LOOKING for the safety of four-wheel-drive, but don't want, don't need or can't afford one of the premium SUVs, then an all-wheel-drive estate is the perfect answer for country folk.

Here, we give a review of three of the newest serious contenders ...

Ford Mondeo 2.0-litre TDCi AWD

The Mondeo might be as ubiquitous as the proverbial chip, but don't discount it purely as a 'rep-mobile' – it is a seriously good motor.

The mechanics include the well-proven 2.0-litre diesel engine – which in this tune is 178bhp – but the new angle comes from its use of what Ford calls its Powershift transmission, which is basically a six-speed semi-automatic transmission. It's a pretty good match and lets you concentrate on the driving and it handles almost anything you can throw at it, though it was a little annoying over bumps.

The intelligent all-wheel-drive system is fairly standard in this type of car, but it really does give the car a good grip and that 'I am safe' feeling.

On paper, it is a little less quick off the mark than the standard two-wheel-drive model, being heavier and having to move power to two extra wheels, but you'd be hard-pushed to spot the difference and it still gets under 10 seconds for the 0-62 timed run.

It also has a fuel use penalty of 10mpg less because of all that. That said, it's as frugal as many small cars on the road with a 55mpg (combined) figure, which I would say was pretty near achievable under normal driving conditions.

In the ST-Line spec that the test car came in, it costs £4400 more than the standard version, plus the test car had a host of optionals – like Active City Stop, Active Park Assist, adaptive LED headlights, a powered tailgate, and a reversing camera – all of which added £2300 on top of the standard ST-Line price. That meant the bill for the model tested would be nearer £35k, than the £31,295 standard price when an extra £550 is added for the upgrade to 19-inch alloys.

The ST body styling kit gives it a distinctive look, though – both inside and out. And it is a big car inside, with tonnes of room in the back seats. From a practical point of view, putting the rear seats down opens up a veritable vista of space to fill – more than 1600-litres-worth to be exact – and it is rated to tow 2.2 tonnes. A detachable tow bar is available at £600 extra cost.

Volvo V90 Cross Country

IN TERMS of the 4 x 4 estate market, Volvo is very much the ageing progenitor – but the major facelift of its smart V90 estate means it's very much 'up there' again at the head of the pack.

So, the V90 Cross Country is the fourth generation of its type and it retains the higher stance over the more normal estate – by quite a stone-clearing 65mm higher than the standard and 80mm higher than the sportier R-Design.

It also carries the styling of the older models designed to fend off chips and mud, with the sills, wheel arches and the lower parts of the doors getting mouldings to protect them from damage. Underneath, there's also skid plates at the front and rear to give added chassis protection.

So, in many ways the Volvo is more suited to light off-road stuff than the Ford. Safety is always catered for in Volvos and this one has Hill Descent Control, larger door mirrors and and an off-road drive button.

Though there's a petrol engine available, the only real options are two diesels based on the same two-litre engine – either the D5 at 232bhp or the one fitted to the car on test, the 187bhp D4.

On the road, this is a pretty solid citizen and that's definitely helped by the £1500 optional extra 'Active Four-C Chassis'. This does what it alleges in the name – have active damping at all four corners, with steel springs at the front and air suspension at the back.

While that adds to the poise on the road, it also works pretty well soaking up the bumps when off-road. It's quite a tour de force from Volvo in this car.

Inside, there's also acres of space – this is a BIG car – but it is quite refined too. I liked the 12.3-inch touch-screen instrument display (an option at £400).

That said, you'd have to be big music fan to make the most of Volvo's Sensus Connect system matched to a Bowers and Wilkins audio system as a £3000 extra.

As in the standard V90 – a former Scottish Car of the Year – the interior is well constructed with quality soft touch materials, comfortable leather seats with power adjustment and heated.

Unlike a few other brands, though, it's disappointing that Volvo will bill you £300 for smartphone integration. These things are pretty much standard fare on all cars nowadays, large and small, so to find that you might have to pay for such a thing on a £40k car is just not on.

The stats say that on the 'combined' EU test, it will hit 54.3mpg, but unlike the Ford, that does not appear to be achievable and a mid-40s figure was all I could muster.

On the more practical side it was a surprise that the big Volvo was not as big in the luggage department than Ford, with 1525 litres available with the rear seats down. It's towing capacity, though, was better at 2.4 tonnes.

Vauxhall Insignia Country Tourer

WHILE this isn't Vauxhall's first stab at a 4 x 4 estate, it didn't make much of a song and dance about it before.

But with the new Insignia, an all-wheel-drive version is seen as a pretty key model in the line-up.

The new model Insignia is streets ahead of the model it replaced in terms of driveability and refinement, and this semi-off-road version is a pretty good contender when set against the Ford and the Volvo.

Vauxhall has added just 20mm more underbody clearance in the Country Tourer when set against the standard model and so it handles not that much differently from the more normal car. But that might not be enough to fend off a bit of bottom scraping on more 'country' roads.

The Country has just one choice of engine at the moment, a 168bhp two-litre turbo-diesel and it's a pretty smooth unit. But you can have a six-speed manual gearbox or an eight-speed automatic.

This version scores pretty highly in interior space, with the best luggage space (with the rear seats down) of the three models in this report of 1640 litres capacity.

Inside the new Insignia, it is impressive. It looks more premium brand than just about anything in this sector, with a stylish dashboard wrapped around a nifty eight-inch touch screen, leather sports seats, more head and leg room for rear seat passengers and a host of nice touches.

It's pretty easy to buy, too. A standard version is below £28,000 and you'd be hard-pushed to need many more options to add than the impressive line-up included in that.

Of the three tested, though, it has the worst 'official' combined mpg of 47.1. In the real world, it would be hard to get much more than 40mpg, so on paper it looks more expensive to run, even given that it is 200kg lighter than its predecessor. That said, the 0-62mph dash can be done in just 8.4 seconds and that's pretty quick for a big estate.

Another downside is that it is only rated to tow 1850kg, so that will dent its practicality for quite a lot of rural buyers.