Four decades later, Rhinoceroses are still rarely encountered in upmarket suburbs; whereas comfortable, competent, even sporty SUV-like vehicles such as the BMW X5, Cadillac SRX, Infiniti FX, Mercedes-Benz M-Class, and Porsche Cayenne frequently are. And competition from these vehicles, more than the occasional large horn driven angrily through an aluminum door, constitutes the biggest threat to Land Rover's territorial dominance.
So just last year (2006) Land Rover released the all-new Range Rover Sport: Spirited, sporty, agile, with a snazzy look. (OK, maybe not all that snazzy, but for a Range Rover, it's snazzy.) And frankly more comfortable on the road than off.
Range Rover Sport also plugs a gap in the Land Rover model range, between the full-size, hyper-expensive Range Rover and the entry-level, family-friendly LR3. Range Rover Sport is in fact built on a mechanical platform derived from the LR3, but with a shorter wheelbase that emphasizes handling over seven-passenger capacity. Sport also costs a solid $20,000 less than the full-size Range Rover, but only about $4,000 more than a fully equipped LR3.
New for 2007: Standard equipment levels are improved with the addition of a Personal Telephone Integration System with Bluetooth capability, and one-touch power window operation at the front passenger's position. The Dynamic Response System, exclusive to the Supercharged model last year, is now available (along with Brembo disc brakes) on the HSE. Supercharged Sports now come standard with Sirius Satellite Radio; and with a choice of Line Oak or Cherry interior wood, Lux or Sport leather, and standard or Stormer 20-inch wheels.
Range Rover Sport HSE ($57,235); Range Rover Sport Supercharged ($70,535)
Although nominally based on the Land Rover LR3 (formerly known as the Discovery), the Sport is smaller on the outside in all but width, and that by less than half an inch. The Sport is more than two inches shorter than the LR3 in overall length; its wheelbase is shorter by more than five inches. 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 (rear windscreen) 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 movie 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 optional 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 Range Rover, 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, the Sport fits where it logically should, offering almost 20 fewer cubic feet than the much more upright LR3 but less than four fewer than the 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 chassis 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. These issues hurt the Supercharged in stop-and-go traffic.
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 highway speeds, the 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 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.
Braking is more than adequate, much better than older Land Rovers, for which a couple of marmots scurrying across the road on a pass above Aspen should be 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, especially now that the HSE can be ordered with the excellent Brembo brakes and Dynamic Response suspension. The engine, the air suspension and the tires play their part, but sharing top billing are the transmission and the aforementioned Dynamic Response System (DRS).
The transmission adapts to a wide variety of driving styles, from the sporty to the laid back. When it senses a heavier foot on the gas and high cornering loads, it heads toward the sporty end of the spectrum, downshifting more readily and a
The Range Rover Sport retains the superb off-road capability for which Land Rovers are legendary, but delivers on-road performance as good as or better than the luxury-utility competition.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard drove Range Rover Sport models in Aspen, Colorado, Moab, Utah, and Carmichael, California.