly. Also check underneath for signs of oil leaks. The turbodiesel engines have belt-driven camshafts, the belts are scheduled to last an impressive 150,000 miles – a point to bear in mind if you’re buying an older model closing in on that mileage. A cam belt change needn’t be expensive at a good specialist garage, but it’s a good excuse to argue £250 off the selling price.
The six-speed manual seems to be trouble-free, check on a test drive that all gears engage smoothly. Automatics are generally reliable, though some failures have been recorded – make sure it shifts smoothly without clonks or jerks and that it kicks down smartly. There have been some cases of rear differential failure, especially in vehicles that have been towing heavy loads – the Freelander is rated to tow 2000kg but it’s particularly important not to overstep the tow bar limit. Check that the vehicle turns smoothly with no tyre squeal or jerkiness suggesting that four-wheel drive is engaging when it shouldn’t – this generation Haldex coupling needs regular oil and filter changes at 20,000-mile intervals, so make sure the service record shows this has been done.
Steering rack failure is not unknown, so make sure the steering feels smooth and responsive from lock to lock, with no excessive groaning or squeaking noises. The Freelander 2 has a lot of electronic wizardry affecting the suspension, with its roll stability and traction controls, so satisfy yourself that it drives stably and doesn’t lean too much or wallow unacceptably in curves. Brakes are generally trouble free, but check the state of the discs, which may have been scored by off-road grit, at the same time if the vehicle had obviously been used off-road check for scuffing to the sills that might have been hidden under filler and paint. The parking brake is a clever electronically operated system – it periodically checks that the brakes are still applied as the discs cool down and can be used as an emergency brake while on the move – but it’s expensive to repair if it goes wrong so check that it works silently and effectively.
Electronic glitches are always possible in a car packed with this much technology, one of the oddball features in the Freelander 2 being that the stereo doesn’t turn off with the ignition and can drain the battery if left too long; the satnav screen may not illuminate properly and the fuel gauge may give false readings. Check these and also the more standard electrically operated items such as the window winders, the sunroof and the electric seat adjustment on premium models. Regular use on long drives may have resulted in stone chips, so check that the grille and bonnet are pristine and not patched with touch-up paint; also suspect a car still glistening after a wash or polish, which might be an attempt to disguise faint scratches on the paintwork caused by off-roading through rough undergrowth.

 Or you could consider… 

Honda CR-VNissan X-TrailToyota Rav4

Another car that started life as a convincing 4×4 but has defaulted with each new generation to a purely road-going family car with styling that makes it seem more of a hatchback than an estate, and although it retains 4×4 functionality it’s hardly by means of a serious off-roading system. What the CR-V does have to offer is refined and comfortable family accommodation with smooth-revving and refined engines, and good handling behaviour. The new model from 2012 is more efficient and even more refined, but even the earlier version is efficient and versatile, making them worthy contenders even if neither has anything like the 4×4 credibility of the Freelander 2.

While the unstoppable Qashqai serves the needs of the growing numbers of urban 4×4 enthusiasts, the X-Trail has remained true to its off-road roots. The upgrade for 2007 saw many improvements – the oddball siting of the instruments in the centre of the dashboard gave way to a proper panel in front of the driver, ride and handling were improved and refinement reached new heights, but it remains a sensible and versatile family estate. The driving position is lower, but not by so much as to lose the commanding view ahead. Some may consider the styling dated, but it still has impressive road presence and is probably the most practical vehicle in its class.

The latest edition of the Rav4 is as luxurious a five-seater family car as anyone could wish for, with excellent road manners and refined performance, but it’s become so far removed from its off-road funster roots that we can’t help wondering why it’s still considered to be a ‘recreational’ vehicle. Much the same can be said of the earlier model – dating from 2006 – though the interior isn’t quite as well appointed as some rivals of its time – including the Freelander 2.  Choose between petrol and diesel automatics, though the facelifted version from 2010 had extra efficiency measures on the turbodiesel making it one of the most economical SUVs in the class.

It’s become a mini-classic in its own lifetime, with cute styling that suits it just as well for the city as for hardcore mud-plugging. A true off-roader with separate chassis and low range gearing and a reputation for reliability that ensures continued popularity

 TARGET RANGE:  £500 – £13,000 

Oh, sure, we laughed at the Jimny when it appeared in 1998, far too small to be a useful SUV, too puny and low-slung to be a competent off-roader, surely it was nothing more than a nippy, traffic-dodging, easy-park city car, a little kinky in the styling department but hardly more desirable than a Mini…

Yet the Jimny has endured, and although its diminutive dimensions still can’t make it a sensible family SUV, it’s proven to be a great fun car for enthusiasts who wish to be part of the SUV lifestyle without having the need for a full-sized family off-roader. Meanwhile the Jimny’s off-road ability continues to astound as more and more older examples find their way into weekend pay ‘n’ play off-road sites where they can be seen mixing it on equal terms with Jeeps and Land Rovers.

It is an oddball little car, boasting a rugged separate chassis and rigid axles at a time when even the most serious of off-roading SUVs were switching to monocoque bodyshells and independent suspension, in consequence of which, the Jimny is relatively heavy for its size and the ride quality isn’t as good as it could be. Performance is hardly exciting, especially with the original 1298cc engine, which although seemingly right up-to-date at the time with its 16-valve head is a single-cam type that needs to be revved close to its 6000rpm power peak to deliver anything like meaningful acceleration, and works hard with much use of the five-speed manual transmission to keep the Jimny in touch with general traffic. Countering this is the fact that it was never intended to be a long-haul highway cruiser, and the uprated variable valve timing unit installed after 2005 sounds a little less frenetic and returns better fuel consumption.

From the start we were concerned that the Jimny, in spite of its all-terrain pretensions, would not prove capable enough to excite as an off-roader. For one thing peak torque in that original engine comes in at a rather high-revving 4500rpm, which we suspected would make it difficult to drive carefully in slippery muddy terrain. We were also worried by the relative lack of ground clearance and the fact that the mountings for the axle control arms hang so low that they’d almost certainly snag on exposed rocks and roots. However subsequent experience with the Jimny left us more and more impressed with its off-road ability, helped by the excellent approach and departure angles.

Ultimately it was the on-road behaviour that struck us as being more questionable, since the need to keep the engine on the boil, especially in hilly areas, resulted in lots of gear-shifting which led us to advise buyers to consider the four-speed automatic which would be a little less stressful to drive even though it meant higher fuel consumption.

The situation improved with the facelift of 2005, which included the installation of the twin-cam VVT engine. Though torque still peaks at a rather high 4100rpm, the variable valve timing spreads the useful torque band, making for more relaxed highway cruising as well as more effective low-speed off-road control.

The Jimny works as a cheeky city car, but its practicality is limited. The rear seats are fairly minimal and a squeeze to get into, so it’ll seat four at a pinch with very little cargo space behind them – think of it as an economical two-seater shopping car. An older one even makes good sense as a high-fun and surprisingly competent little off-roader, and it’s worth noting that there are suspension upgrades available to improve the ground clearance.

 Our verdicts 

Amused as we were at our first sight of the Jimny, we were quick to recognise its true values – albeit with a touch of sarcasm. The report of our first drive in the new car, which appeared in the December 1998 edition, said: “What couldn’t a Jimny do? Take the family for a two-week touring holiday in Europe, spend all day on motorways and take the Two Fat Ladies anywhere? No – but for just about anything else the new little Suzuki 4×4 is the answer. The Jimny is small, light and agile, a really useful and practical off-road vehicle.” Suzuki’s slogan for the Jimny was “Smart in the city, tough in nature”, and we agreed that it was a practical city car, easy on fuel, easy to park and easy to thread through busy traffic. If there was a downside it was the less-than-perfect ride quality, a natural consequence of the light weight and short wheelbase.

The first Jimny we had on test was a JLX with automatic transmission, arriving in time for inclusion in our 4×4 Of The Year comparison for 1999, featured in the February issue of that year. We wrote: “It’s like a tough, bulky Tonka toy but manages to look cute at the same time. The design is modern yet retains a classic air about it. The Jimny is full of contradictions, but one thing Suzuki is sure about is that it’s on to a winner.”

Even so, we felt the Jimny’s appeal would be limited: “Just as real men don’t eat quiche, it’s doubtful whether they’d want to be seen behind the wheel of a Jimny… it’s a little town runabout for the women in their lives.”

We were more instantly excited by the soft-top that appeared during 2000. Our road test featured in the September issue gave it a four-star (out of five) rating: “It’s a super little car – it would have been five stars had the Jimny been a little more of a rough-and-tumble off-roader because it would be a cracking machine to tackle some summer rock crawling – never mind, it still looks good on the beach, or at least cruising the promenade.” It was rather ironic in view of our reticence over the Jimny’s off-road abilities that in the same issue we featured a JLX that had been given the Scorpion Racing treatment with five-inch longer coil springs, shocks and taller tyres to match.

One of the problems with a car that doesn’t change much with the years is that we have little reason to feature it in subsequent issues, other than as a comparison for other cars of its type – and there just aren’t many others that match the Jimny’s specifications. In November 2000 we tested the Jimny against a Daihatsu Terios, the Terios winning on account of being a more practical five-door family estate. However, with passing time we’d come to consider the Jimny as such a worthy little gem that we featured a reprise road test in our October 2008 issue as a tenth anniversary salute – there was nothing new about the Jimny, but we wondered how it would continue as a part of the Suzuki range in which it had just been sidelined by the SX4 4Grip and a revamped Grand Vitara. We commented: “The Jimny’s heritage should be given more credence, so it’s a shame that a more up-to-date version isn’t imminent. You can’t beat the Jimny’s value for money as a capable off-roader – you wouldn’t want to rely on it for long motorway trips or as a luggage carrier, but it will make you smile.”

 Which one to buy 

The cult-level popularity of this charming roadster appears to have ensured good retained value; although it’s possible to buy an early high-mileage example for as little as £500, we’ve seen plenty of 2000 and 2001 JLXs asking well over £1000, including a 1999 automatic with 85,000 miles on it with a £2195 price tag on it at Wyke Motors of Huddersfield, seeming a tad expensive in spite of its metallic blue paint job and the year’s MOT; call them on 01274 670555 if you reckon it’s worth it. All versions of the Jimny have good equipment, the ‘base’ and most common model being the JLX, which has electric windows, electric door mirrors, central locking and a stereo. Several special editions appeared at various times, look out for a Mode which has leather upholstery, we saw a neat red 2003 example with 97,000 miles and a long MOT going for a mere £1495 at Budget Cars (07974 996559). The JLX+ has alloy wheels and heated door mirrors, fog lamps and headlamp levelling, we spotted a clean blue 2006 model with 89,000 miles on it, good tyres and a full service history going for £3295 at Aston Davenport of Telford (01952 256688). Mileage and condition are only part of the equation when pricing a VVT-engined Jimny; we’ve seen 2005-2008 cars going for anything from £3000 to £8000, presumably whatever the dealer believes he can get for it. If you are paying top money for one make sure it does have a full service history and low mileage, and be prepared to shop around if you think the seller’s being unreasonably optimistic about the car’s worth, especially since we spotted a 2011 SZ3 with just 22,000 miles on it being offered for £8000 by Arnold Clerk of Stoke on Trent (01782 580757), a one-owner car with the balance of its original warranty still covering it.

Our own favourite version of the Jimny is the soft-top which was only available from 2000 to 2005, its special desirability and rarity value ensuring that many will be overpriced; even so, it may be worth paying a little over the top for a good one, especially if it’s one of the O2 special editions. Just check that the folding roof is in good condition and that the folding mechanism still works smoothly before handing over the money. We spied a 2002 model going for a heady £3995, but it did have only 27,000 miles on it along with full service history and long MOT, call Carz of Taunton (07831 187518). Meanwhile A5 Car Sales – on the A5 between the M1 and M40 – had a 2004 O2 convertible priced at just £2995, but it had covered 126,000 miles. Otherwise it’s still in excellent shape, call them on 01327 811110 for more details.

When the badging changed the SZ3 largely reflected the equipment of the JLX with a few minor upgrades, while the SZ4 includes part-leather upholstery and air conditioning. If you’re after something at this mini-luxury level it’s worth looking out for nearly-new deals, such as the 2013 SZ4 automatic with just 15 miles on it being offered for £12,999 by Heathrow Suzuki (01784 229366), over £1000 below the new-car list price.

