The Sport looks sportier than either the purposeful LR3 or the stately Range Rover and those looks are not deceiving. It is, in fact, spirited, sporty, and relatively agile. And while it offers impressive off-road capability, it's designed as an on-road vehicle comfortable cruising at high speeds and negotiating crowded urban streets.
As its name suggests, the Sport's emphasis is on handling. Its design supports this.
The Range Rover Sport is built on a shorter wheelbase than the LR3 and Range Rover. Though all three share the same basic structure, the Sport stretches just 108 inches from the front to the rear wheels compared with 113 inches for the other two models. And while the LR3 and Range Rover offer seven-passenger seating, the Sport seats five people.
The Sport falls between the LR3 and Range Rover from a pricing standpoint, also. The $58,000 Sport costs $20,000 less than the full-size Range Rover, and about as much as a fully loaded LR3.
The Range Rover Sport was all-new for 2006. Land Rover has made no changes since then, except to add more standard equipment each year.
New for 2008 are standard power folding exterior mirrors, an eight-way power-adjustable front passenger seat, power tilt-and-telescope steering, and some new interior trim and materials.
Land Rover Range Rover Sport HSE ($58,225); Range Rover Sport Supercharged ($71,675)
The Sport is based on the Land Rover LR3, but the Sport is two inches shorter than the LR3 in overall length; and the wheelbase of the Sport is shorter by more than five inches. It's not as tall, by three inches. The width of the two differs by less than half an inch and the track (the distance between the left and right wheels) is identical to that of the LR3.
Appearance-wise, the Sport looks similar to the top-of-the-line Range Rover, though it's built to a slightly smaller scale. Only the most discerning and trained eye will notice the hood is mostly flat, missing the full-size Range Rover's longitudinal humps running along the top outer edges back from the headlights. 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. The most noticeable difference is the windscreen and backlight (rear windscreen) are faster, or more raked.
Because, other than striking a slightly more rakish pose with its rounder, more tapered lines, the Sport contains all the major styling elements of the full-size Range Rover. The compound headlight clusters are indistinguishable. And the grille finishes are similar, 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. The tachometer has no redline, leaving drivers dependent on the Sport's computers to coordinate engine speed and gear selection with terrain idiosyncrasies (not that you'd normally be revving high off road). 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. 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. We found the head rest a bit intrusive. More vehicles are coming this way in an effort to reduce the chance of neck injuries in a rear-end collision. Reclining the front seat a bit lessened the discomfort.
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 most interior measures, the Sport fits between the more utilitarian LR3 and the better-appointed but tighter-fitting Range Rover. The Sport's front seat offers less leg and headroom than the LR3, but more legroom than the Range Rover and about the same headroom. The Sport's rear seat headroom is also less than in the LR3, but about the same as in the top model; and legroom is the same as in the LR3 but more than in the Range Rover.
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.
Off-road capability is aided by its impressive suspension articulation and angles of approach, ramp break-over and departure. It doesn't offer quite the amazing capabilities of the Range Rover or LR2, but 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.
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 ride quality of the low-profile tires was a bit harsher over rough and broken pavement. These issues hurt the Supercharged in stop-and-go traffic.
For our money, we'd choose the Range Rover Sport HSE. If our budget allowed the Supercharged model, we'd spring for the full-size Range Rover. But that's us.
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 avoiding upshifts mid-corner. In CommandShift mode, it matches engine and gear speeds during shifts. Its outstanding attribute is the ability to do the same thing when it's downshifting in automatic Sport mode, or under heavy braking, to affect a virtual double-clutch, electronically syncing engine and gear speeds to smooth the change. We experienced something similar in the full-size Range Rover Supercharged, but the Sport's system responds more readily, quicker and more crisply.
The Dynamic Response Suspension, or DRS, similar to the system on the BMW 7 Series, monitors steering angle and horizontal acceleration to anticipate when the Sport will lean in a corner. Using hydraulic motors powered by an engine-driven pump, it then stiffens the stabilizer bar at each wheel at the precise moment the Sport starts to lean. It works, as we proved to ourselves on quick runs down winding, two-lane roads outside Moab with and without the system. With DRS, it felt like the Sport was lifting its wheels just enough to keep everything on an even keel. Not to worry, though, the Sport doesn't remain perfectly flat to the limit of adhesion through corners. The engineers realized this could get inattentive or over-confident drivers into trouble. Once the lateral force reaches about 0.4g, the system allows a bit of body roll. The system decouples off-road so as not to restrict suspension articulation.
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. Our preference is for the HSE model.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard drove Range Rover Sport models in Aspen, Colorado, Moab, Utah, and Carmichael, California.