THE MUD was behind an ornate brick gate in a ritzy section ofFairfax County. The sign on the gate said the property was for sale, soI decided to explore the grounds -- a huge, hilly, tree-covered lotbordered by streams and littered with the detritus of illegal dumping.

Initially, I took the path most traveled, a narrow strip of slop andleaves that wound through trees, moved uphill and ended at a plateauwhere someone had discarded worn, wooden furniture. I gently maneuveredaround the remains of nightstands and headboards and drove downhill inthe 1994 Land Rover Discovery.

At the base of the first path was another uphill strip, off to theright. It looked less-used and more forbidding, and it was, but notenough to deter bravado from overriding common sense.

I turned the Discovery onto the second path and went uphill a fewclicks before sinking into mud. For several minutes, I was stuck there,alone, wheels spinning in murky oblivion. I shifted the Discovery'stwo-speed transfer case to "four-wheel low," and tried again. Thevehicle's wheels seemed to sink deeper into the mess, but the Discoveryslowly moved forward until it was free. Getting off that path meantdriving farther uphill to another clearing, turning around and goingthrough the deep mud again. I did this successfully, and left the lotwondering about progress and poverty and the wealth required to developsuch a place.

Background: In the world of passenger cars, there is Mercedes-Benzand everything else. In the world of sport-utility vehicles, there isLand Rover and everything else.

But the problem for Land Rover is that most people don't know howgood its vehicles really are -- not because of the cost of thosemachines, but because most owners of sport-utility models never use themthe way they were intended to be used.

Generally, on pavement, all sport-utility vehicles are equal. Itreally doesn't matter, in that circumstance, if you buy a Jeep GrandCherokee, Isuzu Trooper, Toyota 4Runner, Ford Explorer or ChevroletBlazer.

But off-road is something else. That is where the virtue of LandRover shines through, as evidenced by the competence of the newestmember of that line -- the Discovery, a compact sport-utility vehiclecomparable to the top versions of the Trooper, Explorer and Cherokee.

Standard on the Discovery are full-time four-wheel-drive with atwo-speed transfer gearbox ("high" and "low") employing a manuallylocking center differential. Also standard are side-door beams, dualfront air bags, a five-speed manual transmission and four-wheel discbrakes with four-wheel, anti-lock backup.

A four-speed automatic transmission is optional, as are the two rearjump seats in the tested Discovery.

The standard engine is a 3.9-liter V-8 rated 182 horsepower at 4,750rpm, with maximum torque set at 232 foot-pounds at 3,100 rpm.

Complaints: Ticky-tacky stuff, such as poorly joined interiormoldings on the Discovery's rear pillars, a jiggly left sideview mirrorand an occasional "stuck" problem with the power lock on the left-rearpassenger door -- things that should have no place in a vehicle of thisquality.

Praise: Stunning overall quality, especially in drivability andoff-road competence. Despite its few cosmetic fit-finish problems, theDiscovery is one of the toughest, most agile sport-utility vehiclesavailable.

Head-turning quotient: Whiplash power! Credit that raised, rearceiling with its skylight windows. People came from everywhere to askabout the thing.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Boffo triple time, especially in therough. None of that tilt-willies stuff evident in other compactsport-utilities off-road. Credit the Discovery's suspension system,equipped with long-travel coil springs up front, coiled springs in therear, and dual-acting hydraulic dampers and anti-sway bars front andrear.

Braking was very good, but you've gotta give yourself adequatestopping distance in this one. The Discovery weighs 6,019 pounds!

Mileage: About 15 per gallon (23.4-gallon tank, estimated 341-milerange on usable volume of premium unleaded), combinedcity/highway/off-road, occasionally running with up to seven occupants.

Sound system: Six-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette and compactdisc (mounted under driver's seat), installed by Land Rover. Very nice.

Price: Base price is $28,900. Estimated dealer's invoice is $23,000.Price as tested is $35,200, including $5,675 in options and a $625destination charge.

Purse-strings note: Options include such stuff as Connolly leatherseats and dual electric glass sunroofs, neither of which has anything todo with drivability. Drop 'em, and cut the cost of getting into one ofthe best sport-utility models ever.