The 1.3-litre petrol engines have belt-driven camshafts that need to be changed at around 80,000 miles, so check when buying a car near or over that mileage to see if the replacement has been done, if not argue £200-£300 off the asking price. These engines also work hard in this application, which can be reflected in excessive wear to the cylinders and the valve train, so make sure the exhaust blows clean and that there are no untoward rattles and clanks under the bonnet. Worn thermostats and failed water pumps can lead to overheating so on a test drive make sure the engine runs cool, in severe cases the overheating can lead to head gasket failure, check for “mayonnaise” under the oil filler cap and make sure the engine runs smoothly and sweetly. Misfiring or erratic running can also be caused by a faulty crank sensor, while erratic intake and exhaust sensors can result in lumpy idling and poor accelerator response. This generally results from the engine running rich which can usually be confirmed by excessive soot deposits in the exhaust tailpipe.
Automatic gearboxes are generally trouble-free but it’s always important to ensure that changes are smooth and that kick down response is good – if changes take too long or the engine is allowed to rev excessively during shifts or before the box kicks down, move on to another car. Manual transmissions will have seen much use just keeping the engine on the boil in general driving, but it is generally a strong enough box to take that punishment; just make sure that change quality is slick and that the synchromesh works smoothly in all gears. Listen for any whining or rumbling noises that might indicate excessive wear and check underneath for signs of oil leaks – or signs that oil leaks have been stopped up with mastics or fillers.
One common problem to watch for is wheel wobble, a vibration through the steering wheel at around 45-50mph rather like the effect of an unbalanced wheel. The cause could be something a bit more elusive, for instance worn kingpins, failing CV joints or disintegrating wheel bearings, all quite common problems. Check that there’s no oil leaking from the ends of the axles, another sign that seals or swivel bearings are failing.
On manuals make sure the clutch engages progressively and strongly, listening particularly for any squealing indicating that the release bearing is excessively worn. Reject any car that shows any sign of clutch slip or excessive pedal travel. Check that the four-wheel drive system engages properly – if it doesn’t, the cause could be nothing more than a cracked vacuum hose, easy enough to repair, but freewheeling hubs can seize if the car has been driven frequently through muddy water. 
The main thing to look for underneath is damage from excessive off-roading exuberance. The chassis is a tough framework and is not particularly susceptible to corrosion, but it’s worth checking on older cars in case there’s been some perforation or excessive rusting around joints and mountings. The heat shield around the rear silencer tends to corrode and loosen, listen for rattles or a buzzing sound indicating that it needs attention. Clonks and rattles can be the result of worn suspension bushes, which can also lead to vague steering, while excessively worn dampers can cause excessive body roll and vague cornering behaviour. Check that the power steering works smoothly, including on full lock, without excessive groaning, clonking or shuddering, replacing a failed pump could be expensive. Check that brake discs haven’t been excessively scored by off-road grit.
The Jimny’s interior is quite remarkably stylish for what might outwardly seem to be a simple car – much smarter and better-finished than the original Vitara, for instance, with good quality plastics on the dash and door facings that are less likely to pick up scuffs and scratches. Upholstery materials are also hardwearing, so even on an older car that hasn’t been thoroughly abused there should be little sign of wear and tear. Even so, check for attempts to repair torn seams on leather-upholstered seats and satisfy yourself that the driver’s seat hasn’t sagged to an uncomfortable degree.
Carpeting can suffer from staining or scuffing from water or grit tramped in on off-road outings, a problem often hidden under accessory carpets or mats. Such wear won’t matter in an older car you’re buying purely for off-road use, but can help you to argue down the price. Because it is a rather low-riding car check the sills for off-road scuff damage that may have been hidden under filler or aftermarket paint. Otherwise the body should be in good shape as many panels are galvanised, but it’s worth checking under the bonnet to see if trapped off-roading muck has set corrosion going on any less protected panels.

 Or you could consider… 

Mitsubishi PininFiat Panda 4x4Daihatsu Terios

In its three-door form probably the only real rival to the Jimny as a true mini-off-roader, since it has mini-Shogun credentials with its low range gearing and super-select four-wheel drive system – which includes a locking rear differential – not to mention gutsier torque from its 1.8-litre engine. The Pinin never achieved the same cult following as the Jimny and disappeared from UK salesrooms in 2006, though it lives on in other countries as the Pajero Mini with a 659cc engine, not recommended for serious off-roading; nevertheless there are many used examples available from British dealers, expect to pay £1000 for an early 2000-2001 model to £5000 for a top-specification 2006 Elegance, and since most were bought for use as stylish city cars it’s more than likely you’ll find one that’s never been off the tarmac. The Pinin is also available as a more practical five-door estate, which outclasses the Jimny as a useful all-rounder.

The previous generation of the Panda 4×4 may just have been too wacky to appeal to the masses, with the unfortunate result that the latest model is just another pretty little city car. If you’re after something to play with off-road it will have to be an earlier model, which at least kind of looks the part although the low ground clearance and lack of low range gearing will limit the extent of your off-roading adventurousness. The Panda makes sense as a town car with occasional off-road capability, but even then it isn’t quite as practical as other compact hatches, particularly in the limited rear seat-fold feature. The two-wheel drive Panda sold quite well – hence the large numbers of them available second-hand – but the 4×4 version was never that popular so you’ll have to search for one; values are pretentiously high, so expect to pay £3000-£5000 for a 2003-2005 example.

By no means a hard-core off-roader, but the original Terios never ceased to surprise us with its ability to cope with rough trails and muddy tracks. The latest version of the diminutive Daihatsu is a little too blandly styled to excite, and though the original didn’t have an awful lot of chunky off-road appeal about it either, the styling is at least oddball enough to stand out from the crowd. It’s a tall, narrow town car, features that make the interior seem airy even though there’s not much elbow room and make it a doddle to thread through city traffic, so it does make sense as a small family car with occasional off-road capability. Expect to pay at least £1000 for an early example in good condition, we’ve seen several dating from 1998 and 1999, some with less than 50,000 miles, up to £3000 for a run-out Tracker of 2006 with under 50,000 miles on it.

The Grand Vitara may have given way to a smarter, smoother newcomer, but the veteran Suzuki still has value as a family car with true off-road ability

 TARGET RANGE:  £3,000 – £20,000 

Just as the Grand Vitara seamlessly replaced the original Vitara in 1998, a new Vitara has arrived to replace the Grand Vitara. The new Vitara is safer and much more efficient than the Grand Vitara, but it’s also considerably smaller, so while anyone wishing to buy a modern compact SUV might consider a new Vitara as an alternative to, say, a Nissan Juke or a Vauxhall Mokka, there’s still good reason why an adventurous family might prefer the more spacious – not to mention more off-road-capable – Grand Vitara. The original Grand Vitara was not the most refined of vehicles, but succeeded because it met its design brief as a logical step up for the young-at-heart enthusiasts who had so enjoyed the boy-racer Vitara and needed to move up into a more practical family car, yet one that offered similarly competent off-road capability. The rough edges were honed away for the all-new car for the 2005 model year, which brought the Suzuki more in line with key rivals with improved style, much better refinement and a more comfortable, capacious interior, though it retained the dual-personality approach of having a racier-styled three-door alternative to the more mainstream five-door estate, neatly appealing to younger buyers as well as family users. The new model did away with the separate ladder-frame chassis, opting instead for a lighter unitary body with integral underfloor reinforcement. This made it stiffer, combining with the all-independent suspension to give it a more comfortable and refined quality of ride, while losing none of its off-road ability. Safety features were also improved, all models incorporating side and curtain airbags as well as airbags for driver and passenger.

The engine choice was interesting in view of the moderate 1600cc capacity of the new Vitara; the 2005 model featured a 1600cc 16-valve petrol engine in the three-door, though with only 105bhp compared with the 118bhp of the modern Vitara engine. Fortunately the heavier five-door was equipped with a 2.0-litre petrol engine, developing an adequate 126bhp, and this could be chosen with a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic. All versions had four-wheel drive, a more advanced system than the simple selectable arrangement in the old Vitara. It is a permanent system in that drive is normally directed to the rear wheels – it’s an oddball arrangement in an era when most compact cars have transverse-mounted engines driving the front wheels – while a torque-sensing limited slip centre differential adds drive to the front wheels if a rear wheel loses traction. Oddly, although the three-door is styled for fun and adventure, a petrol-engined version isn’t the best choice as an off-road funster because it doesn’t have low-range gearing. Turbodiesel versions have the same drive train as the five-door which does have low range, with a dash-mounted turnwheel that allows the centre diff to be locked and low range to be selected.

The DDiS turbodiesel became available in the five-door for the 2006 model year; this was a Renault-sourced common-rail unit with similar power to the 2.0-litre petrol engine, but more low-rev torque. The three-door gained turbodiesel power from 2007.

The first major upgrade was during 2009 when the turbodiesel engine was worked over to improve its efficiency, returning a claimed 41.5mpg in the five-door, compared with the 36.7mpg of the original, and CO2 emissions of 179g/km rather than the original engine’s 205g/km. At the same time the 2.0-litre petrol engine was replaced by a more powerful and smoother-revving 2.4-litre unit, which had its refinement enhanced by a balancer shaft. An Electronic Stability Programme was also introduced to all versions.

This was followed by a ‘facelift’ during 2010 which proved to be more of a nip and tuck to the rear – the advertising blurb referred to the latest models having a cleaner and more sophisticated bodyline at the rear giving the Grand Vitara a more urban look together with a 200mm reduction in overall length.’ What it actually meant was that they’d removed the tailgate-mounted spare – resulting in the 200mm reduction in length – and replaced it with ‘a tyre repair sealant and inflationary device.’ Obviously buyers looking at a car of this age will need to balance the lack of a spare against the possibility of buying an older car with a proper spare.

Perhaps the oddest development of all was the reinstatement of a ‘proper’ spare wheel for the facelift for 2013 – a temporary-use tyre on a steel wheel, not much use as a replacement for a mud terrain tyre damaged on an off-roading outing. This final upgrade, aimed obviously at improving the car’s image to ensure continued popularity before the model went out of production, saw new front and rear bumpers and a slightly revised interior with new seat trims and a more sophisticated infotainment system.

 Our verdicts 

We were somewhat ambivalent about the new Grand Vitara on our first encounter. In our December 2005 issue our debut report on the car praised the tidier, sleeker styling and smarter, more comfortable interior but bemoaned the mediocre performance from the lacklustre engines. It may, even 10 years ago, have been an emissions thing but the lustier 155-horse 2.5 V6 wasn’t officially imported to the UK. We said of the seemingly advanced VVT (variable valve timing) 1.6 16v engine in the 3-door: ‘Although initially free-revving and lending a nippiness to what is a daily runabout, it feels more like a 1200cc, with the 105bhp struggling to peak at 5900rpm, and the lowly 107lb ft of torque reflected in a harsh tone through the revs.’ We were no more excited by the 2.0-litre engine in the 5-door: ‘Thankfully this has more refined acoustics, but propelling the extra weight of the 5-door it feels noticeably underpowered and, shown an incline, labours to find all its 138 horses.’ Horses for courses, as ever, since we had no complaint about the fuel consumption, better than 30mpg in both cases, and we also liked the five-speed manual gearbox: ‘A saving grace is the remarkably positive feel of the gearshift that helps unlock what little strength both engines might be hiding, unlike the optional four-speed automatic on the 2.0-litre which jumps between ratios in a demented fashion.’

We mostly liked the interior: ‘The improvement in quality is pronounced, with a sharper, more youthful design highlighted by graphite-effect plastic trim on the centre console, around the three-dial instrument readout and on the door pulls. The shiny rectangular chrome bezel around the gear lever is singularly out of place, but the driving position is easy to get on with, with good knee clearance and plenty of pedal space.’ Ultimately it came down to money: ‘Suzuki’s key element has to be its pricing, but with established rivals like the Toyota Rav4 and the Korean surge of cars like the Kia Sportage, it isn’t going to be easy.’

