The Good: Tonka-meets-Bauhaus looks; off-road proof; gorgeous interior canopy
The Bad: Shamefully low gas mileage; vertical dash buttons can be hard to spot
The Bottom Line: A Mommy tank with genuine Daddy virtues underneath
Sometimes it's impossible not to love what's bad for you: fudge ripple, French fries, martinis, and, yes—even at $3.50 a gallon—gas-guzzling mega-SUVs with looks and class to spare. Land Rover's all-new LR3 carries on the brand's noble traditions of trek-worthy technology wrapped in haute-couture luxe. Unfortunately, this truck's fuel economy is plain sinful.
Never mind that. The press is smitten with the LR3. At a quick glance—and according to Land Rover corporate parent Ford (F)—it appears to have been last year's most decorated SUV. Indeed, its introduction unleashed a sea of "SUV of the Year"-type awards from the likes of Money, Road & Travel, and Popular Science, among many many others.
Internationally, the LR3 also enjoyed a loving spotlight, with publications from Britain to China fawning all over its striking geometry. Even the Texas Auto Writers Assn. ceremonially deemed it the "SUV of Texas," affixing once and for all a badge of genuine, American-approved roughness and toughness.
Buyers liked it, too. A welcome replacement for the aging Discovery, the LR3 quickly reinvigorated sales. In fact, since the beginning of the year, it's sold 9,954 units, making it the most popular model in the company's lineup.
Admittedly, that's down slightly from the 11,572 LR3s that Land Rover sold during the same period last year. But when you factor in the 9,832 additional Range Rover Sports (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/4/06, "Good Sport")—another new model based on the entry-level architecture—that's a lot of sales off one new platform.
My test LR3 certainly jibed with its all-star résumé. Land Rover lent me a fully loaded HSE model, which carries a base price of $52,985. That's quite a bit more than similar offerings from Acura, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen, though still less than BMW's V8 version of the X5. (It's also a lot more than the basic V6 LR3 that retails for $39,000.)
On top of that, the company threw in a $400 satellite radio; $1,300 cold climate package; $625 heavy-duty package; and $1,750 luxury package. The total package—i.e., the biggest power plant with every available option—rolls in at $56,475, with a $715 destination charge.
Behind the Wheel
The HSE trim line comes equipped with a 4.4-liter V8 underhood that delivers 300 horses, which Land Rover says gets the LR3 to 60 mph in just under nine seconds. Not bad for 5,426 girthy pounds. The automatic transmission is so smart and smooth that the Commandshift manual feature is irrelevant.
On urban jungle terrain, the LR3's ride is smooth even when attacked by fierce Manhattan potholes. The deeper pock marks on roads in the wilderness of suburban New Jersey were overcome with equal aplomb. It isn't the most precise steering available in the class by far, but the LR3 does corner confidently, if with a slight lumber. Braking is near-immediate and, overall, excellent.
Outside, simple geometry takes precedence over trendy elements common to the class. Andy Wheel, the LR3's designer, said recently that he was inspired by modern architecture when mulling the new shape.
Undoubtedly, the car's great looks have helped its success with customers and the press. The wheels are pushed deep into the corners, and the Discovery's classic stepped roof is still present. These details, along with the techno headlamps and minimal trim, distinguish it from anything else on the road.
While the LR3 may be a thing of a beauty, it is a hungry thing of beauty. Rated to get between 14 and 18 mpg, the LR3 is by no means the worst in its class. It's simply another gas guzzler, a particular shame given its ground-breaking looks.
There is a less thirsty V6, but it may not have the muscle to accommodate the LR3's weight.
That poor mileage is even more disappointing because the interior is such a success. Although not quite as fine as the Range Rover or Range Rover Sport, it's extremely comfortable and luxurious. The buttery leather seats are a particular pleasure. Thanks to well-designed folding seats and the cathedral-style open canopy, the LR3 is actually roomy enough for seven. Even the rear-most "stadium" seats are comfy.
The dash, while solid, is appropriately utilitarian—as one would expect from a brand that made its name creating vehicles designed to tackle the sands of the Sahara and the jungles of Burma. And, yes, there is no question this is a British car; it even comes equipped with a voice-command navigation system that speaks the Queen's English.
The 13-speaker, 550-watt, Harman Kardon-crafted system in the LR3 sounded slightly better to me than the massive audio of the more expensive Range Rover Sport. That could have something to do with the acoustic qualities of the cavernous cabin. With clear treble and rich bass, the sound is so good I suspect even Raffi will sound enjoyable in here, though P. Diddy's beats rumbled mighty pleasantly.
The LR3's can-do attitude extends, like its predecessors, off-road as well as on. The extensive list of serious 4x4 features, from the dial-activated terrain response system to progressive hill descent control, promises to turn the car into a dirty pretty thing, should you wish. After an initial gasp, the serious off-road community has heartily embraced the LR3, with a large number of third-party accessories making it to market—a good sign of acceptance among the hard core.
Buy it or Bag It?
All this real off-road capability only exacerbates the current crisis of conscience in SUV land. Yes, the LR3 can wade through malaria-infected swamps and scale snowy mountain peaks. But despite all its well-earned, off-road credibility, this is a wealth truck priced more for Southampton than the Serengeti.
That something so rugged should become a measure of luxury is one of Land Rover's smartest marketing achievements. In so many ways, this is a remarkable vehicle—from the standpoints of handling, ride, interior quality and comfort, and, above all, looks—but its poor fuel economy is still a nagging issue.
If you are in the market for a luxury SUV that sits seven, or run a high-end safari company, the LR3 is an obvious and well-considered choice. But if your driving needs are more mundane, or if you find driving such a gas guzzler unconscionable, you may want to look elsewhere. What we'd really like to see is Land Rover creating a hybrid or diesel version of its SUVs. Then there truly would be no obstacle they couldn't climb.
To see more of the LR3, click here for the slide show