The Good: Gorgeous inside and out, sporty handling, butler Jeeves navigation voice
The Bad: Fuel economy, questionable reliability, front headrests
The Bottom Line: An attractive new addition to the stately Land Rover stable
It's always been a wonder that for die-hard environmentalists General Motors' (GM) Hummer has been the de facto mascot for reckless automotive excess. Without a doubt, the Hummer's Army roots, sheer size, and no-holds-barred machismo make it the perfect love-to-hate behemoth. But why not hate Land Rover instead?
After all, not one of the three models now being offered by the British brand—along with Aston Martin, Jaguar, and Volvo, a division of Ford Motor's (F) Britain-based Premier Automotive Group—manages to break the 20-mile-per-gallon fuel-consumption mark. Like Hummer, Land Rover vehicles have a venerable military history—though under the Queen's command rather than Uncle Sam's. And, with global reach and genuine off-road prowess, Land Rovers are more likely to be treading on hallowed rainforest ground or crawling over endangered dunes.
Obviously the key differences that have provided the Brits some cover are stylistic rather than substantive. But, even the company's latest offering, the Range Rover Sport, which is aimed squarely at conquering the performance-minded luxury market rather than Welsh farmers or humanitarian aid workers, deftly avoids the vulgar excess of the Hummer. The Sport wraps its heft, masculinity, and brute-force powertrain in landed-gentry looks and elegant-but-restrained luxury.
Better still, the Sport—priced between the entry-level LR3 and top-end Range Rover—has been a runaway success for the company, a rare glint of sunlight in Ford's otherwise gloomy sales picture. After its introduction as a 2006 model, it quickly joined the best-seller chart. Since January, the company has sold an impressive 8,578 Sport models. Compare that with 8,537 LR3s and 5,718 Range Rovers. Overall sales of Land Rover vehicles are up nearly 22%, to 22,853 cars, vs. 17,871 sold during the same period last year.
My test Sport stickered at $63,550, including the $715 transportation fee. On top of the base $56,535, the test vehicle included a $3,000 luxury interior package that provided premium seats (heated in the front and back), heated washer jets, adaptive headlights, and whiz-bang chilled icebox in the center console. Let's not forget the $400 phone system, $2,500 rear seat DVD entertainment system with two liquid-crystal-display screens in each headrest, and $400 satellite radio.
The Sport's exterior dressing takes a page from the higher-end Range Rover's distinguished book, though the car is based on the less-expensive (and newer) LR3 platform. Comparing the two, the Sport has wing-shaped air grills rather than the much-discussed shark gills of its more expensive sibling. The Sport's pinched rear end gives the car an appreciable forward motion—as if the front end were lifting up slightly as the back wheels kicked into gear—to the Range's upright, proper citizen stature. Same story for the front grill. In short, as advertised, the Sport looks sportier.
More important, embattled auto execs everywhere should pay attention and case study the model. This is the kind of design and technology cross-breeding that works, merging visual cues from the upper end with a platform from the entry level. Of course, it doesn't hurt that there was a Range Rover Sport-sized hole in the company's lineup waiting desperately to be filled. Sure, some might criticize the tactic as too much LR3 underneath and too much Range Rover on top. That would be legitimate if only the Sport didn't look so darn good and sell so well.
As you might expect from a heavy-duty sport utility vehicle with Land Rover pedigree, this Range has a lot of heft to carry around with it: a considerable 5,468 pounds to be exact (5,670 for the supercharged version). Luckily, the 4.4 liter, 300 horsepower V8 underhood does a good job of carrying the weight even if it is the least powerful base engine in its peer group.
The driving isn't quite the giddy experience of rocketing around in a Porsche Cayenne Turbo, but it certainly doesn't feel sluggish. A supercharged version is available if peppier pickup is desired. Steering, meanwhile, isn't as tight as SUV offerings from BMW or Porsche, but it's plenty good. Braking performance is truly amazing giving the car's sheer mass. All in all, this version of the sport performs as advertised, though there's admittedly some room for improvement.
Notably, the Sport can tow up to 7,716 pounds, significantly eclipsing similar offerings from Volvo, BMW, and Mercedes.
Inside, the Sport is classic Land Rover, combining Indiana Jones utility with James Bond elegance. Buttons are thick and rubbery, but feel good to the touch. The wood-lined door sills are, simply put, beautiful. In fact, it's my personal favorite door treatment in any luxury car available today. The low-gloss finish not only stands out noticeably, but makes the wood actually look like what it is rather than a sanitized, i.e. boring, interpretation of the material. The look is elegant and reminiscent of the finest detailing found on high-end yachts.
The 550-watt, 13-speaker Harman/Kardon stereo is also a welcome touch. The speakers did well with material ranging from Tchaikovsky to Tupac, though—I admit it—with the gangsta-tinted windows, the latter won out. Fittingly, the bass response is astonishing, leading to more than one instance of blatant subwoofing. (For the uninitiated, that's the practice of sitting in one's ride, blasting the stereo, windows open. The process is acoustic potlatch, illustrating the quality of the built-in sound system to neighbors and passersby.)
Despite all the talk of performance, this is still a Land Rover. That brings with it a host of back country capabilities. Electronic air suspension allows the vehicle to rise and lower, depending on driving conditions. In off-road mode the suspension can raise the car an additional 2.17 inches to aid in clearing obstacles. Hill descent control allows the car to slowly creep down steep hills without slipping.
The center console-mounted controls—a thick wheel lets you choose your terrain including snow, mud, sand, and rock-crawl—are very cool and unobtrusive. Wading through the options makes you feel like you've paid for something real, in contrast to the hollow prestige of other luxury cars. Whether you're likely to use all that technology is another matter.
For lack of malaria-infested bogs or hot-as-hades deserts, I took the Sport to the most treacherous environment I could find: a nearby dump on a hot day. Rowdy dust-kicking at a New Jersey landfill doesn't begin to test the capabilities of a vehicle that can wade through 27.6 inches of water and has a 34-degree approach angle.
Nevertheless, on well-compacted gravel and sand (O.K., and a few small trash heaps), the Sport remained as sure-footed as you'd expect, the 4x4 system underneath mocking my attempts to coax it into action. On the plus side, the garbagemen—who got out of their tractors to get a closer look—commented on what a fine-looking vehicle the Range was before politely asking me to leave.
Just before returning the vehicle to the manufacturer, I pulled up next to a bling-laden Hummer H2 in a Manhattan garage. As my eyes met the other driver's, I couldn't help but feel sorry for the guy.
LATE TO THE PARTY.
Undoubtedly, the Range Rover Sport is a worthy vehicle for many reasons beyond smug superiority. There's a lot of competition in this category these days and Land Rover is fairly late to the party. But, its offering is fun to drive, sharp-looking, comfortable, and overwhelmingly capable off road.
It also indicates that if car companies build well-made, aesthetically pleasing cars, customers will buy them. Now if only Ford, which has just hired a consultant to explore the possible sale of Jaguar and other strategies to help pull itself out of its beleaguered state, could inject the rest of its product lineup with a little of the Range Rover Sport's DNA, then maybe it could stop hemorrhaging cash and market share.
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