It was only natural, then, that we should put that comment to the test. When we eventually got our hands on a UK specification car, which coincided with the arrival of the DDiS turbodiesel engine, we pitted it in a three-way shootout with the RAV4 in XT5 2.2 D-4D form and a Sportage 2.0 CRD XE. And we were right to suggest it wouldn’t be an easy match for the Suzuki. Bearing in mind that the Toyota was over £8000 more expensive than either of the others, our verdict said: ‘The RAV4 is a great on-roader, but the price lets it down. The Grand Vitara doesn’t offer quite the value for money you’d expect at around £17,000. After many years in limbo it’s a shame how downmarket the new Suzuki feels. Top honours have to go to the Kia. It has the least power and the least desirable badge of our trio, but all-round performance is good, and practicality is unchallenged.’

We’d still rate the Grand Vitara as being underpowered and less refined than its class rivals, but that doesn’t mean we dislike the car. In one area it proved its worth as a reasonably priced but competent alternative – off-road. In our January 2008 issue we reported on a Welsh off-road adventure with a turbodiesel three-door. We wrote: ‘It was apparent that a potential weak spot is the large plastic front and rear bumpers. It would be so easy to catch one of these on an obstacle and cause some expensive cosmetic damage. On the upside, the air intake for the engine is at the top of the grille, meaning that water would have to be very deep to cause mechanical damage. Ground clearance looked limited but there was nothing vulnerable hanging down. With the Suzuki in low box we tackled the rutted green lane.

‘Ground clearance was a limiting factor, requiring a careful choice of line especially through Land Rover-sized ruts where it would have been easy to become high-centred. Other than this, the Grand Vitara impressed on a tricky route on standard road tyres. Low range first gear allowed snail’s pace driving around rocks and ruts without kangarooing. It was a practical test proving that if you want an economical diesel country car with more off-road capability than some of its rivals, the Grand Vitara is definitely one to consider.”

 Which one to buy 

The original range was limited with the 1.6 16v three-door, from a pricing point of view, being the entry-level model, but like the 2.0 16v five-door it had impressive convenience and comfort equipment including remote central locking, electric windows, a stereo with steering wheel-mounted controls and climate control air conditioning. The ‘+’ version has alloy wheels, heated door mirrors and driving lamps. The automatic, originally available only with the 2.0-litre petrol engine, added around £1500 to the purchase price. Though priced at a budget level to begin with, even the base Grand Vitaras have held their value well, so you could still be paying £2000 for a good-condition but high-mileage 10-year old example, more like £3000 for anything with under 100,000 on the clock; a rare find was the red 55,000-mile 1.6 SE 3-door, MOT to September, a bargain at £2650, priced to clear at Trade Sales of Bristol (07789 003322). Hut Green Garage of Eggborough (01977 661055) had a 2006 2.0-litre five-door, 89,000 miles but a well-maintained one-owner car with stainless steel bull bar on offer at £2990.

A high-specification model, the X-EC, joined the range for 2008, boasting cruise control, unique Azure Grey Pearl metallic paint with silver roof rails, 10-spoke 17-inch alloys, silver bonnet trim and black side mouldings. The Alcantara upholstery and leather-trimmed steering wheel added a touch of opulence, as did the enhanced satnav and the electric sunroof. Dubizzel of Wembley (07716 181816) were offering a pristine 2009 example, a well maintained 26,000-miler  – a real one lady owner car – for £8495, MOT to Feb 2016 and a three-month warranty.

The range expanded with SZ3 as the lower-end trim, though this did include an enhanced stereo with speed-sensitive volume control; expect to pay around £6000 for a clean reasonable-mileage 2009 or 2010 3-door. The SZ4 and range-topping SZ5 have 18-inch alloys, front driving lamps, an in-dash 6-disc autochanger and heated leather seats. Farrell of Glasgow (01418 914999) were offering a metallic grey 2010 SZ4 with the 1.9 DDiS engine and 45,000 miles for £8700, a car in excellent condition with metallic paint and tow bar, full dealer history, a year’s MOT and six month’s warranty. The SZ5 also has cruise control, high-end stereo, electric sunroof and keyless start and used prices will be keen to match; Arnold Clark of Bishopbriggs (01413 059411) were offering a silver one-owner car on a 61 plate and 31,000 miles at a sale price of £11,500.
Look out for the limited edition SZ-T, based on the five-door 1.9DDiS but with a different design of 18-inch alloys, contrasting seat fabric, bonnet side vents and turn signal lamps built into the door mirrors. Significantly, this has a tailgate-mounted spare, along with the cruise control and keyless start features. Only 500 were made so they’ll be rare second-hand, London Road Car Sales of Romford (01708 320310) had a black metallic 2012 example with 34,000 miles, in mint condition with a year’s MOT and 6 months’ warranty for £12,499.

Naturally the DDiS versions will be the most desirable if economy is important, but the 2.4 petrol version does add almost sporty driving excitement to the Grand Vitara SUV equation, pay £6000 for an early 2009 SZ4 five-door, £11,000 for a low-mileage 2012 3-door.

With dealers keen to shift the last remaining stocks of Grand Vitara to make way for the new Vitara, look out for good deals on nearly new cars, in particular pre-registered cars that haven’t yet sold. There aren’t that many around, but dealers are knocking around £1500 off the list price on some examples. Sturgess of Leicester (01164 161032) were offering a 2.4 SZ5 5-door, with just 25 miles on it, for £20,000 (list price £21,570), Heathrow Suzuki (01784 335969) were offering a three-door 1.6 SZ3, a pre-registered car but new with just 20 miles on it, for £14,499, again nearly £1500 off the list price, Norton Way of Letchworth (01462 754424) had a DDiS SZ5 with 50 miles at £20,495 against the new list price of £23,875.

One advantage of an engine that isn’t tuned for performance is that long-term reliability is enhanced, so there aren’t many common failures on any of the Grand Vitara power plants, though it’s worth checking for leaks or squeaks from the water pump, particularly on the turbodiesel, because a seized pump can strip the timing belt and cause serious damage. On the diesels it’s worth changing the water pump along with the regular timing belt change just to be sure. With newer diesels fitted with diesel particulate filters make sure the engine revs freely and pulls strongly, a clogged filter can be ridiculously expensive to replace.
There don’t appear to be any common faults with either the manual or automatic transmissions, so it’s a matter of general checks such as making sure the manual selects gears smoothly, any crunching suggests wear to the synchromesh – particularly on cars that have been used for towing, where the mild engine performance might have required many a snatched downshift under load. The clutch might also have taken a beating on a car used for towing – the Grand Vitara is rated to pull up to two tonnes, which is quite a lot for a small-engined compact – so check the clutch takes up progressively and there isn’t excessive pedal movement. Automatics tend to hunt between gears to cope with the mild power output of the petrol engine, but the changes shouldn’t be jerky or accompanied by significant clonking or shunting from the propshafts.
Check the brakes for excessive scoring of the discs, which might indicate that the car’s been used off-road – not necessarily a bad thing since it’s designed for the purpose, but there might be other damage to sills and bumpers that may have been disguised under filler and paint. The rear brakes on the 1.6 are drums, it’s worth checking the condition of the shoes which may be well worn on an older car – an MOT will confirm that the handbrake works, but it won’t tell you if the linings are down to their last useful millimetre. Reject a car that knocks or rattles when running over potholes, it could just be worn bushes but replacing ball joints can be expensive.
Some of the interior plastics were still of a cheap ’n cheerful nature, so may show more than average evidence of wear and tear – check for signs that scuffs and scratches have been disguised by colour polish. If you’re going for one of the 2010-on models lacking a spare wheel make sure that the sealant and inflation kit is still intact – the previous owner might have used it and forgotten to replace it. On an earlier car with a tailgate-mounted spare, make sure the door opens and closes cleanly and hasn’t sagged on its hinges. Check that all electrical items work properly.

 Or you could consider… 

Kia SportageSubaru ForesterSsangyong Korando

Even in its earlier guise the Sportage is worth considering, because it offered excellent value for money with good equipment and a comfortable five-seater interior, not to mention the seven-year warranty that should still apply to nearly new used examples. It’s more practical than the Grand Vitara in having a clever ‘fold and dive’ arrangement that has the rear seats folding down to floor level, a failing in the Suzuki where the rear seats don’t fold all the way. Pricing of second-hand examples is roughly at the same level as the Suzuki, a reflection of the Kia’s growing reputation for reliability. The revised model from 2010 is more stylish in an urban SUV way, also bigger and with more powerful and refined engines. Not as competent off-road as the Grand Vitara since it lacks low range gearing.

On the basis that anyone considering a Grand Vitara isn’t necessarily looking for something with cutting-edge modern styling, may we suggest a Forester as a conservatively styled but much more practical alternative? With its boxer engines even without bags of power the Forester is also a good car to drive; refinement, build quality and interior appointments outclass the Suzuki even in the earlier generations. The new model for 2008 included a lusty boxer diesel engine, but reliability isn’t as good as it should be so we’d recommend sticking with the tried and trusted petrol units. The Subaru is also very competent in off-road conditions, with particularly comfortable ride quality over rough surfaces. You might have to pay a bit more than you would for a Grand Vitara, but it could be worth it.

Perhaps unfair to include this as an option for anyone looking for a budget-priced older car to use as an off-road plaything, because it’s only been around for five years, lacks low-range gearing and you’ll need at least £10,000 to get into an early example. However, while it can’t match the Suzuki as an off-roader the Giugiaro-designed five-door estate makes a stylish, comfortable, economical and good-performing road-biased family SUV; another positive point is the 250,000-mile warranty, something for the high-mileage user to take into account if considering a nearly-new car. Don’t just jump into the first one you see in your price range, because most will be two-wheel drive versions, so do make sure you’re getting one of the rarer 4x4s. Go for a post-2012 example with the revised more efficient 2.0-litre turbodiesel.

This stylish, high-tech Toyota has come a long way from its utilitarian roots, offering luxurious equipment for up to eight passengers, yet under this opulence lies a truly rugged and capable off-roader

 TARGET RANGE:  £8,000 – £22,000 

When the all-new Land Cruiser arrived in 2003 we praised it for its enhanced refinement and comfort, its improved off-road dynamics and its on-road performance. That praise did rather gloss over the reality that the new TLC was little more than a development of the Colorado model that preceeded it, the main visual change being the more curvaceous body styling with its bolder kinky-headlamped front end. The mainstream engine, the D-4D turbodiesel, was carried over from the Colorado, as was the transmission and permanent 4×4 drive train, the body still mounted on a separate chassis with rigid rear axle and independent front suspension. Anyone looking for the added refinement and handling crispness offered by rival Mitsubishi Shogun and Jeep Grand Cherokee courtesy of their switch to monocoque construction would have been disappointed; among the praise we heaped on the car in our first-drive report in the March 2003 issue was the comment: “There’s no escaping the fact that it is a huge barge, both to park and to drive.” On the plus side this conservative advance did at least ensure that the Land Cruiser remained a serious hard-core off-road workhorse, not to mention the feeling of occupant safety inspired by the use of that separate strong steel chassis. This does mark the short-wheelbase three-door version as an excellent off-road plaything, but for many users the most important feature carried over on the five-door estate is the eight-seater capability, and no matter if the interior appointments weren’t much of an advance over those in the Colorado because even in this previous incarnation the levels of luxury and convenience equipment were impressive. The Land Cruiser is a big car, and although there isn’t much leg and shoulder room, or luggage space to play with if there’s a full complement of passengers on board, it still provides safe and comfortable transport for all.

The major improvements featured in the new model centred on the additional electronic gimmickry including traction control, hill descent and hill start controls and electronically controlled suspension with height-adjusting air springs on range-topping models. This switch to greater electronic control allowed Toyota to do away with the locking rear axle differential, since the traction control is effective enough to cope with axle-twisting situations, helped by the Torsen auto-engaging centre differential. It seemed a little strange that Toyota should offer a 4.0-litre petrol V6 alternative to the impressively refined and powerful 3.0-litre direct-injection D-4D engine, considering that they’d dropped the 3.4-litre petrol V6 from the Colorado range quite early in its lifetime, mainly because most owners sought the better fuel economy provided by the diesel. Certainly most second-hand examples of the Land Cruiser are turbodiesels, but if you don’t do a high mileage and prefer the quieter running and potentially better reliability of the petrol engine it’s worth shopping around for a relatively low-mileage V6, which would almost certainly be more accessibly priced than an equivalent turbodiesel. First versions on sale in the UK came with a choice of five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions, but by 2004 these had been upgraded to six-speed manual or five-speed automatic. One key reason for limiting your choice to a 2006 or later model is that the output of the D-4D was boosted to a more purposeful 170bhp, which not only offered better acceleration and more relaxed cruising but also better fuel economy and cleaner emissions, enough to switch the Land Cruiser (in 6-speed manual form) to a lower tax band – from £485 to £285 – so it’s worth checking the tax liability for any vehicle you’re thinking of buying. Also note that the Land Cruiser is badged Prado for other markets, and these might also have a 2.7-litre turbodiesel or 3.4-litre V6 engine; there’s no reason to pay over the odds for one of these, especially as the equipment level might not match the UK-market equivalent; by the same token there’s no reason not to buy one as long as you’re satisfied that it’s been properly maintained, has the engine and equipment you expect, and is road-legal for the UK.

