The concept: push the brand-new Range Rover Sport to the limit to see if it raises the bar for high-performance sport-utility vehicles.The plan: slog through the muddy and hilly English terrain, where the car’s off-road capabilities were honed; blast through northern Europe with a pit stop at the old Spa-Francorchamps grand-prix circuit; then flog the car around the Nrburgring, where the Range Rover Sport learned its on-road manners.The problem: snow in England, snow in France, snow in Belgium, and snow in Germany. “I think maybe your timing could have been better,” Wolfgang Schuhbauer allowed politely.
Schuhbauer runs the test center that Jaguar maintains at the Nrburgring’s Nordschleife, the fearsome racetrack that was Formula 1’s greatest challenge until Niki Lauda was flambed there in 1976. At the moment, the circuit is knee-deep in snow, and the famed Flugplatz-where cars vault off the ground-looks like a ski jump. “You could go out on the circuit,” Schuhbauer said doubtfully. “But I think maybe you wouldn’t come back.”
Wait a sec. Aren’t we talking about a Land Rover? This is a company that prides itself on building the world’s ultimate go-anywhere, do-anything SUVs. Even the top-of-the-line Range Rover, luxurious enough to impress the most jaded Beverly Hills valet attendant, could conquer the Nordschleife without breaking a sweat.
But the Range Rover Sport is a new breed of Land Rover that deviates sharply from the company’s traditional values. Its hallmarks are comfort, agility, and on-the-road performance. Like the 4.8-liter version of the BMW X5 and the Porsche Cayenne, the Range Rover Sport isn’t an SUV so much as it’s a fresh take on the grand-touring machine.
Given half a chance, the folks at Land Rover drone on and on about how the Range Rover Sport has more off-road chops than any of its rivals, which is factually correct but a bit like bragging that you’re the world’s funniest mortician. Better to think of the car as a handsome, brawny sport-sedan alternative with a 385-hp, supercharged V-8 that allows it to gobble up endless miles at speeds fast enough to scramble a squadron of California Highway Patrol troopers. Call it Land Rover’s sporty-utility vehicle.
In the United Kingdom, Land Rovers long have been regarded as British Jeeps, only more so-more capable and more prestigious, equally at home in war zones and polo paddocks. But Americans never have known quite what to make of them. Bel Air grocery getter? Rap-star posse hauler? Luxury mud-bog crawler? The Range Rover Sport promises to be all of the above-and more.
Ever since the current Range Rover debuted, Land Rover has dreamed of complementing it with a downsized derivative offering sportier performance. As Jeff Maranhas, brand manager for the U.S. market, puts it: “The Range Rover Sport was a product idea before it was a marketing equation.” But, despite its name, the Range Rover Sport shares virtually no components with its big brother. In fact, it’s built on the same platform that underpins the Land Rover LR3, although the wheelbase is six inches shorter.
Two versions of the Range Rover Sport will go on sale here in June as 2006 models. The base HSE features the same Jaguar-sourced 295-hp, 4.4-liter V-8 found in the LR3. But we decided to sample the high-line SC, which takes the LR3 engine, scales it down to 4.2 liters with cast-iron cylinder liners, and then pumps it up with an Eaton supercharger.
Photographer Martyn Goddard and I took delivery of the car-Land Rover officials blanch visibly if you call their steeds trucks-at Eastnor Castle in southwest England. Besides being the Land Rover proving grounds, this is also the home of the Land Rover Experience driving school, just the ticket for off-road loonies-oops, we mean enthusiasts-whose idea of fun is a two-day class in winching techniques.
There’s no missing the family resemblance between the Sport and its siblings. The common DNA is clearly seen in the headlight clusters, the horizontal grille, and the “floating” roof. But the Sport is less boxy and far flashier, with bad-boy twenty-inch wheels (in the SC) and boy-racer side vents. The short front overhang, the long rear overhang, and the roof spoiler emphasize the sporty character.
