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ACQUIRED taste, 4x4s. You either loathe them with Calvinistic hatred, or swear you'll never drive anything else.

Most are cumbersome and unwieldy with all the get-up-and-go of the Archbishop of Canterbury in full ceremonial regalia, while too many drink like dipsomaniacs and give you heart-attack palpitations if you drive them at anything over 60 mph.

Yet despite their many downsides, armies of suburban mummies willingly choose to slog round in diesel Land Rover Discoveries, while self-employed owner-managers think they look trendy ricocheting from meeting to meeting in Mitsubishi Shoguns.

You can even spot the odd chairman of a PLC, proudly piloting his Beluga Black Range Rover 4.6 HSE.

So what's the fascination? I can understand the attraction of that elevated, imperial driving position, the acres of space and vast versatility.

I'll even be indulgent about the style thing. That 4x4 drivers believe they have an attitude, an aura of buccaneering adventurers.

And I can see the occasional need for all-wheel drive, although it's more likely to be used at the local pony club than for fording flooded rivers.

What I can't understand is why otherwise intelligent people will cheerfully sacrifice refinement, pliant suspension and the decent performance of an agreeable motor car for what is essentially a slow, rough-riding agricultural truck, decked out with wood and leather. But the other day my prejudices against off-roaders took a serious dent when I drove one that's genuinely different, one of the only 4x4s that really does feel like a car and not something borrowed from a farmyard - The Lexus RX300.

Currently only available in Japan and the States, the smoothest 4x4 by far is powered by a 220 bhp, 3.0 litre V6 with variable valve timing, can dash to 60 in a smudge over eight seconds, hit 120 and return 25mpg. There's no creaking or banging, no cranking from the steering, no washboard ride, just all the silken refinement that you'd expect from a Lexus.

Aimed at the Mercedes M Class, Jeep Grand Cherokee and the new Discovery replacement, the RX300 handles with aplomb, can out-drag most other off- roaders and is almost economical. Plus you don't need a step-ladder to get in and out of the thing.

But what impressed me most was the ride quality and level of silence. You hit a pot-hole and there's just a muted thud, or slam down the throttle and the alloy V6 barely raises its well-bred voice.

Even if you try some sudden swivelling of the wheel - always a sticky moment in an off-roader - the RX300 always behaves with poise.

And I liked this particular mud-plugger because of those little touches.

Like headlights that automatically switch themselves on at night, traction control, a 4x4 system with a brain that senses when you need it, 10-way power-adjustable driver's seat, twinky LCD dashboard display for vital functions, soft leather, air conditioning and switchable four-speed automatic. Plus the usual peerless Lexus build quality iron-clad warranty and epic second-hand values.

There's just one problem. At the moment you can't buy an RX3OO in the UK. Believe it or not, Lexus haven't made up their minds if they're going to import at all, so nobody's got any idea when it might arrive or how much it could cost.

But if Lexus do see reason and add it to their model line-up, they'll have one of the most accomplished and well-built 4x4s on the market.

What's more, they'll have created a new benchmark for off-roaders and cause the odd furrowed brow at Jeep and Land Rover.

So come on Lexus, give us the 4x4 we deserve.

Ford lose $153m in law case

AN AMERICAN jury has just awarded a Nevada couple $153 million after their three-year-old son was run over by a Ford F350 pick-up truck in their driveway.

Walter White climbed into the truck, then fell out and was crushed beneath the wheels as the pick-up rolled backwards.

The White's lawyer successfully argued that the Ford's brakes were faulty and the handbrake could "spontaneously disengage".

Ford were "at a loss to understand the verdict" especially since evidence was produced at the trial to show that the handbrake was not engaged at the time, and that the boy must have knocked the automatic selector into neutral.

In October last year a South Carolina jury awarded a huge $262 million to the family of a boy who was thrown from a Chrysler minivan.


THE celebrity car to beat all celebrity cars comes up for auction in September.

A silver Mercedes 300SL bought new by Hollywood film legend Clark Gable is to be sold by American classic car auctioneers Kruse International in Indiana.

The aluminium-bodied SL, known as Gullwing because of its unique opening doors, was built on an ultra-light space-frame chassis with a distinguished racing pedigree.

The road-going SL, although based on the first racer of 1952, had a host of luxury refinements and quickly became the most glamorous cruiser of its day.

This 1955 example has been totally restored and the only person to have driven it since Gable is another screen hero, Paul Newman.

Complete with its original Californian registration papers in Gable's name and all service records, the Merc's history is unimpeachable.

With "normal" Gullwings fetching pounds 125,000, this rarity could break the pounds 200,000 barrier.

THE Driving Standards Agency, responsible for publishing the booklet designed to help learners pass their theory test, has been compelled to issue correction notices after discovering more than 20 errors in each of the 120,000 copies of the manual sold since April.

Among other slips, candidates are misinformed about how far you should stay behind a lorry in wet weather and who is allowed to supervise learner drivers.

CAR thieves could be about to face a powerful new deterrent.

Security-coded paint may become standard on all new models, giving each car its own chemical signature. A stolen car could quickly be traced to its owner. Altering a car's identity would mean removing every molecule of original paint.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Willson, Quentin
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Aug 14, 1998
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