 Our verdicts 

Despite its sleeker appearance the new Land Cruiser didn’t really seem that much different from the Colorado; eye-catching new grille treatment aside, we commented: “The interior is comfortable, but not shockingly different from the Colorado.” Understandable, then, that our interest focused on the new electronic driving aids, which included a significant innovation: “Just like Land Rover’s Hill Descent Control, Toyota’s Downhill Assist Control is pure magic in an off-road situation. Of even greater importance is Toyota’s Hill-start Assist Control. A world first, HAC is available on automatic versions of high-specification models; it controls wheelspin when trying to initiate a hill start on s slippery surface. It also acts if the vehicle begins to slip backwards, braking all four wheels and allowing the driver to pull away with total control.”

We were also impressed by the variable-rate suspension on the range-topping version, which included optional self-levelling air suspension on the rear axle: “The Toyota Electronic Modulated suspension offers four settings varying from sport to comfort. TEMS also enhances the Land Cruiser’s on-road dynamics and ride comfort by enhancing cornering ability and incorporating anti-squat and anti-dive features.”

We were able to put those electronic features to good use when, as reported in our May 2003 issue, we pitted the new Land Cruiser in a three-way test against a Nissan Patrol and a Mitsubishi Shogun. Even before we reached our photo location we’d had a chance to sample the traction control systems: “A tractor, or something similar with heavily-lugged tyres, had churned a great hollow out on either side of the trail as it climbed up among the trees. This had the gleaming silver Land Cruiser well and truly cross-axled as it straddled the central hump, rocking uncomfortably with a front wheel hanging in the air over one of the hollows, while the rear wheel on the other side scrabbled for grip in the depths of the other. But the Land Cruiser hesitated for only a moment before the various elements of its comprehensive traction controls assessed the situation, fiddled the braking on individual wheels and adjusted the torque output of the automatic transmission to make sure that the wheels that did have grip got the right amount of drive to keep the car moving.” That’s one reason why the Land Cruiser won the test outright; we considered the Nissan Patrol to be a better, more purposeful, off-roader, and loved the superb growling torque delivery of the Shogun’s 3.2-litre Di-D engine, but nevertheless gave the Toyota the big points for being a better all-round blend of off-road competence and on-road family-estate effectiveness.

In our April 2005 issue we enthused over the enhancements to the D-4D turbodiesel engine for the 2006 Model Year: “Although horsepower is only marginally up, it’s the torque that counts – it now boasts the highest torque output of any four-cylinder diesel engine. The D-4D can dig deep for 302lb ft between 1800 and 2600rpm, a 20 per cent improvement. Fuel economy has improved to 31mpg. Part of the reason for this is the new lightweight six-speed gearbox.” All the more reason now to resist the temptation to buy a pre-2006 example.

 Which one to buy 

The new Land Cruiser brought new trim designations with it. Even the base LC2 has the traction and hill-start controls, along with electric windows and electrically adjusting door mirrors, tinted glass, a six-speaker stereo, manual air conditioning, velour upholstery, heated front seats, front, side and curtain airbags and 17-inch alloy wheels. This variant quickly vanished from showrooms, and even though any example you find will date from 2003 or 2004 you can still expect to pay up to £12,000 for a low-mileage, well-maintained one; Autotrade Car Warehouse in Ayr  (01292 290212) had put a more reasonable £8000 price tag on the clean black 90,000 mile example including a new MOT.

The LC3 effectively became the entry-level version, the specification adding headlamp washers, cruise control and dual-zone climate control. An early high-mileage example could be yours for under £8000 but we’d prefer a 2006-on model, though the 78,000 mile silver six-speeder at the Diesel Car Supermarket in Southampton (0844 662 7479) asking £11,500 did seem a little expensive; it is at least in remarkably clean condition, and you could expect to pay at least £14,000 for a run-out 2009 model.

Leather upholstery features in the LC4, along with an electric sunroof and satnav, making it possibly the best-value mid-range choice, particularly in the case of the smart ’06 blue example with full service history, not unreasonably high mileage at 123,000 going for £9500 at Longueville Car Sales of Peterborough (01733 233277).

The range topping LC5 has an uprated satnav system, more speakers for the sound system and separate climate control for the front and rear of the car. We’ve seen a few examples at under £9000 but with high mileage and less comprehensive service records; we’d feel happier with something like the aluminium silver one-owner car with full service history, new MOT and 6 months’ tax being sold by Ben Hodgson Cars of Carlisle (01228 899441) for £14,000, perhaps a bit much for a 120,000-mile car dating from 2006, but again it’s in good shape and lower-mileage cars are asking upwards of £16,000.

The Invincible is of course the most desirable Land Cruiser, as much for the name as for the equipment enhancements, which includes Bluetooth integration and rear-seat DVD entertainment. This first appeared in 2006 as a special edition, but eventually joined the range as the new premium model. There’s a good selection around – some asking as little as £10,000 from private sellers – but prices seem to vary more by what dealers imagine they can sell them for than by mileage and condition; typical is the silver one-owner 2006 car with 77,000 miles selling at £13,000 on an Arnold Clark forecourt in Edinburgh, while Inchcape Toyota of Basingstoke were selling a similar-age black two-owner 70,000 mile example for a fiver under £16,000. That makes it all the more important to shop around for a good-value purchase; in any case you shouldn’t have to pay more than £22,000 even for a run-out 2009 Invincible.

It seems no matter how well a turbodiesel engine is built there’s still room for problems, which in the Land Cruiser’s case is the possibility of the engine seizing – in some cases possibly because injector seals have allowed fuel to contaminate the lubricating oil, in others possibly because of sludging of the lubricant after the failure of an oil filter. In either case it’s more important than usual to make sure the car you’re intending to buy has a full service history, and to use only top-quality lubricants. On higher-mileage engines check for excessive black exhaust smoke or dull performance suggesting an inefficient turbo or worn injectors, and on cars approaching (or just over) 100,000 miles make sure the timing belt has been changed. The petrol V6 is generally trouble-free, but again on higher-mileage cars check that the timing belt and the tensioner have been changed.
Pick a six-speed manual if you can find one, partly because the auto doesn’t enjoy the lower car tax until 2009 run-out models, but also because this box seems to be trouble-free, just check for noisy shifts that could suggest synchromesh wear – possible on a car that’s been used for heavy towing. If you prefer the automatic check that the box shifts smoothly and kicks down responsively and that there isn’t excessive shunt when shifting between drive and reverse. In some cases cracks in the transmission oil cooler have allowed engine coolant to mix with the transmission fluid, leading to gearbox failure; check for signs of contamination in the coolant.
The main concern here applies only to the top-specification LC5 and Invincible with the TEMS suspension. Rear suspension height sensors are known to fail, as do individual air struts. Make sure the various settings of the TEMS system actually do work and that the car sits level. The chassis isn’t known to have rust problems – any serious corrosion would in any case be noted at an MOT inspection – but it’s worth checking spring and damper mountings to make sure they’re sound. The Land Cruiser is rated to tow 2800kg, so shouldn’t have been abused as a tow car, but it’s still worth checking the state of the tow bar and its mounting points especially if there’s a possibility the car may have been used to launch a boat in salt water.
On models with the spare hanging on the tailgate check that the door swings straight on its hinges. Also have a close look at the paintwork, if the car’s been driven even quite moderately off-road the paint could have suffered significant scratching from undergrowth, faint marks that may not look serious but nevertheless can dull the overall appearance of the car and may have been disguised by a layer of colour polish. The interior is quite hardwearing, though the front seats may sag or lose their shape, so check that they provide the right comfort and support. Electrical problems aren’t commonplace, but it’s always worth checking that items such as electric windows, the stereo and satnav and electric sunroof do work properly.

 Or you could consider… 

Land Rover Discovery 3Mitsubishi ShogunNissan Pathfinder

For many the Land Rover is the Land Cruiser’s arch-rival, but apart from its dominating road presence it does have one area that anyone needing a seven-seater might like to consider – the rearmost seats in the Land Cruiser take up a lot of room, even when folded away, while those in the Land Rover fold neatly out of sight, as do the second-row seats, to give a remarkably flat load floor. Also when the seats are all in use the ‘stadium’ arrangement sits rearmost passengers high enough for them to have a good view of the road ahead so they don’t feel as if they’ve just been bunged in the boot.  Reliability isn’t a serious issue in this generation, and in any case there is a broad network of specialist garages that can fix problems for much less than you’d have to pay a main dealer. Packed with more electronic aids than the Toyota, top versions of the Discovery 3 are excellent to drive on the road, incredibly capable off the road and – for many a key advantage – it has a higher towing capability.

By this time Mitsubishi had already taken the plunge and produced a Shogun with monocoque bodyshell and all-independent suspension, with consequent gains in ride refinement and handling precision. The 3.2-litre DI-D engine – and the common-rail version in the latest generation from 2007 – may not have the ultimate torque of the Land Cruiser, but it delivers particularly refined performance for relaxed cruising. One consideration is that a well-equipped Shogun will offer as much in the way of luxury equipment as any Land Cruiser, but at a more accessible second-hand price; if there’s a downside it’s that the rearmost bench seat, which tucks away neatly into the boot floor when not in use, is not as substantial as those in the Land Cruiser or Land Rover and are thus suitable only for children. The Shogun does have excellent off-road credentials, courtesy of the Super Select permanent 4×4 transmission, but low ride height and the long rear overhang on the five-door versions limit ultimate off-road agility.

Being a somewhat simpler and less overtly luxurious vehicle the Pathfinder may not have the same cachet of more established mainstream rivals, but it is a big, roomy van-like estate offering comfortable seven-seater accommodation and, with all rear seats folded, gives a class-leading 2.8m long load bay. The four-wheel drive is simpler, a selectable system, but quite good enough to give the Nissan acceptable off-road ability. The turbodiesel has a mere 2.2-litres to play with but it develops similar power to its bigger-engined rivals, offering more reasonable fuel consumption into the bargain. Automatic transmission is an option, but we’d recommend picking the manual because automatics can be problematic. If the turbodiesel seems a little dull there’s also a 4.0-litre V6. For seven-seater functionality you’re looking at a higher-specification version, SE or SVE for an early model, later premium models are badged Adventura or Tekna, but you could acquire a low-mileage, well-maintained example for the price of an older, high-mileage Toyota.

The Touareg brought Volkswagen into the world of the luxury SUV with a bang and a mighty roar from its V10 turbodiesel power pack. It may since have eased itself back into the mainstream with less off-road appeal, but its popularity just keeps growing

 TARGET RANGE:  £500 – £29,000 

If you’re genuinely thinking about buying a Touareg, you’d better act quickly – used car expert Glass’s Guide says the Touareg was the best-selling second-hand car at the start of this year, which will certainly have the effect of easing up second-hand values. The only thing helping to keep the used values of late models sensible is the stunning cut-price offer from main dealers nationwide who until the end of March are knocking £5000 off the new car price for any Touareg – adding up to a saving of around 10 per cent, which means you could buy a new one for less than some specialist dealers are offering low-mileage nearly-new examples.

The Touareg is one of those split-personality cars, which boasts good off-road capability yet strives to look no more exciting than a large road car. At least it does have a good four-wheel drive system, although even this depends on whether it’s an original, a more modern fuel-efficient 4Motion type or the current 4XMotion of the Escape.

