Dornoch, Scotland-- Scotland may be cold in January, but at least it's a wet cold. You can't do proper off-roading without that extra bit of pouring rain turning the rivers to raging beasts and the forest ruts to bottomless hobbit holes. Scotland must be seven-tenths water. It fills the firths to overflowing, comes cascading out of craggy outcroppings in torrents, runs straight down every road surface on this northernmost tip of the United Kingdom, and has you whipping your windshield wipers into a frenzy.
Just bloody beautiful. Pass the Glenmorangie--eighteen-year, preferably. It goes well with the haggis from Dingwall.
The national coat of Scotland is the waxed Barbour. The vehicle of choice is the 2003 Range Rover. At least, that's what it is today, because Scotland is where we are, and we are guests of Land Rover. In these gruesome conditions, we'd have it no other way. Gruesome is really the wrong word, based on our fierce love of gritty, off-road adventure. We like to plunge into raging rivers, pushing a bow wave as high as the car's hood onto the far shore. We live for the terror of sliding straight down muddy embankments and into pools of water of unknown depth in the dark. We thrill to the challenge of climbing--wheel by articulated wheel--through ditches and fissures and crevasses and ravines.
We especially like to do so in Range Rovers, because there is very little chance that we'll actually get any of those elements on us. Range Rovers always have been unstoppable beasts of upper-crust burden since the first was introduced by Land Rover in 1970. (This would be not counting the failure of the first-generation air suspension, that is.) Since then, there's been only one redesign, and it was in the spirit of the first--a fresh turn on the original theme of fusty country elegance. The queen in a babushka. When Bob Dover left Aston Martin to run Land Rover, his extremely chic wife, Tracey, was overheard muttering into her champagne: "Goodbye, Manolos; hello, wellies."
As it turns out, the skyscraper Italian stilettos got to stay, and the green rubber boots remained in the closet. This third Range Rover throws off its babushka, thanks to the brief interlude Land Rover spent under the BMW umbrella, where a key champion was Wolfgang Reitzle, then BMW's head of product development. Reitzle finished the job when he left BMW and joined Ford in 1999 and led Ford's purchase of Land Rover the following year.
There's no mistaking it for anything but a Range Rover, with that clamshell hood, split tailgate, and upright, grille-heavy front end. But the overall shape is sleeker (not to mention wider, longer, and taller), and the xenon headlamp clusters are positively New Age, as are the functional front-fender vents. Land Rover chief designer Geoff Upex led the British team, beating out two BMW studios to win the redesign job.
Looking around the smart, new, extra-roomy cabin (2.6 inches wider inside), it's hard to recall what made the last Range Rover luxurious, other than its price. Now, this--this is something else again. First comes the dash, a bold door-to-door sweep swaddled in thick parchment-colored leather, bisected by two striking pillars of cherry wood with a finish reminiscent of paste wax. The wood uprights frame the controls and display for the GPS navigation system above a pair of air vents, and pushbuttons, an analog clock (which magically synchronizes with the digital clock as it is set), and rotary climate-control dials are neatly clustered below. Wood veneer adorns lower door-mounted bins, and a huge cube of it surrounds side air vents on the outer dash edges.
"We wanted the look of a small Bentley," explains chairman Dover. "Land Rover never had an interior design signature. Now we've made it cool and chic and Norwegian. Or you can make it Teutonic by replacing the wood with metal." The most prominent souvenirs of its Munich masters are the beautiful gauges and finely articulated switches logically grouped around (and on) the telescoping, tilting steering wheel.
A soft wash of light from two slots in the ceiling continuously bathes the aluminum-accented shifter and its two attendant paddles (one engages Hill Descent Control, the other engages low range) for easy location during night driving. A pale glow illuminates the door handles and storage bins. Two days of Highlands driving--one spent entirely on boggy forest roads and rocky hillsides, the other in a 200-mile pavement dash from east to west--made us want to pack up the Range Rover's plush navy leather armchairs piped in parchment leather and ship them home for the family Suburban. Or maybe the family living room.
It was like being in a fabulous Riva boat. Or maybe I was just thinking Riva boat because, at the moment I was thinking Riva, the road plunged down an embankment and gave way to a fairly rapid river, and I had to gun the Range Rover's 4.4-liter BMW-sourced V-8 to carry some speed as I hit the water. We had been in Scotland about two hours, the first spent in a technical briefing held in a lovely, halogen-lit room with a beautiful wood floor, smack in the middle of a Royal Air Force aeronautical search-and-rescue base northeast of Inverness. Actually, the room turned out to have been built by Land Rover smack in the middle of an airplane hangar on the base. The sleek room's far wall slid open, and there was our test fleet parked in the dark, damp other half of the hangar. It was the first of many reminders of Land Rover's new battle cry: tough luxury.
Back to tough. Covering a goodly part of the sodden, private, 25,000-acre Novar Estate in a day was not a problem for a number of reasons. There was, as mentioned, the mighty strong 282-horsepower engine (borrowed from BMW's own X5), subdued slightly by the extra weight of this much stouter vehicle but still more than tough enough for our low-speed needs. (Despite an aluminum hood, front fenders, and doors, the new Range Rover weighs 414 pounds more than the outgoing model and 550 pounds more than an X5 4.4i.) The ZF five-speed ControlShift manu-matic transmission has a dual-range transfer case that now can be shifted with the flick of a finger while on the fly, provided you're not flying too high. The added security of Hill Descent Control is another welcome finger flick of a paddle away. At times, we were creeping down steep grades so slowly in super-low that I added gas.
