Was it Mr Norris, formerly a minister and latterly would-be mayor of London, whom I first read of as insisting that the three As of automotive luxury — automatic gearbox, air-conditioning, arm-rest — are in fact necessities? Now that I share it, I suspect this view is symptomatic of middle- age (commonsense, in other words), although in the light of Mr Norris's recent attempts to acquire a perpetual mayoral headache it may also be symptomatic of a softening of the brain. It wasn't only this, though, that prompt- ed me to test an automatic, air-conditioned Toyota Landcruiser Colorado (minus arm- rest, which is unfortunately an extra). Unlike most motoring correspondents, I enjoy four-wheel-drive vehicles but even I continue to be surprised by how long the fashion is lasting. An alleged 5 per cent of all new registrations are now four-wheel drive, but the school carpark in the rural area where I live suggests it must be around 30 per cent in some parts. As we all know, most of these expensive exotica are never driven off-road. If you want to see vehicles that are you have to go to farm sales where, transporting the buy- ers of distressingly cheap livestock and puz- zling still-expensive deadstock (farm equipment), are dozens of muddy, bat- tered, ageing Land-Rovers. I know one farmer who drives a new Colorado, vari- ously claiming that it pulls a full livestock trailer with no noticeable effort and that he has `heard' that with all the seats down in the back it's 'good for a bunk-up' (I must ask his wife), but even he has a Land- Rover as well. Most new Mitsubishis, Jeeps, Toyotas, Discoveries and whatever seem to be driven by middle-class women in their thirties and forties.
Why is this? After all, most cars are easi- er to manoeuvre and cheaper to buy and run. They also look less like boxes on wheels. Fashion is certainly part of it. These vehicles occupy roughly the status niche that Volvo estates used to occupy, seemingly unassailably — safe, capacious, reliable and middle class. And they are safe, despite the claim that they're three times more likely to overturn in an accident (largely because their centres of gravity are higher but also because they're more likely to be towing). Whatever you hit will proba- bly be smaller, lighter and well below you, and the mass and size of your vehicle usu- ally means you'll be better protected. Also, visibility is good, being above most other drivers makes for more relaxing driving (albeit that it can make you look arrogant) and, in these ever more regulated days when you can no longer cram in children any old how, many four-wheel drives are genuine seven-seaters, with diagonal belts.
They're comfortable, easy to get in and out of and have plenty of room for super- market shopping. Their high boxy shapes, so abhorrent to those who like cornering fast, are fine for those whose interest is more in getting round the corner safely and, anyway, boxiness contributes to the sense of security. There's no doubt that many more people would buy them if they weren't so expensive.
But, if you are in the market, should you buy the Toyota Colorado, priced from £21,129 to £34,445, or — say — the Mer- cedes competition, the new M class, priced from £31,780 to £42,640? The Mercedes will feature in next month's column but if you can't wait till then you won't go far wrong with the Colorado. It is some motor. Big — though it is baby brother to the mas- sive Amazon — and very high, it neverthe- less rides smoothly while holding the road firmly. The driving position is upright and slightly bus-like, which I greatly prefer to the semi-recumbent lift-your-thighs posi- tion enforced by some manufacturers.
The 3.0 litre diesel, allied with the very discreet four-speed automatic, accelerates with less effort than any other four-wheel- drive diesel I've driven, though at a com- bined mpg of 23.9 it's not the most frugal. Nor — surprisingly for Toyota — is it par- titularly quiet. It doesn't have the familiar diesel knock so much as a sort of lawn- mower sound, more evident on tickover than when you're motoring. It's not a prob- lem, but you are at first aware of it. The 3.4 petrol version is doubtless quieter, certainly even more powerful, and, with a combined mpg of 20.0, a little less economical. The trouble is, you can't find them — I know someone who's been fruitlessly searching for a one- or two-year-old model for about two months.
There may be no four-wheel drive that matches the latest Discovery in interior lay- out and design, but the top-range VX Col- orado I tested was acceptable in that department, with fittings that looked and felt as if they would never come off in your hand. In fact, reliability is what Mr Toy- ota's products are most famed for; there is said to be a desert (allegedly the Gobi, which seems to be the fashionable desert these days) in which Toyotas are the only vehicles permitted, while some 75 per cent of four-wheel-drive vehicles in Australia are Landcruisers. If you're brave enough to attempt a circumnavigation of the M25, the Colorado will probably hack it.
Me? I'd have it, but I'd like even more its bigger brother, the Amazon. Then there'd be no room for anyone else on the M25.