The Touareg shares much of its basic mechanical structure with the Porsche Cayenne, so you’d expect it to be a good driver’s car with lively performance and crisp handling. Certainly as far as the first version into the UK was concerned, all this was true, with the added cachet of having one of the most stunning turbodiesel engines fitted to a road car – the mighty and muscular 5.0-litre V10. This isn’t a high-revving racing engine, but then it doesn’t have to be because with the help of its turbocharger it packs over 550ft lb of torque at an easy 2000 rpm, enough to accelerate to 60mph in 7.5 seconds and reach a 141mph top speed. So it doesn’t return much better than 20mpg, but surely anyone buying a £50,000 sports car couldn’t be that bothered about fuel consumption – especially since you can now buy a well-maintained reasonable mileage early example for around £6000. The V10 sold well, but VW quickly became aware that their Mercedes-Benz ML/Range Rover competitor would prove even more popular with a more sensible engine and better consumption, though we always wondered why they chose to go to the other extreme by fitting a puny 2.5-litre unit with only 171bhp, giving it sluggish 12-second 0-60mph acceleration. Fortunately the range quickly expanded to include a lustier 3.0-litre turbodiesel and a choice of petrol engines topped by the 4.2-litre V8 with over 300bhp, a smooth and spirited performer compared with the V10, but even thirstier. The higher-power versions all have a six-speed automatic transmission, the 2.5 TDI a six-speed manual.

Four-wheel drive is permanent with low range, the original versions using a gear-type differential to share drive equally between front and rear axles, the diff locking automatically if any wheel loses traction, or it can be locked manually to improve off-road progress – a locking rear axle differential was an option, so if you’re planning to use one as an off-road plaything look for one that had this option installed. All versions have Hill Descent Control and traction and anti-skid features.

Considering its performance potential, the styling of the Touareg always struck us as being overly conservative – it was intended to take on the Range Rover, but there’s no way it could do so when it looked little more exciting than a rather swollen Passat. Nevertheless the Touareg does offer comfortable five-seated accommodation in a luxurious cabin, in its high-specification versions boasting all the leather and wood-trimmed opulence expected in a premium SUV.

A facelift for 2007 saw it looking even more like a mainstream VW road car, but the advertising blurb surrounding its launch spoke of 2300 improvements including limiting the engine range to a single petrol unit, the 3.6 V6, and three turbodiesels, the V10, the 2.5 and a new 3.0-litre V6. As so often happens as manufacturers rush to expand a popular range, the 3.0-litre engine was replaced only a year later with a much more efficient and economical common-rail unit with enough extra power to boost 0-60mph acceleration to 8.3 seconds from the 9.2 seconds of the previous engine. When buying a car of around this age it’s as well to make sure you’re getting one with the uprated engine.

The facelift for 2010 saw Volkswagen toning down the off-road cues even more, with a revised frontal appearance linking it stylistically with mainstream models like the Golf, at the same time reducing its weight by some 200kg. Otherwise the main improvement was to the interior, more stylish and more opulently trimmed. The net effect was to distance the Touareg so far from its SUV roots that it needed a specific model to recapture some of that character, in the form of the Escape. Where other models have a version of VW’s 4Motion four-wheel drive using a Torsen centre differential, the Escape has a conventional locking centre differential and a locking rear axle differential as well, which along with variable-height air suspension suits it exceptionally well to off-road use in spite of its bland, road-car appearance. Other models could be specified with a similar set-up as a “Terrain Tech” option.

The 5.0-litre V10 was dropped, no real loss since it was replaced by a 4.2-litre V8 TDI with even more power and torque plus better fuel economy, theoretically capable of returning 31mpg. Other options are limited to the 3.0-litre V6 TDI, though offered in entry-level 201bhp and premium 241bhp form. The automatic was also upgraded to a smoother shifting more efficient eight-speeder.

This generation also saw a hybrid, combining an electric motor with a 3.0-litre supercharged petrol unit, offering low-cost electric motoring for short distances at city speeds but with sports car acceleration available when required since the total output adds up to over 370bhp. It didn’t prove a popular option and has been dropped from the current range.

The latest upgrade for 2014 sees a sharper frontal appearance and even more car-like styling, the engine range reducing to two versions of the 3.0-litre TDI, the entry level still with 201 horse, the premium version’s output rising to 258bhp.

 Our verdicts 

Our first experience with the Touareg was of the V10 TDI, and we were suitably impressed, stirring our tester to comment: “Oh, my god – never in my life have I driven a diesel with as much performance as the one under the bonnet of the new Touareg. It’s the most powerful passenger car diesel in the world, and definitely the most fun.” That was on the launch reported in our June 2003 issue; by the September issue of that year we’d had a V10 Touareg on loan for a full test, which included some demanding off-road action. We wrote: “The slope was steep, long, rutted and slippery, and it turned upwards so sharply off the boggy trail there was no room to take a run. The Touareg pointed its snout upwards and with a rumble of gutsy torque strode to the top as if on a Sunday afternoon cruise.”

We liked the performance, too: “Any car with a speedometer that reads to 200mph is an exciting proposition, even if the figure is optimistic. The six-speed automatic is close to ideally geared so with the power-peak speed of 4000rpm showing in top gear the road speed is 140mph. A maximum of 158mph would be possible if the Touareg could be nudged to the red line on a downhill run.”

In the December issue of that year, we compared the Touareg in 3.0 V6 TDI form with a couple of its premium rivals, a Range Rover Vogue and a Toyota Amazon VX. Predictably it came second to the Range Rover, which exhibited much better off-road ability with equally stable and comfortable on-road behaviour, the Toyota coming third because of its dull interior and dated appearance. We said of the Touareg: “It’s a brave effort from VW, a manufacturer with little off-road heritage, and it will undoubtedly sell well in the urban jungle, but it doesn’t impress as an off-roader – it neither looks nor feels the part.”

It fared better when pitched in V10 form in our April 2005 issue against other powerful road-biased SUVs – we considered it better than the Mercedes ML500 and BWM X5 4.4i Sport, but it lost out – again, hardly surprisingly – to the Porsche Cayenne Turbo. Our reasoning was that when bending the concept of Sports Utility Vehicle so far away from Utility towards Sport, you might as well do it properly. We said of the Porsche: “Nothing can match the sheer exhilaration of a flat-out country-road drive in the Cayenne Turbo.” We nevertheless liked the Touareg: “The V10 engine has to be experienced to be believed. The styling isn’t as adventurous as it should be, but it still has crowd-swaying road presence.”

We recognised that the Touareg and Cayenne share a basic platform, but we felt a more critical comparison should follow the launch of the Audi Q7, also built on the same mechanical foundation. It might seem unbelievable that the Audi won, but that was by half a point, which it scored because it had seven seats and therefore had a family-car advantage over the sportier Cayenne and Touareg, which shared second place. We were, however, a bit scathing about the Touareg, commenting: “Ridiculous number of models to choose from, straight-laced interior and overgrown Passat looks.”

While we do accept that a whole sector of premium 4x4s exist purely as expensive on-road fashion accessories, we are off-road adventurers at heart so we just had to reassess our first comparison this time with a Range Rover TDV8 and a Toyota Land Cruiser V8 D-4D going up against a V10 Touareg, but in a purely off-road challenge. The result, published in our July 2008 issue, was that the Range Rover simply outclassed the others with its refined traction controls, excellent articulation and the then novel but very effective Terrain Response system. The Toyota proved almost equal, but the Touareg lagged in spite of its adjustable ride height and locking rear axle differential. Its main downfall was the lack of axle articulation, which in practice was only partly overcome by the locking differential because, along with the very stiff air suspension on its highest setting, it still made for lurching behaviour over undulating terrain, uncomfortable compared with the much smoother progress of the others.

Our final Touareg experience was to welcome the facelifted 2010 model, although our enthusiasm was beginning to droop as we surveyed the softened, blander styling and realised that this once mighty SUV had simply become a premium large family hatchback. Even the Escape, for all its off-road features, just doesn’t have the aggressive styling to stir adventurous thoughts.

 Which one to buy 

Depreciation is always a significant factor with luxury cars – dealers are unlikely to offer a sensible price, particularly on an older car, unless it’s part of a trade-in on a new high-value replacement. Hence here are lots of older Touaregs advertised at reasonable prices by private sellers. As ever, when considering buying from a private seller, it’s worth paying the £20 to do an HPI check to make sure the car doesn’t have outstanding finance and is being sold by the rightful owner; HPI checks reveal around 30 cars a day as having been stolen; many others turn out to be insurance write-offs or have mileage discrepancies indicating that they’ve been clocked. Also if buying privately it’s more important than ever to take the car on a test drive, and to make sure it starts easily from cold.

We’d be tempted by a V10 – from our enthusiast point of view the main reason for buying a big bland family car would at least to be able to enjoy the stirring sound and performance of that magic muscular turbodiesel – especially since early examples are quite accessible. You should be able to acquire a high-mileage 5.0 V10 TDI from £5000; pay more for something with lower mileage, though most we found with under 100,000 miles were being offered by private sellers. Evelyn Car Sales of Birmingham (07875 423199) were offering a grey 2003 5.0 TDI with 129,000 miles for £5690, we might have been more tempted by the similar-mileage 2005 two-owner model in Black Magic with Cayenne alloys and full service history being offered by TVS Cars of Bridgnorth (01746 326980) for £6984. Expect to pay up to £5000 for a well-maintained reasonable mileage early 2.5 TDI or 3.2 V6, we’d say pay a little more for the 3.0 TDI, Quay Cars of Tyne and Wear (01914 897585) were offering a 2005 grey Sport with full service history, a year’s MOT, some tax and a 3-month RAC warranty for £6795.

The V10 was always a range-topper, available with SE or Altitude trim, but there were cheaper alternatives. Entry-level equipment included 10-speaker stereo, electric windows and air conditioning, though many examples may have been enhanced with extras from the expansive options list, so do shop around for cars with leather upholstery, parking sensors, electric tailgate closing, DVD system, sunroof and the like, while off-road enthusiasts might be interested in examples with the decoupling anti-roll bars (a £1300 extra) and the rear axle diff lock.

The mid-range SE has satnav, a six-disc autochanger, dual-zone air conditioning, cruise control, leather upholstery and 18-inch alloys, though ultimately difficult to compare with the higher-specification Altitude because most will have been fitted with a range of options enhancing the levels of luxury. Expect to pay at least £9000 for a reasonable-mileage 2008 3.0 V6 TDI, closer to £11,000 for an SE; we spotted a gleaming black 82,000-mile example of this age with full service history and new MOT at the Motor Company of Bawtry (01302 710403) going for £11,495. Pay more like £15,000 for a 2009 Altitude, TCS of Oldham (01706 527162) were offering an 82,000-miler with full service history, 19-inch alloys and upgraded comfort leather seats with 12-way electric adjustment for £14,850.

Hybrids are rare, we saw only one early example being advertised, a tungsten silver 2010 TSI with 75,000 miles on offer at £19,950 at Audi specialists Fontain of Iver (01753 650909). Before getting excited at this apparent bargain, the Touareg isn’t a plug-in hybrid, it needs to run the petrol engine to recharge the batteries and overall fuel consumption at 34mpg would make a straightforward 3.0 TDI a more sensible option.
The post-2010 models are more desirable; there are lots of 2.5 TDIs about in SE and Altitude trim, pay around £15,000 for a well-maintained low mileage example. We’d suggest the 3.0 TDI because it’s an easier drive and ultimately just as economical if driven considerately. One of the cheaper deals we saw was the 2011 Altitude on sale at £18,989 at Motorhub of Keighley (01535 288640), full service history but it had done 111,000 miles.

If you are considering a nearly new car the top-specification model is the R-Line, introduced in 2013 and offering £4000 worth of extras over the Altitude spec for just £750 extra. Additional equipment includes 20-inch alloys, bi-xenon headlamps with dynamic curve lighting and daytime running lights. It also has a panoramic sunroof and electrically powered tailgate. The R-Line with the 201-horse 3.0-TDI engine retailed at over £45,000, the higher-power version cost £47,000 and with the powerful 4.2 V8 was priced at a heady £61,655. Ridgeway of Reading (0845 1646587) were offering a pure white 34,000-miler for £32,490. Take care – you could be asked over £40,000 for a run-out pre-facelift car on 2014 plates, when the latest brand new model could be yours for the same money (if you take up the most recent dealer offer). As an example Halifax Volkswagen were offering a 2014 pre-facelift R-Line, sold as a new car with only 50 miles on it, for £39,995; Inchcape Altringham were asking the same for a facelifted car in canyon grey metallic with 10 miles on it. If you are after a low-mileage nearly-new model, act quickly – the fact that main dealers are will be knocking £5000 off the normal list price of a Touareg could mean paying less for a new car than a low-mileage second-hand one. Lookers of Darlington were asking £42,999 for a 200-mile 64-plated one-owner SE, while Northampton Volkswagen wanted £41,975 for a new 2015 SE with 5 miles on it. Taking advantage of the cut-price offer on a new car could mean a new off-road-ready Escape for £40,415.


