From Paris to Wick, to Wit

American Driver

The temperature inside Hall 1 at the Paris show was about 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Everybody had a different rumor, but one thing was clear: the air-conditioning was not working. Journalists with sweat dripping off the ends of their noses were clustered outside the doors like fourth-graders during a fire drill. The strategy was to duck outside for fifteen minutes, try to get your shirt unstuck from your back, then dive back into the building to see if you’d missed anything. Peugeot and Citron-the glory of France-were stuck between Ford and General Motors like tuna salad in a sandwich. Ford was introducing the second-generation Focus for markets outside the United States, and each of its captive brands (Volvo, Mazda, Jaguar, Land Rover, Aston Martin) was showing something of interest. GM was a beehive of activity all day, every day. What used to be the Opel stand is now a vast GM theme park, and it would appear that Opel benefits from that additional presence. The new Opel Astra GTC coupe is handsome and innovative and seemed very well received. The Cadillac display was so good that there must have been hot Parisian prospects online trying to buy gray-market Caddys by midnight on the first day of the show.

Generally speaking, the Paris show this year seemed to be whistling past the graveyard. There was no joy evident, even on the stands with the most action. A lot of people came from all over the world to see the show and wound up echoing Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” Could it be that the huge success of Detroit, Tokyo, and Frankfurt has simply sucked all the oxygen out of the international auto show circuit?

We didn’t hang around to find out. After a series of epic lunches and dinners with friends among the traveling automotive press, we left Paris for Wick, Scotland, where we’d been offered a couple of test-driving days in the new Land Rover LR3. After two years of being told that any large station wagon with all-wheel drive is a sport-utility vehicle, it was very nice to be back among people who still believe that SUVs should be able to climb Mount Rushmore and swim the Hellespont. After Paris, I needed a couple of days of deep mud and large boulders.

The LR3 replaces the Discovery, and it really is a whole new ball game. America’s car magazines had a fair amount of grief with the Discovery. It was a marvelous off-road vehicle but troublesome and unreliable. Our long-term test car (August 1996) was perhaps the most disappointing product we’ve ever tested. With that long and painful year in mind, we approached the LR3 with some healthy skepticism.

Our first impression was that the LR3 is far more like a Range Rover than a Discovery. It is more expensive than the Discovery, at about $45,000, and it competes with some pretty snazzy SUVs at that level, but I’d expect it to hold its own in any company. The innovative exterior styling includes some Range Rover jewelry and character, and the interior feels directly descended from the Range Rover. The seating position, the relationship to the controls, the actual feel of the seat are all Range Rover. This is important; the last time I drove a new Range Rover in Scotland, I wound up owning one.

We deplaned at Inverness and drove the LR3 from there to Wick in moderate but fast-moving weekend traffic. We traveled at about 75 mph. The new Jaguar-based 4.4-liter

V-8, with 300 hp and 315 lb-ft of torque, is the most powerful engine ever used in a production Land Rover, and it managed mountainous one- and two-lane roads with ease. The ZF six-speed manu-matic transmission is so sophisticated and logical in its ability to select the proper gear for a given stretch of country road that hand-shifting becomes redundant.

Then we went off-road. In the mountains near the town of Tongue, skirting the edge of a beautiful loch, we drove a rutted trail that included several stretches of a fast-flowing, rocky-bottomed stream. There were knee-deep ruts and sharp stones as big as doghouses, steep climbs and near-vertical descents, and we conquered all of it on the OE radial-ply tires. I only wish that all of those journalists who voted for the Porsche Cayenne as sport-utility of the year could have been there and attempted to follow us. And those eco-weenies who sneer and say that SUVs never go off-road? They’d have been welcome to water-ski across the mountain while tied to our bumper.

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13 City / 18 Hwy

Cargo (Std/Max):

NA / 87.4 cu. ft.