The interior design and components come mostly from the LR3-and the Ford parts bin. But instead of the traditionally blocky SUV architecture, the Range Rover Sport features a wraparound cockpit that envelops the driver in a well-appointed ergonomic cocoon without inducing claustrophobia. And while Land Rover maintained its so-called command-position driver’s seat, it’s noticeably lower and offers more lateral support than the wide-body high-altitude numbers found in most sport-utes.
Shortly after (gratefully) climbing into our heated leather saddles, Goddard and I encountered our first challenge: water hazards large enough to merit proper names and lifeguard stands. No problem. Unlike a lot of SUVs with macho names and steroidal styling, the Range Rover Sport is more than an off-road poseur, and it crawled unflappably through, over, and around every type of terrain Eastnor Castle had to offer.
The car benefits from Land Rover’s unique body-on-ladder-frame construction. In contrast with many off-road wannabes, the Range Rover Sport is equipped with a transfer case containing high and low gears, and you can shift between them on the fly. Power is routed to all wheels all the time through three dif-ferentials, two of which (center and rear) are fitted with electronically controlled limited-slip devices. The normal torque split is 50/50, but both diffs lock automatically when conditions warrant, and you can lock them manually if you think you’re smarter than the onboard computer. The status of the diffs-green for open, red for locked-is displayed on a spiffy screen shared by the navigation system.
The driver also can adjust ride height-2.1 inches up or down-with the flip of a rocker switch. This levitation act is possible because the car rides on an electronically controlled air suspension rather than conventional steel springs. These air springs are a critical component of the Range Rover Sport’s “Terrain Response” system.
Set in the center console is a pop-up knob adorned with nifty icons that allows you to shift to any of five driving styles: normal, grass/gravel/snow, mud and ruts, sand, and rock crawling. Changing the setting adjusts ride height, damper valving, throttle response, and the calibration of the stability control, traction control, and antilock braking systems. There’s also a hill-descent system that uses the ABS to control downhill speeds.
Speaking of hills, we saved the best-make that the worst-for last during our visit to Eastnor Castle. From the bottom of a veritable mountain of slurpy mud and killer ruts, it seemed there was no way we’d make it to the top. After all, the Range Rover Sport rides on an independent suspension, with unequal-length control arms front and rear, which isn’t optimal off-road gear. Not to worry. In off-road mode, the antiroll bars electronically decouple to allow the wheels to articulate, and with rocks clanging harmlessly off the skid plates, we climbed the hill like a billy goat.
After conquering Eastnor Castle, we hightailed it for the Chunnel. In the pelting snow, the picturesque twisties were clogged with dawdling traffic. With an electronically limited top speed of 140 mph, we figured we ought to be able to make like Schumacher carving through backmarkers. But 385 hp isn’t all it’s cracked up to be when you’re motivating a sport-ute rather than a muscle car. Even with the supercharger whining, the Range Rover Sport didn’t flatten us against the backs of our seats. (Land Rover quotes a 0-to-60-mph time of 7.2 seconds.) Don’t forget: we’re talking about a vehicle weighing nearly three tons.
Although the Range Rover Sport never felt ponderous, we were always aware that it was packing some serious mass. This sensation was particularly noticeable under braking. The SC features four-piston Brembos visible through the spokes of the stylish front wheels. (Ventilated discs are standard all around.) The brakes are aggressive-maybe even too ag-gressive-at low speed. Then again, they’re calibrated to provide the confidence you crave when you’re screaming along the autobahn at a buck twenty and change.
Leapfrogging traffic gave us plenty of chances to enjoy the ZF six-speed automatic. The requisite normal and sport settings are fine and dandy. But shifting manually is a revelation. Most manu-matics are slushy abominations. But in manual mode, the Range Rover Sport produces nearly instantaneous upshifts and crisp downshifts, aided, in the SC, by a throttle blip. Shifting manually was so effective and rewarding that we resolved to do it all the time.