The engines are generally reliable and capable of running well over 100,000 miles. However, these do require regular servicing with quality lubricants. On diesels sticking swirl flaps, possibly caused by the build-up of carbon deposits, can cause rough running and will require expensive manifold replacement, so make sure the engine runs sweetly through the rev range on a test drive. Water pumps can fail, particularly on the 2.5 TDI, so check for any signs of water leakage or any tendency to run hot. On the 3.0 V6 listen for the rattle of a loose timing chain. Older diesels may also have clogging particulate filters, again a good reason for checking for smooth running on a test drive.
Common problems on older Touaregs include failing prop shaft bearings, so it’s worth checking if a replacement has been fitted; either way reject any car that exhibits any kind of vibration or rumbling noises through the drive train. Grumbling noises could also point to impending failure of the front differential. The six-speed automatic should kick down smoothly, though on the V10 and V8 versions it may take a little longer than you may expect, that’s just because it won’t transmit the massive torque from these engines too suddenly. Either way the downchange should be smooth. It should also change up seamlessly; any thumping or clonking noises will eventually mean an expensive repair.
Check for even tyre wear, since wheel alignment problems are common, to the extent that it’s worth having the alignment checked even if there’s no immediate outward sign that anything’s awry. Check the state of the brake discs, pitting is quite common on early examples leading not only to excessive pad wear, but to the possibility of ‘grabbing’ the pad resulting in erratic braking. On a test drive it’s always worth trying an ‘emergency’ stop, but only on a clear road and only after satisfying yourself that there isn’t an inherent problem by building up to it with a few less hectic brakings. Erratic braking can also be caused by seized calipers. Make sure the electrically operated handbrake works properly; if it makes grinding noises or doesn’t actually hold the car walk away, repairs are ridiculously expensive. Air suspension failure is quite common on older models, this should be obvious by the car’s general stance, but even so make sure the suspension provides the necessary variations in ride height and stays in the required position. Failure is commonly due to corrosion of the air hoses, something that you could have checked before you buy. Also reject any car making grumbling or groaning noises from the steering on full lock, suggesting impending failure of the power steering pump.
Corrosion should not be a problem since body panels are mainly galvanised steel, the bonnet is aluminium and the front wings are in flexible dent-resistant plastic. The main concern is that electrical problems are fairly common, so make sure everything works as it should – electric windows, air con, stereo and the tailgate if it’s the self-opening type. Check that you have the stereo code and that the keyless entry (which may not apply to all early models) works properly.

 Or you could consider… 

Porsche CayenneBMW X5Mercedes-Benz ML

We’ve already made the comment about the Touareg – if you want an SUV with the accent on the Sport rather than the Utility why not go the whole hog? Where the Touareg is a conservative family car, the Cayenne is an out-and-out enthusiast’s roadster, with charismatic looks, excellent roadholding and even in its milder forms a peppy performer. Where the current top model commands a premium of over £100,000, just £6000 should suffice to get you an early 4.5 V8. For sheer excitement it has to be a Turbo, pay £9000 for an early example though at that price it will have well over 100,000 miles, but then £20,000 for a 2009 model with under 50,000 miles sounds like a lot of exhilarating high performance motoring for the money.

In terms of practicality there’s nothing to set the BMW ahead of the Touareg, so it may boil down to a simple matter of brand preference, with the BMW perhaps exuding a little more image and street cred simply because, unlike the Volkswagen, it hasn’t tried to hide itself  shyly among other road-only BMW products. The X5, unless in M Sport form, isn’t really the driver’s car it should be, so we were only enthused by the high-performance V8 versions. The 3.0d turbodiesel is an exceptionally smooth and pleasant engine, making it the sensible choice, and the xDrive 4×4 system is adequately competent on and off the road. There is a huge selection of reasonable-mileage examples on offer second-hand, pay from £18,000 for an SE with under 100,000 miles, but there is also a good selection of 2014 nearly-news including M Sports at around £53,000.

This is certainly one to consider, especially if you’re looking for family practicality and aren’t all that excited about high-performance driving. Of course the AMG versions add that aspect to the mix, but a high-power ML can’t excite the way a Cayenne does, so don’t bother. The ML will also outperform both Cayenne and Touareg off-road, so it’s a better bet if you do want a car for some rough-country adventuring. It’s a comfortable five seater with a big boot, equipment is as luxurious as the first buyer’s choice of extras makes it – shop around for one with the features you’d prefer. A sensible buy would be an ML280 or ML350, around £15,000 for a 2009 example with reasonable mileage, £43,000 for one of the many nearly new ML250 or ML350 models on offer at dealerships, though if you do hanker for something special you could pay up to £80,000 for a nearly-new low-mileage ML63 AMG.

Once upon a time the reason for buying a RAV4 was to bring a grin to your face. The current model is a much more serious affair, but more spacious, refined and efficient with it. Which version you want depends on your mood

 TARGET RANGE:  £500 – £29,000 

In 20 years the Toyota RAV4 has developed from a playful motor show concept fun car to a mainstream mid-range SUV. So complete is the transformation that it’s hard to see how the current model can justify retaining the Recreational Activity Vehicle nomenclature – indeed the last generation RAV4 was badged Vanguard in Japan. RAV4 is a title that suited the original car very well, because considering Toyota’s generally very conservative approach to styling the original was remarkably funky, patently aimed at rivalling the staggeringly successful Suzuki Vitara as a high-fun runabout for the young at heart who liked the idea of a four-wheel drive but didn’t need it to be a serious hard-core off-roader or a practical family estate. The RAV4 is slightly larger than the Vitara, with a more comfortable interior, more power from its 130bhp 2.0-litre twin-cam petrol engine and more ride comfort from its all-independent suspension; it raised eyebrows in off-roading circles because the body is of monocoque construction, rare for an off-roader at the time, and while four-wheel drive is permanent there is no low-range gearing. Nevertheless it has enough off-road ability to satisfy anyone who wants to leave the tarmac to access a picnic spot, and the recreational intention is highlighted in the cabriolet version.

It soon became obvious that the RAV4’s appeal outstretched the capabilities of a two-door funster, resulting in the launch of a five-door version, which may have lost some of the funkiness but added enough practicality to start Toyota’s new compact SUV on a rollercoaster ride to the big league.

The first major change of direction came for the 2000 model year with an all-new and slightly more conservatively styled range. Any off-road appeal the original may have had is also reduced, with a lower ride height, tauter suspension and more powerful engines aimed at better tarmac performance and handling. There’s also a more distinctive styling difference between the three-door, which is all about youthful roadster appeal, and the five-door, which has much more of an air of the serious family estate. The five-door has added practicality in the way the rear seats can be easily removed to increase luggage space. The 2.0-litre petrol engine delivers 148bhp, but from September 2001 there was also a D-4D turbodiesel offering nearly 40mpg economy.

By 2006 the RAV4 had shrugged off its frivolous origins, the all-new model for that year taking on a refined mainstream family estate persona, longer, wider and taller than its predecessor with more power and a new auto-engaging four-wheel drive system. Choose between a 156bhp 2.0-litre petrol or smooth new 2.2-litre D-4D turbodiesel engine, which could be specified in 138bhp or 174bhp form. The transformation from funster to family estate was complete, and although a three-door variant was available it was offered almost exclusively in the UK as a practical five-door. By this time the RAV4 was competing against some serious rivals, including the Land Rover Freelander and the Honda CR-V, so naturally the levels of equipment and technology are a match with features like six-speed manual or CVT automatic transmission, electronic stability controls, traction controls and hill start assist included in the specification.

The constant drive for efficiency meant an engine upgrade including a new Optimal Drive 2.2-litre turbodiesel combining a hefty 148bhp with frugal 48.7mpg and reduced CO2 emissions. The petrol engine was switched for the revised Valvematic type with 156 horsepower.

A facelift for 2010 improved aerodynamic efficiency with a new grille and headlamp design while the quality of interior materials and equipment was also enhanced. Note that this generation also included two-wheel drive derivatives, and some variants, such as the T180, have no spare wheel, opting instead for run-flat tyres or temporary repair systems, hence the lack of a door-mounted spare.

The all-new fourth generation RAV4 of 2013 further blurs the line between crossover and full-sized SUV. It’s roomier than its predecessor with easy-fold rear seats and a capacious boot, a wider engine choice and excellent equipment in the top-specification Invincible. With a 20-year history to look back on, your choice of which RAV4 to buy depends on how much you admire the funky styling of the original compared with the improved driveability and practicality of the newer generations.

 Our verdicts 

We naturally approached the original RAV4 with some scepticism. At a time when we still weren’t really sure about the role of the Suzuki Vitara – it seemed too much of a low-riding boy racers’ street rod to appeal as a proper off-roader – the cheeky new Toyota with its monocoque body, lack of low range and its all-independent suspension struck us as being too much of a compromise to please anyone; it was too sluggish to be a sports car, not hard enough to be a full-on off-roader and not practical enough to serve as an everyday family estate. The buying public didn’t seem to mind, so we compromised our own opinion. Typical was this comment from one of our team: “It’s a clever concept, a lifestyle off-roader worth considering. It isn’t for everyone, but it is a soft roader with a useful edge on the black stuff, stylish transport for those who don’t need a full-on full-sized 4×4.”  We were even grudgingly appreciative of its off-road ability, noting the effectiveness of the auto-locking centre differential and the Torsen-type limited slip rear axle differential.

We were a bit more upbeat about the second generation RAV4 for 2000, perhaps having become a bit more accustomed to the growing trend for road-only SUVs. We said of the new model: “Still recognisable as Toyota’s off-road funster, the new RAV4 has been unashamedly tweaked to give it better on-road performance and handling and more high-street posing appeal. The striking new body styles bring the RAV4 right up to date.” Noting that the base 1.8-litre engine is only available in 2-wheel drive variants, we skipped quickly to the punchier 2.0-litre unit: “This engine gets closer to GTi-type performance with a 10-second 0-60mph time and a 115mph top speed, the efficiency of the variable valve timing engine returning excellent fuel consumption of 32.1mpg.” That seemed excellent at the time…

We did, however, conclude that the RAV4 was a superbly refined car, but with very little rugged off-road appeal. That trend continued, along with an inexorable increase in pricing. Our first report on the new model for 2006 commented that not only did the Rav4 come only in five-door form: “…but with prices from £18,995 to £26,995 the cost is sizeable too, but in a sector now awash with Korean pretenders Toyota sees the RAV4 as a rival to the BMW X3. Build quality is up to the BMW’s standards, better in places, while space is excellent for both occupants and luggage.” We were less impressed with the car’s dynamic abilities. Of the 2.0 VVT-i we commented: “The RAV4 feels like a big front-drive MPV. The handling is stodgy and it will understeer excessively when pushed, despite impressive levels of grip. With low ground clearance, moderate wheel travel and conservative approach and departure angles the RAV4 is no great off-roader either, disappointing in a car that arguably defined this sector.”

Our own view hasn’t prevented the driving populace at large from taking to the RAV4 in large enough numbers to rank it as one of the most popular SUVs, in spite of the relatively high price – at least the equipment specification of high-end versions make the price seem easier to swallow, not to mention a tendency to hold its value well second-hand.

The mutation from funster to family car has reached its conclusion with the new generation introduced in 2013. Of our first driving experience our correspondent wrote: “The RAV4 has morphed into an aggressive-looking sharp-cookie that disappointingly blends all too well with the rest of the 19-strong mid-size crossover SUV pack.” That’s not to deny the quality and practicality of the latest model, which is also faster and more poised on the road than the earlier models, attributes that combined so well with the smart auto transmission and improved ride quality to earn the latest RAV4 a highly recommended accolade in our latest 4×4 of the Year contest.