Bigger news is Range Rover's switch to a monococque structure--a huge break from the body-on-frame construction of yore. Bending stiffness is radically improved, as are body-panel fits. Three subframes cradle the transfer case and front and rear suspension systems, now both independent. The air-spring system also has been redesigned to pillow off-road jolts and jounces more effectively. It still has the "kneel" feature that lowers the vehicle for easy entry and exit, but now you can initiate it before the vehicle rolls to a complete stop.
This new Range Rover is 1.8 inches taller and 9.3 inches longer than the old one, with 5.3 inches more wheelbase. Maximum ground clearance is greater than before (11.0 inches), it will tow more (7700 pounds), and it can snatch-recover a 12,000-pound load.
By late afternoon, the wind was howling badly enough across the barren hillsides that we switched on the heaters for seats and steering wheel and began the downhill battle. At the shore of Loch Glass, Land Rover had neatly parked a toilet trailer (with art on the walls and running water in the sinks) and a large, temporary glass house with wooden floor, cushy furniture, halogen lights, classical music, and an attendant who served tea and cookies.
"It wouldn't be nearly as useful without the hidden bank of generators," quipped Dover as he sipped his tea. Out of the woods at the property's edge, we were hailed by three guys with Land Rover Defenders and power washers who hosed down our Range Rover, checked its tires for gashes, and sent us on our way to town. Tough luxury, indeed.
And then tough was all finished. We arrived at our quarters, imposing Skibo Castle, built at the turn of the twentieth century by the world's richest man, Andrew Carnegie. Many stories surround this fabulous 7500-acre estate (down from 250,000 acres). But let me just say that you need to know a member (Dover) to stay there; a butler named James met us in the circular drive with a tray of single malts; a bagpiper played us awake each morning; black pudding (made of blood) was on my breakfast plate; there was a Burberry store in the dungeon, and they take American Express; and I got Madonna's bridal suite. There were no lost diamond studs under the bed; I checked.
The last thrashing we would give the Range Rover was the most obvious one, the test that has tripped it up for the past thirty years. We would drive it fast and hard, mostly on a single-track paved path through the wild Beinn Eighe national nature preserve along the 12.5-mile shore of Loch Maree, to quaint Gairloch and Poolewe on the western shore.
We set the navigation system (nice, but not as nice as the systems from Acura and Lexus) so photographer Tim Andrew wouldn't have to guide me. I was really looking forward to this day and not just for the six hours of mouth-gaping scenery.
Dover's boys had broken his golden rule: "Be modest. Under-promise and over-deliver." Not only did they claim the obvious high-dollar SUVs from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Lexus for competition, but they got carried away and insisted that a Range Rover would kick Mercedes S-class booty as well. A beautiful, controlled ride at highway speeds on pavement has never been the Range Rover's forte, so this would be some feat.
A feat that was not to be, actually. Let's just chalk that S-class talk up to a bit of overenthusiasm for the incredible level of refinement this off-road wonder has achieved. The steering is still a bit numb, although it is certainly better. You can crash the slick new air springs on bumps with the sort of rapid steering inputs you'd use in an emergency avoidance maneuver at 40 or 50 mph. During ordinary cornering sweeps, however, body roll is nicely controlled. Emergency Brake Assistance and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution lend great composure under heavy braking.
The heavens emptied, and I drove hard, finding the Range Rover faster overall but still a bit sluggish. The dual-range throttle is mapped for on- and off-road use. On the low road, pedal travel is long, mushy, and somewhat vague; on the high road, you have to push through a lethargic initial pedal to get to the engine growl. And that growl is tamer than the X5's. Says Dover, "There was no conscious decision to detune the engine sound. We spent a lot of time on engine and gearbox mounting, on the door seals (there are two), and on sound deadening. People think quiet cars are quality cars. This is the quietest 4x4 we can find." Will Ford be replacing that BMW engine with one of its own any time soon? "Don't hold your breath," says Dover. "It costs so much, with crash testing and so on, to do an engine. And we're very happy with the BMW engine."
As were we. We were happy with all of it, actually, S-class whipper or not. We came here looking not for a luxury sedan but for an extreme off-roader with better on-road manners than its predecessor. We found all of that, wrapped in exquisite raiment. It's modern, it's roomier, it's quiet, it's beautiful, and it works like crazy. The Range Rover will cost like it, too, but you were expecting that, weren't you? This should not be a problem, says Land Rover's marketing director, Matthew Taylor: "One thing all Range Rover buyers have in common is money. They have money."
They will need it. The Range Rover will hit our shores in June with a base price close to $70,000, topping out at about $80,000. (The first ones all will have the extra-cost bi-xenon headlamps, and a third of them will have the optional "contour" front seats.) Land Rover hopes Americans will want 11,000 of them by 2003. We'd call it a leadpipe cinch.