Those shoppers have found some competent vehicles, some of which are actually fun to drive. The BMW X5, the Cadillac SRX, the Infiniti FX, the Mercedes-Benz M-Class, and the Porsche Cayenne created a new market: SUV-proportion vehicles that are also sporty, with ride and handling abilities previously unheard of in off-road capable vehicles, and luxurious in trim and features, to boot.
Land Rover has hit this highly competitive, high-price market with two new products for 2006: The Range Rover Supercharged is a full-size Range Rover with the most powerful engine ever in a Land Rover. But it isn't really intended for flicking through a set of esses on a favorite two-lane road.
The 2006 Range Rover Sport has a similar name, but it's a different vehicle. Built on a smaller platform derived from the Land Rover LR3 but with a thoroughly reworked suspension and a unique but instantly recognizable body, the Sport is everything, well almost everything, the Range Rover Supercharged wants to be but isn't. Spirited, sporty, agile, with a snazzy look; OK, maybe not all that snazzy, but for a Range Rover, it's snazzy. It's also something the LR3 doesn't want to be: a Range Rover that's more comfortable on road than off.
Not only does it fit between the LR3 and the full-size Range Rover in terms of form and function, but it also nicely splits the different in price. It's priced about $20,000 under the top Range Rovers and $10,000-$20,000 over comparable LR3s.
Range Rover Sport HSE ($56,085); Range Rover Sport Supercharged ($69,085)
Although nominally based on the Land Rover LR3 platform, the Sport is smaller on the outside in all but width, and that by less than half an inch. Its wheelbase is shorter by more than five inches. The Sport is more than two inches shorter than the LR3 in overall length. It's not as tall, by three inches. In one significant measure, it's identical to the LR3, and that is its track, the distance between the wheels from side to side, which is also less than an inch narrower than the taller and longer top-of-the-line Range Rover.
Appearance-wise, the Sport so closely resembles the top-of-the-line Range Rover that it's like the Disneyland version of Main Street: It looks just like the real one built to a slightly smaller scale. Only the most discerning and trained eye will notice that the hood, or bonnet, as they call it on the other side of the pond, is mostly flat, missing the full-size Range Rover's castellations, those longitudinal humps running along the top outer edges back from the headlights. Or that the windscreen and backlight are faster, or more raked. Or the presence of understated side skirts, front air dam and rear spoiler. Maybe the front quarter panels' side vents are more obvious, being closely patterned after the LR3's and in stark contrast to the Range Rover's vertical louvers.
Because, other than striking a slightly more rakish pose with its rounder, more tapered lines, the Sport contains all the major styling elements of its full-size kin. The compound headlight clusters are indistinguishable. The grille finishes are alike, with the HSE's a matte gray and the S/C's a bright metallic. The roof gets the marque's trademark floating look, achieved by blacking out the roof pillars. A similar character line runs the length of the body side, but with the door handles positioned beneath it to reinforce the Sport's lower profile. Taillights repeat the larger Range Rover's stacked look, only not quite as tall and with the elements staggered from the vertical. And just like the full-size Range Rovers, the Supercharged Sport has chrome-tipped dual exhausts in place of the HSE's bare, single exhaust.
The dash top, instrument cluster and steering wheel are direct transplants from the LR3, right down to the stacks of cruise control buttons and redundant audio controls next to the thin, vertical, metallic horn buttons along each side the airbag cover in the steering wheel hub. Curiously for a serious off-road vehicle, the tachometer has no redline, leaving drivers dependent on the Sport's computers to coordinate engine speed and gear selection with terrain idiosyncrasies. Although the center stack structure lays back at a more ergonomically friendly angle than the LR3's, the switches, knobs, buttons and display screens are the same as the LR3's, too, which while plentiful, are fairly easy to decipher. The four dash-top vents are shaped differently, but located in the same positions, belying the shared, behind-the-scenes framework. The navigation system's display is recessed in the dash at the top of the center stack and accessible to both front seat occupants.
The seat contours are more defined than both the LR3's and the full-size Range Rover's standard accommodations, although the seat bottoms could be deeper and provide more thigh support. More pronounced bolsters in front add lateral support, and the rear seat's softer cushions render it less bench-like than it looks; we appreciated this over a several hour drive from Aspen, Colorado, to the smooth red rock around Moab, Utah. Infinitely adjustable, inboard arm rests in front ease long droning, interstate drives. The head restraints could be better, however. The positioning of the front-seat head restraints favors the back seat watchers. To ensure the best viewing experience, the head restraints, which double as housings for the video screens, are fixed in a vertical plane; in other words, they're adjustable only up or down and cannot be angled forward or backward. The way I like the driver's seat configured, in placement fore and aft, height and seatback angle, the head restraint blocked me from holding my head upright, forcing me to lean it forward. This awkward angle was literally a pain in the neck. Reclining the front seat a bit lessened the discomfort, by allowing me to hold my head upright. Still, this work-around left me wondering why, in a vehicle this expensive, I should have to be the one to compromise.