 Which one to buy 

The original RAV4 has classic value, and even though you shouldn’t have to pay much more than £500 for one in good condition some dealers are asking close to £2000 for high-specification examples with well over 100,000 miles. The range included base, EX, mid-range GX and range-topping VX trim levels, but here were also special editions worth looking for including Edge, Freesport, Heat, Reebok and Giant. One of the more attractive deals we saw was for a red three-door GS from 1996 with just 70,000 miles on it with an MOT and full Toyota service history going for £525 at Huzaifa Cars (07815 945949). The first RAV4 was funky, but with £1500 to spend we’d rather look at one of the neater, better performing second-generation which has less classic value but is a more engaging car to drive. These were originally badged NV, NRG, GX and VX, this changing from 2004 to XT2, XT3 and XT4 trim levels. Even the base model has air conditioning and electric front windows, mid-range includes electric sunroof and alloy wheels, high-end models include a CD auto-changer and leather upholstery. For £1500 you will be looking at a relatively low-specification version, but be aware that the base 1.8-litre NV was two-wheel drive. Keenest offer we spotted was the 2000 NRG 3-door, silver with air conditioning, 16-inch alloys and one-touch electric windows for £1500 at VTG Vehicle Supermarket of Nuneaton (01163 664066). Expect to pay £2000-£3000 for a high-mileage run-out 2.2 D-4D XT3, £3500 for a leather-upholstered XT4.

For family users most interest will focus on the third generation from 2006, featuring better performance, economy and safety features through the range. Badging ranged from a base LE through XT3 and XT4 to XT5, but with T180, XT-R and SR180 offering extra value equipment levels. The XT3 and XT4 were the most popular and therefore most numerous second-hand, you’ll pay £4000 for a reasonable mileage early example, more like £5000 for a well-maintained one with low mileage. Note that the T180 has no spare wheel, check that the one you buy has a get-you-home or tyre repair kit. We spotted a smart green 2006 model with a long MOT and 84,000 miles going for £4995 at SW Trailers (07999 511732), full leather interior, electrically adjustable driver’s seat and privacy glass.

The XT-R from 2008 is one to look for, the specification including electric sunroof, privacy glass, dual zone climate control, plus Bluetooth connectivity, cruise control, parking sensors and 17-inch alloys. Park Road Garage of Bedford (01234 843272) was offering a 95,000 mile example for £6490, silver with a full Toyota service history and a long MOT. Alternatively the sports-themed SR-180 with the higher-performance 2.2 D-4D engine has18-inch alloys, extended wheelarches, run-flat tyres and dark-tinted headlamps, Rycote Motor Company, Oxfordshire (01844 279000) had a smart grey 2009 model with electric sunroof, 99,000 miles but with a full service history on offer at £7990.

Naturally facelifted models for the 2010 model year are more desirable, these had the more efficient Optimal Drive turbodiesel and Valvematic petrol engines. The high-specification XT-R was also available in Style and Premium Nav form. There’s a good selection of all of these around, Cargiant (08444 824110) were asking £11,000 for an XT-R in Decuma Grey with leather upholstery and a CD multichanger. Pay up to £17,000 for a run-out example of 2013, though this should be a pristine low-mileage example, like the silver 2.2 D-4D at Motorpoint of Peterborough (01733 737096) priced at £16,999 with 7000 miles, equipment including rain sensing wipers, auto headlamps, dual-zone air conditioning and Alcantare leather upholstery.

Meanwhile there’s already a good selection of nearly-new examples of the current model on offer at Toyota dealerships around the country, some offering remarkable savings over the new list price – for example Oakmere Toyota were offering a top-specification Invincible 2.2 D in mahogany metallic with 3000 miles on it for £24,450, comparing well with the £28,500 showroom price on a new example.


Petrol engines on early models need a cam belt change every 60,000 miles, so be wary when buying anything with 120,000 miles showing, check if the work has been done and if you’re not sure argue £250 or so off the price to allow for the cost of replacement. Check the state of radiator hoses, split hoses aren’t uncommon and a sudden loss of water can lead to overheating and a failed head gasket. Even on later models with the VVT-i or Valvematic engines check for signs of leakage from the water pump, which can also lead to sudden overheating; even if there are no signs of leaks, listen for squeaks or shrieks from the pump pulley indicating bearing wear. With the VVT-i and Valvematic engines listen for rattles or clicking sounds that could indicate problems with the high-tech valve train. Check that the engine runs sweetly and all dashboard indicator lamps go out after start-up, exhaust sensor failures are not unknown leading to erratic running. The turbodiesels are generally reliable but water pump failures can lead to head gasket failure, so check for water leaks, also check for oil leaks around the timing chain cover. The D-4D consumes a lot of oil, check the level before you buy and also frequently thereafter. Clogged diesel particulate filters can cause problems on later models, excessive fuelling during the burn-off phase can lead to excessive engine wear.
Transmissions are generally trouble free, reject any manual with a notchy or baulky shift quality. The clutch action should be lights and progressive, if it’s snatchy or there’s too much pedal movement pick another car. Any juddering or shuddering from the clutch could point to impending failure of the dual-mass flywheel. The CVT transmission takes some getting used to, check on a test drive that it doesn’t seem to allow the engine to over rev too much. Wheel bearing failure is not unknown, listen for a distant drumming or groaning noise, if you’re not sure jack the car up and check that there’s no excess sideways play on any of the wheels. Check for kerbing damage on the alloy wheels, not only from an aesthetic viewpoint but also to be aware that tracking might have been put out, leading to excess tyre wear.
Rust isn’t unknown on the floorpans of early examples, or on bodywork under the plastic cladding panels. Don’t buy an older car unless it has an MOT. Few RAV4s will have been used off-road, but it’s worth having a look underneath to see it there have been attempts to hide sill damage under filler and paint. Make sure the car rides stably and doesn’t wobble about too much in corners, suggesting excessive wear to the springs and dampers; anti-roll bar bushes can wear leading to similar cornering sloppiness. Steering column joints and track rod ends can wear leading to a vagueness in the steering, though knocking or clicking noises can also indicate worn CV joints. Check that the car brakes smoothly, especially on later models, where discs are known to warp after heavy braking and may need to be replaced.
Corrosion shouldn’t be a serious problem on later models. One aspect to check on the third generation car is that the tailgate operates smoothly and hasn’t sagged from the weight of the spare wheel. Note that the rear door on cars with door-mounted spares won’t open fully; a checkstrap prevents the door opening far enough for the spare wheel to obscure the taillights. Many owners removed the checkstrap or replaced it with the one from the T180, which does not have a rear-mounted spare. Some will even have changed the entire door for one without a spare carrier, if so check that there’s a tyre repair kit, or if the car was specified with run-flat tyres check that such tyres are still fitted. Electrical problems aren’t unknown, so check that all electrical items, such as electric windows, stereo and, on premium models, the satnav, work properly.

 Or you could consider… 

Suzuki Grand VitaraKia SportageNissan Qashqai

Suzuki was quick to follow Toyota’s lead as the RAV4 developed into a family estate, launching the Grand Vitara in 1998 as a comfortable and road-friendly expanded derivative of the original Vitara. The Grand Vitara may be a little more compact than the RAV4 but it has an edge in off-road ability by sporting a dual range transfer gearbox, marking it as a better bet than a Toyota if you intend to do some off-road adventuring – the short-wheelbase version is ideal for that role. Engine options in the early five-door version include a 2.0-litre Peugeot diesel, a 2.0-litre petrol four or a lively 2.5-litre petrol V6. If you need more space the XL-7 offers seven-seater versatility. The new model from 2005 offers better ride from its all-independent suspension and more refinement from smoother and more efficient engines. Expect to pay around £7000 for an average-mileage 1.9DDiS from 2009.

Originally something of a rough-edged budget plaything, the Sportage has grown into a serious competitor for the likes of the RAV4 with its smooth and powerful petrol and diesel engines, all-independent suspension and good-value equipment specifications. Even the rather dumpy-looking 2005 model is worth considering as a reliable low-cost family runabout, since the interior is well-appointed, comfortable and practical, and a high-specification run-out 2010 XE shouldn’t cost more than £8500. The latest version launched in 2010 is a much smarter proposition all round, with striking modern looks and refined 2.0-litre common-rail turbodiesel, pay around £12,000 for a KX-2 of 2010 with part leather and a panoramic roof to £25,000 for a nearly-new 2014 top-specification KX-4 with just 400 miles on it.

The Qashqai may well be an SUV in name only, shifting the off-road on-road crossover compromise almost entirely on to tarmac, but that’s unlikely to be a concern for anyone considering a modern RAV4 either, so we can only point to the remarkable popularity of the Nissan as a reason to consider it. The styling isn’t particularly striking and the interior a bit on the bland side, but equipment is good through the range and the 2.0-litre engines are smooth and responsive whether mated to manual or CVT automatic transmissions. Most buyers chose two-wheel drive versions, so make sure the one you’re planning to buy does have the All-Mode 4-wheel drive system; note that from 2011 the 1.6dCi turbodiesel was made available with 4ED and stop-start technology for ultimate economy. Pay around £7000 for a four-year-old Visia or five-year-old Tekna.

The race is on to create the most refined, road-friendly SUV. Fortunately off-road enthusiasts are still able to lay hands on the one car that holds true to the original concept of the recreational off-roader, the spiritual successor to the charismatic CJ-7

 TARGET RANGE:  £2,000 – £10,000 

Some 4×4 enthusiasts might be excused for thinking that most manufacturers of four-wheel drive cars have lost the plot, putting the emphasis on sleek style, comfort and refined road manners at the expense of off-road capability. The truth is they’ve written a new script in which the SU of SUV stands for Significantly Upperclass rather than Sports Utility, with very profitable results. Even Jeep, the company that set the whole recreational off-road ball rolling 60 years ago, has succumbed to the lure of the mainstream big buck by aiming their new Cherokee squarely at socialite suburbia with none of the genuine utility of the original Cherokee.

Jeep has at least clung to one small element of its iconic past, in the form of the Wrangler. The Wrangler had a tough act to follow – it was the replacement for the CJ-7, which back in the 1970s in Renegade form with punchy V8 power, launched the whole concept of the high-fun Recreational Activity Vehicle. In reality the first Wrangler, developed and produced under AMC ownership, was a bit of a cost-cutting compromise, basically fitting CJ-lookalike panels to a shortened Cherokee uni-body frame and hanging the axles on leaf springs, so although the stated aim was to make it a more refined, driver-friendly car, it actually had little more refinement than the CJ-7 and significantly less off-road ability in its standard road-safe low-riding form.

Enthusiasts were therefore over the moon when in 1996 Chrysler upgraded the concept with the TJ Wrangler, reverting to a separate chassis, reinventing the iconic styling cues of the CJ-7 while also achieving the double-whammy of better on-road refinement and enhanced off-road performance by adopting long-travel coil springs all round. This car is, unquestionably, the true conceptual successor to the CJ-7.

It couldn’t last; by 2006 Chrysler couldn’t ignore the need to upgrade this historic but dated pattern with a more family-friendly body, including four-door format, along with more economical and environmentally friendly engines. The current Wrangler is still a very capable off-road vehicle, but no one can deny that it’s lost some of that soul-lifting fun for fun’s sake image of the CJ-7… and the TJ. The change had to happen, though, as evidenced by the worldwide sales figures; where the TJ sold at an average of 80,000 units a year through its 10 year lifespan, the new Wrangler instantly upped the ante to an average of 130,000 units a year. To put this in perspective, Land Rover proudly announced their millionth Discovery in 2012, after 23 years of production; Jeep sold nearly a quarter of a million Wranglers in 2013 alone. That popularity is being echoed in the UK; at a recent Jeep Owners’ Club meeting, Dean Stogdon, sales executive for a Surrey Jeep dealership, turned up to put the new Cherokee on display. He told us: “I sold seven Jeeps last week – six of them Wranglers.”

Desirable the new Wrangler may be, but anyone wishing to experience the emotional high of owning and off-roading in a car that more genuinely reflects the all-American panache of an iconic Jeep need look no further than a TJ Wrangler.

As a sop to the health and safety overlords the TJ in its basic form sits low on relatively small wheels to enhance on-road stability. However, the massive popular appeal of the TJ as a recreational off-roader has spurred many specialist companies to produce upgraded components to improve the off-road ability, mainly in the form of suspension lift kits allowing bigger wheels to be fitted, along with underbody protection, locking differentials, winch bumpers and the like. With a little lift and some grippy off-road tyres under its iconic flat fenders, the Wrangler is a truly uncompromising go-anywhere 4×4 that cannot help but provide total off-road satisfaction.