We eventually slogged through England and France to the Ardennes Forest of Belgium. Spa-Francorchamps is the most challenging stop on the modern F1 calendar, this despite the fact that nearly all of the most daunting parts of the original circuit are no longer used. Well, they’re not used for racing, anyway. But since they’re public roads-one lane each way, with unforgiving stone buildings serving as turn-in and track-out points-we were able to drive our Range Rover Sport in the tire tracks of Fangio and Caracciola.
The stretch from Burnenville through the Masta Kink was too heavily trafficked for any hooliganism. But the “Oh my God!” right-hander just before Stavelot was empty, as was the long uphill stretch leading back to the new circuit, so we treated this section as our private racetrack. Paradoxically, the faster we went, the smaller the Range Rover Sport seemed, and as the speedo inched into triple digits, it felt less like an SUV than a refined sport sedan.
The speed-sensitive steering is nicely weighted and provides excellent feedback through massive contact patches-low-profile 275/40VR-20 tires developed by Continental. Designing the tires to handle moderate off-road duty demanded some compromises, most notably a speed limit of 140 mph. But the tires are remarkably capable on the pavement, especially in the wet. Snow and ice, unfortunately, are a different matter, so we had to behave ourselves.
As you might expect of a vehicle carrying so much weight on its nose, the Range Rover Sport understeers on corner entry. But it’s never a pig, and there’s always ample torque-406 lb-ft at 3500 rpm-to dial out the push with the throttle. Better still-and this is the most impressive thing about the car-there’s virtually no body roll. The secret? Hydraulic motors powered by an engine-driven pump that adjust the stiffness of the antiroll bars in response to cornering loads. The computer also modifies the stiffness of the air springs to enhance compliance over bumpy roads.
We were dying to check out the Range Rover Sport at the Nordschleife, where Schuhbauer and his colleagues tweaked the handling during thousands of laps around the original ‘Ring. “If it works here,” he said, “it will work on any road surface in the world.” But driving on the old circuit is verboten, so, just for fun, we did a few laps of slow dirt-tracking-uh, make that snow-tracking-around the new grand-prix course.
We had some time left for a quick blast on the any-speed-goes A1, where we made a surprising discovery. We already knew the car cruised with perfect poise at 80 mph. But it was even better at 100 mph and better still at 120, seemingly loafing along and tracking straight and true. Even maxed out at 140, the Range Rover felt as if it were riding on rails.
The train metaphor seems especially fitting, because the supercharged car accelerates with the seamless power of a locomotive. Clearly, the Range Rover Sport is optimized not for stoplight-to-stoplight drag races but for high-speed, high-style, long-distance touring-with an occasional detour for rock climbing or a champagne picnic in some hard-to-reach paradise.
Whatever your pleasure, the car will be stuffed with luxury appointments. Satellite DVD navigation and a Harman Kardon Logic 7 surround-sound digital audio system are standard; a twin-screen DVD player is optional. Prices will be $56,750 and $69,750 for the HSE and the SC, respectively. That pits the HSE against a base Cayenne S or the X5, while the SC lines up against a fully loaded S and undercuts the Cayenne Turbo by a chunk of change. Of course, if off-roading isn’t in your future, then a sport wagon is a sensible alternative.
Ironically, the Range Rover Sport’s own brothers promise to be its most serious competition. The LR3 seats seven, whereas the Range Rover Sport manages only five. Then again, the more trucklike LR3 scratches a different itch. So the real sibling rivalry will be with the Range Rover. The Sport isn’t as practical or as elegant, but it’s arguably more stylish and offers better performance.
So, if you don’t need the extra room, the Range Rover Sport gives you all the prestige of the Range Rover-at about a $20,000 discount.
Price: $69,750 (SC, as tested
Engine: 4.2L DOHC V-8, 385 hp, 406 lb-ft