Also, and as with their counterparts in the full-size Range Rover, the large head restraints block much of the forward view for rear-seat passengers. A panel of auxiliary jacks for the entertainment system is set into the rear of the front center console, along with the levers for the rear seat heaters.
In all interior measures, the Sport returns mixed comparisons. The front seat offers less legroom than the LR3 but more legroom than the top model, and it offers less headroom than either. Its rear seat headroom is less than the LR3 but about the same as the top model, and legroom is the same as the LR3 but more than the top model. In cargo space, it fits where it logically should, offering almost 20 fewer cubic feet than the much more upright LR3 but less than four fewer than the top Range Rover. Save for cup holders, of which there are but two, protected by a sliding cover in the front center console, incidental storage is decent. The nifty little cool box packaged with the Luxury Interior option fits in the cubby in the center console aft of those cup holders and chills small beverage bottles and snacks. The front doors have two map pockets, the rear doors, one. Pouches for magazine and headsets are stitched into the backside of the front seat backs. The bi-level glove box's upper element doubles as a CD rack. Atop this, a divided tray for odds and ends fills the space between the air conditioning registers.
For this, credit the suspension engineers' unwavering commitment to such measures as suspension articulation and angles of approach, ramp break-over and departure. Yes, it trails its kin in almost every measure, the LR3 the most. Still, we climbed rock faces nearing a 45-degree gradient with minimal tire slippage, thanks to the all-terrain traction control. Dangling a wheel in the air while crossing fields of boulders upset neither us nor the Sport. Hill Descent Control worked its magic on slopes ranging from loose gravel to slippery silt. The biggest obstacle we faced over an afternoon of serious off-roading was our reflexive tendency to interfere with the various terrain-sensing systems.
What impressed us is how well the Sport comports itself when the going gets paved. Both engines come from Jaguar, so urban and exurban refinement is presumed. The automatic transmission is sourced from Aston Martin, noted for high-performance polish. Land Rover, Jaguar and Aston Martin are owned by Ford Motor Co. and share technology.
Tooling around Aspen, the HSE, with its naturally aspirated V8, felt more comfortable, more at home, than the Supercharged. Throttle response in the HSE seems more linear, shifts more subtle, the ride more compliant. The Supercharged seems occasionally to catch the transmission off guard, as if the transmission isn't quite sure what the engine wants by way of managing the gear shift. Throttle tip in, too, was sometimes a bit more aggressive than we wanted, making difficult a calm acceleration from a stop. The lower profile tires' ride is a bit harsher over rough and broken pavement.
Both the HSE and the S/C account well for themselves on the interstates, even when pushing the posted limits more than just a little; at highway speeds, the air suspension automatically lowers the Sport one inch, lessening drag and stabilizing the ride. At legal speeds, the road speed-sensitive assisted steering feels a tad light, with not as much on-center feel as we like. Cranked up to seriously extra-legal rates of travel, though, directional stability improves markedly. The high seating position makes for good visibility over other vehicles and down the highway; on the run from Aspen over toward Utah, and although our radar detector had already warned us, we saw the trooper several seconds before brake lights lit up around us. The adaptive cruise control works as promised; the Sport maintains your choice of one of four programmed following ranges, which are based on time, not distance, slowing perceptively but not obtrusively as the gap to followed vehicles closes, then gently building speed when the road is clear. No, the system won't slam on the brakes if it senses impending doom and you're too busy chatting on the cell to notice, but it will sound an alarm to get your attention. Stopping power is more than adequate, for which a couple of marmots scurrying across the road on a pass above Aspen are eternally grateful. There is, however, more dive under braking, and squat under acceleration, for that matter, than we expected with a suspension as sophisticated as this one.
Range Rovers have never been known for their prowess on winding, two-lane back roads. No longer, at least in the Sport. And this holds for both the HSE and the S/C, although the latter is the preferred choice when the interstate ends. The engine, the air suspension and the tires play their part, but sharing top billing are the transmission and the aforementioned new Dynamic Response System. As do many of today's higher tech automatics, the transmission adapts to a wide variety of driving styles,
As accomplished, and as world-renowned, as Land Rover is in building rugged, go-anywhere passenger vehicles, times change. So must the best. And so must Land Rover, or at least so its management and owners believe. Thus, if the company wants to be a player in the full spectrum of the sport utility market, it must put more emphasis on sport, an attribute it hasn't emphasized in the past. The full-size, 2006 Range Rover Supercharged was the opening gambit. The smaller, more agile Range Rover Sport may well be the Ace in the hole.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Tom Lankard drove the Range Rover Sport in Aspen, Colorado, Moab, Utah, and Carmichael, California.