 Our verdicts 

We were fortunate indeed that one of our first contacts with the TJ Wrangler took the form of one of the most technical hard-core tests we could have hoped for – an opportunity to drive one on the famous Rubicon Trail, a 22-mile route that crosses the Sierra Nevada between Georgetown in northern California and Lake Tahoe. To call it a “trail” is an understatement – although it was once a made-up road it’s fallen into such disrepair that much of the route simply rides over the base rock of the mountain, with stretches of exposed boulders, sharp outcrops and loose rocks to be traversed. Our opening description, published in the December 1997 issue, said: “There was a rock the size of a double-decker bus off to the right, another the size of an elephant on the left and between them a gulley that looked deep enough to swallow a horse and cart. But there was an old Californian mountain man up ahead gesturing us to keep on moving, and the bright blue Wrangler squeezed through without a squeak from scraping underbody or a scratch from the gleaming paintwork.”

In spite of that completely standard car’s competence, we’d right from the start considered it to be too low-riding, badly in need of a suspension lift and taller tyres to give it an edge over the only other vehicle that could match it off-road, the Land Rover Defender. We didn’t have to wait long, because Jeep’s UK distributors, eager to emphasise the Wrangler’s off-road credentials, had engaged Surrey Off-Road to provide the necessary modifications. With a three-inch lift and running 35-inch tyres, Rubicon II was born, a car that has since inspired many copies. We took the car on the Milles Rivieres off-road event in France. Our account of the event in the January 1998 issue gives some idea of the treacherous nature of some of the sections, which had my navigator squealing in fear on more than one occasion, but notably we ended the report with: “Rubicon II was also a great car to drive home in. We cruised the French motorway at 10mph over the official limit, the bucket seats giving incredible long-distance support – after 20 hours of driving, with one brief lunch break and a few coffee stops we never felt fatigued.”

Our first serious comparison test of the Wrangler pitted it against a Suzuki GV2000 and a Land Rover Freelander. Our verdict was a no-brainer: “With the sun bleaching the sand and a cool breeze blowing over the dunes we weren’t in the mood for choosing the most practical or the most refined car of this group. It was sheer fun that mattered and ultimately only one of the threesome had the character to excite our senses. It wasn’t the Vitara; the Freelander at least looked the part; but with the roof tucked away so we could enjoy its fully-open configuration, the Jeep was just the business.”

The Wrangler appeared in our 1998 4×4 Of The Year extravaganza, vying for favour against Suzuki Vitara, SsangYong Korando, Nissan Terrano and Vauxhall Frontera Sport in our ‘funster’ class. Because we were taking practicality and refinement into account, the class winner was the Nissan Terrano, but in any case we weren’t that impressed with the Wrangler’s plasticky dash and old-fashioned switchgear. We’d got more used to it by the following year, when we gave it the ‘best funster’ award. If we’d had any reservations about it, it had to do with the low ride height of the standard car. As we said of the 60th Anniversary model featured in our 4×4 Of The Year for 2003: “With its big torquey engine and classic styling the Wrangler ought to be the best off-road funster money can buy. On paper it has all the right statistics, with its coil-sprung beam axles and selectable 4WD system, but in practice it runs out of ground clearance too readily when the terrain gets tortuous. The 60th Anniversary special we tried looked simply superb – all it needs is a four-inch suspension lift.” The story continued right up to the arrival of the replacement new Wrangler in 2007; each year the TJ Wrangler came second to the Defender (except for the 2007 edition, when both Jeep and Land Rover were trounced by the Hummer) and in each case the low ride height let it down in extreme conditions.

The only other significant report we carried on the TJ Wrangler was in the July 2005 issue, where we tried the new six-speed manual version. We said: “It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the switch to six speeds is more to enhance the on-road behaviour than off-road prowess. Where the five-speed had wide ratios with a long overdrive fifth, the six-speeder closes the ratios so it behaves more like a sports gearbox. Top is still an overdrive, but not as extreme as on the five-speed, so the Wrangler can now hold motorway cruising speeds more easily on long power-draining inclines.”

 Which one to buy 

There isn’t much of a choice, first toss-up being between 2.5-litre four-cylinder or 4.0-litre straight-six power. If you’re after something charismatic to use as a road-only car or aren’t going to do anything particularly exciting off-road, then the 2.5 might be a sensible choice only because of the marginally lower fuel consumption – in theory it should use a lot less fuel but it works hard in the heavy Wrangler. It doesn’t really have the torque to cope with more serious off-roading, especially if you’re planning to enhance the car with a high-riding suspension upgrade, winch bumpers and the like, all of which add weight. Check the power output of the 2.5-litre example you’re planning to buy – early examples had a softer 117bhp engine, during 2001 this was uprated to 140bhp. In spite of that improvement the 4.0-litre, in spite of its heavier consumption, remains the engine of choice since it has plenty of power and big torque delivered in a delightfully laid-back manner. Most 4.0-litre versions have automatic transmission – three speed on some early models, so look out for one with the more efficient four-speed – but a manual is a better bet since this will ultimately give better control in difficult off-road conditions as well as taking the edge off fuel consumption. Note that during 2005 the manual switched from a five-speed to a six-speed, though the advantage of the extra ratio off-road is difficult to quantify.

Equipment in all Wranglers is somewhat basic. Interestingly some of the base Sport models will have had tinted glass and a four-speaker stereo, some with CD player, while others made do with a simpler two-speaker radio. Hence it’s worth checking the specification of the ICE and also be prepared to find that previous owners have fitted aftermarket systems. All TJs have headlamp levelling and airbags for driver and front seat passenger.

A well-used early Wrangler Sport shouldn’t cost more than £2000; a good value offer we spotted was a well-maintained bright blue 4.0-litre Sport manual dating from 1997 with under 80,000 miles going for £2695 at Datom Motors (07838 001134). Low mileage does enhance the asking price, we spotted a particularly desirable blue ’97 Sport with just 57,000 miles going for £4995 at Affordable Cars of Rochester (01634 649304).

The Sahara features enhanced equipment including air conditioning, cruise control and an uprated stereo, along with 15-inch or 16-inch alloy wheels, but needn’t cost much more than a similar-age Sport, for instance the ’97 Sahara 4.0 manual with 140,000 miles asking £2998 at Bucks Auto House of Chesham  (01494 783891).

Expect to pay around £8000 for something from 2002-2003, condition possibly more important than mileage. Different Class Cars of South Woodford (0208 989 0001) were asking £8495 for a gleaming black ‘02 4.0-litre Sport with 43,000 miles while GP Specialist Vehicles of Manchester (0161 797 7552) wanted £8285 for an ’03 Sahara with 39,000 miles. Look out also for an Extreme Sport from 2004 on, we spotted a Pacific Blue example going for £7000 at CCM Vehicle Sales of Bradford.

We’ve commented at length on the need to give the basic Wrangler a bit of a lift to get the best out of it as an extreme off-road funster, and it’s as well to be aware that many owners will already have gone that route. In consequence it may make sense to seek out one that’s already had some modifications, such as the 4.0 Extreme Sport, a 2004 model with four-inch lift and 35-inch tyres being offered at £9750 by Atlan Motors of Lancing, West Sussex (01903 765780) with a three-month warranty, just begging you to embark on a life of off-road adventure.

The 2.5-litre petrol engine is a reliable enough unit, but it’s likely to have been thrashed in this heavy car, so listen for rattling from the bottom end suggesting worn bearings and clattering from the top end hinting at excess cylinder wear, which might also show up as grey oil smoke in the exhaust. Squeaking or groaning could spell wear problems with the water pump or the power steering pump. However, the AMC 2.5-litre engine, which shares design elements with the 4.0-litre six, is good for well over 200,000 miles if treated with respect. The same can be said of the 4.0-litre straight six, which delivers its performance in a relaxed but quite muscular manner, and is generally considered to be ‘bulletproof’ – though with higher mileage examples, check under the oil filler cap for any sign of ‘mayonnaise’ that might hint at impending gasket failure. Oil leaks are not common, but water pump failure is always a possibility, so check for excessive front-end noise or any signs of water leakage.
Probably the first thing to check on any pristine-looking car is that the transfer box works properly, the mechanism has a tendency to seize if four-wheel drive isn’t used, as may well be the case in a car that’s been used purely for road transport. Check that manual shifts are smooth and positive, crunching changes suggesting excess synchromesh wear means a car to be avoided. Automatic transmissions do need to be serviced with the proper enhanced grade of fluid, reject any higher mileage car if the gears don’t shift slickly and quickly without allowing excessive revving in the process. Also check that the kickdown is not unduly hesitant. Listen for whining or groaning from the differentials, a car that’s been used off-road or towing boat trailers in and out of water might have contaminated fluids. Excessive shunt during gear changes could also be caused by worn universal joints.
Check that the ladder-frame chassis is in good condition; any excessive corrosion should have been noted at MOT time, all the more reason to buy a car with new or long MOT. Sagging springs or soggy dampers might actually be a welcome feature if it allows you to argue down the asking price, since the main reason for buying a Wrangler will be to replace these items with higher-riding replacements; by the same token if you’re looking at a car that’s already been modified satisfy yourself that the work has been done properly and professionally. Listen for groaning from the steering, particularly when on full lock, as this could be pointing to a failing power steering pump; squeaking on full lock might be no more than a slipping drive belt, but even that is something to have sorted before you buy. Vague steering, knocking or excessive kickback are all pointers to problems from worn ball joints to ineffective steering damper. The brakes are conventional with ventilated discs in front and drums at the rear, but overstretched cables can render the parking brake ineffective. Check for excess scoring of the discs that might indicate hard off-road use; not a problem in itself in this hard-core vehicle, especially if you mean to off-road it yourself, but something to have treated before you buy.
A TJ that’s had the doors removed looks really cool – but if that’s what attracts you to buy it make sure you do get the removable doors that should come with it. Even the hardtop TJ is designed to have its roof removed when the weather’s good, so if you’re buying one make sure that the roof is still properly seated and has all its securing fixtures in place, a badly-fitted roof can cause noise and water leakage issues. Also check the interior for signs of water staining on the seats and carpets, a sign that it’s been left out in the rain without its roof on. Naturally the same applies to the soft-top. Check that the soft-top roof fits properly – it’s a complex arrangement that needs strong fingers to clip neatly into place, the zipper securing the rear screen can snag or come adrift. That rear panel has to be unclipped and rolled up out of the way before you can open the tailgate, so make sure the grip rail is in good condition. Corrosion shouldn’t have affected the bodywork, again excessive rust ought to have been picked up at an MOT inspection, but it’s always worth checking for staining at seams or signs that paint has been sprayed over dodgy repairs. The alloy door mirror housings may show signs of corrosion, but this is generally no more than a cosmetic problem. Also make sure you have the stereo code.

 A little lift here and there works wonders! 

Old Man EmuTeraflexRubicon Express

This Australian kit takes its name from the flightless bird that runs across the outback, its powerful legs absorbing the impact while its body remains perfectly level. The OME suspension systems are individually designed and specified to suit each type of vehicle, giving an exceptionally good quality of ride as well as a superb blend of roadholding and articulation. Their replacement springs and dampers for the TJ gives the Wrangler a lift of around 2.5 inches, but there’s also a ‘Trailblazer’ kit giving a full 4-inch lift.

A full range of well-engineered upgrades for the TJ Wrangler, including the most basic of lifts – raising the body an inch above the chassis makes space for taller tyres. Products include two-inch, three-inch and four-inch suspension lifts involving replacement springs and dampers, with longer control arms for higher lifts, with all the necessary bracketry and bushings. Consider anti roll bar disconnects, steering and braking upgrades, the soft-ride Speed Bump bump stops and underbody protection plates.

The first company to offer a long-arm suspension system for the TJ – to the uninitiated ‘long-arm’ is a means of allowing more than usual axle articulation, which in conjunction with the 5.5-inch lift kit they offer makes the Wrangler as unstoppable as it’s possible to get. Happily for less extreme types they offer a whole variety of lifts starting at a moderate 2.5-inches. They also offer a range of other enhancements such as sway bar disconnects, replacement track bars and transfer case lowering kits.