REVIEWS: The Land Rover LR3 faces the Cadillac SRX

October 7, 2004
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One day a few years back, an SUV engineer somewhere was sitting in his office daydreaming, when suddenly a Suburban rear-ended a Porsche 911 outside his window, and he caught a glimpse of the unified mess of metal. It hit him. "Hey, guys," he proclaimed, "why don't we take one of these stupid trucks and make it really fast?" Thus was spawned the too-tall-to-be-a-wagon but too-fast-to-be-an-SUV segment of the market that is now home to the Infiniti FX45, the Porsche Cayenne Turbo, the BMW X5 4.8, and the Cadillac SRX. Things apparently move a bit slower in England; in an attempt to go where everyone else is leaving, Land Rover's new LR3 offers a traditional formula: lots of weight, lots of utility, and little gas mileage or agility. The completely new Discovery replacement promises the off-road prowess that Land Rover has come to represent, but can it escape the tractor like ride and poor reliability of the outgoing Disco and compete with modern offerings? On the other hand, is Cadillac falling short on utility for the sake of handling and speed? Or has one of these companies mixed the ingredients just right to serve up a delicious vehicle?
Cadillac SRX
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In a Cadillac TV commercial, a man is driving his SRX in complete silence until he stops and allows the sound to catch up to him. While this may be a bit of a stretch, the SRX V-8 is scorching fast for an SUV-and, indeed, it can hold its own in almost any company. Our test car was mysteriously free of the heavy "Ultraview" sunroof that provides five square feet of open-air scenery, despite the fact that this sunroof is allegedly standard. Did GM send us a ringer? We considered strapping an intern to the roof to compensate for the missing weight, but liability issues quashed that idea.
Much of the SRX's athleticism can be traced to its Sigma architecture, also used in the Cadillac CTS and STS. Complementing the exceptional chassis is a four-wheel independent suspension with load-leveling rear shocks. And if the standard SRX isn't agile enough, Cadillac offers Magnetic Ride Control, which uses a magnetized fluid to provide exceptionally responsive damping. Good body control and a smooth ride really do coexist with this suspension, but it is available only as part of the $6920 Luxury Performance package, which also includes a third-row seat, a trailer hitch, navigation, XM satellite radio, a rear-seat entertainment system, and HID headlamps. Combined with all-wheel-drive, the package pushes the SRX to a heart-stopping $59,650 (a base V-6 costs just under $40,000). That's a lot of cash. But, when mated to Cadillac's outstanding Northstar V-8 (in its first all-wheel drive application), the SRX does offer a driving experience unmatched by any other seven-passenger sport-ute and on par with some sport sedans. Combine the prodigious performance with a commodious interior, and the price looks almost reasonable.
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With big wheels, thin tires, and a suspension focused toward on-road performance, the SRX is, needless to say, a poor performer on gravel. Where the LR3 is smooth, quiet, and sure-footed, the SRX is loud and jittery. With the exception of a lakehouse driveway or an emergency orange-peel delivery to the soccer field, though, we feel most SRX buyers will be unaffected by this small issue.
In this otherwise superb vehicle, the SRX's interior is its one fatal flaw. In comparison with the beautifully chiseled exterior and amazing dynamics, design and material quality inside the cabin are disappointing. Cadillac's interior vehicle designer, Michael Burton, claims the interior has "rich, inviting materials, a precise, easy-to-use layout and fine workmanship." While the layout is indeed lovely, materials-especially switches and plastics in the doors and dash-are poor, and the burled walnut trim molded into improbable shapes left us wondering if it is actually wood. The touch-screen navigation system and stereo were enjoyable, and despite the extra weight, the massive sunroof we've experienced in other SRXs is a desirable feature. But in a class as competitive as this, it takes more than a giant hole in the roof to make an interior memorable.
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Land Rover LR3
M5: hit. H2: miss. G35: hit. LR3: you've sunk my battleship. With its new Discovery replacement, Land Rover has joined the crowd of manufacturers turning automotive naming into a children's board game. What is so exciting about a few numbers and letters thrown together, anyway? The new name distances the LR3 from the Discovery's poor service record, but whether it really is more reliable remains to be seen.
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Once you get past the name game, the new LR3 is a refreshing change. It all starts with Land Rover's new "integrated body-frame" structure, which blends the structural benefits of a frame with the refinement of a unibody. The result is a truck that is both refined on the street and tough off-road. Land Rover borrows an eager 4.4-liter V-8 from Jaguar and it almost makes this monster feel light on its feet. Almost. In the design department, Land Rover tried to modernize the rugged look of the Discovery, but the result is questionable. We feel it looks like the front of a cheap Range Rover knockoff fused to the rear of a Dodge Sprinter delivery van. The flat, square design simply isn't executed quite as well as its older Range Rover sibling.
Our take on the LR3's cabin is mixed; get out of a Range Rover, and the LR3 feels like a cheap knockoff, but get out of a Cadillac SRX and you'll think the LR3 is opulence epitomized. If Land Rover (now owned by Ford) hasn't equaled the BMW-designed Range Rover, it has at least put together a pleasant interior.
If the LR3 has one thing going for it, though, it's features galore. For those looking to explore, these include terrain response with five different settings for different road/trail conditions, hill decent control, on- and off-road navigation (off-road offering elevation, latitude and longitude, and a breadcrumb trail to retrace your path home), and an air suspension with three settings for loading, road driving, and trail driving. We enjoyed playing with the suspension system at stoplights, as it made us feel like part of an old Snoop Dogg video--if only there were a setting to make the LR3 drive on three wheels. Safety features include electronic traction control, dynamic stability control, and optional adaptive headlights, which aim where the wheels are turned.
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Along with all that technology, Land Rover offers fun features, too. An optional 550-watt Harman Kardon stereo is available for audiophiles, although individual controls for each passenger could lead to bored children fighting over what track to listen to. While there is no panorama roof available, every LR3 features a sunroof and two fixed glass "Alpine" roofs in the back, offering plenty of opportunity for stargazing. Other handy interior features include a middle seat that can be converted to a table and coolers built into the sides of the optional third-row seating.
All those features do have a downside: the LR3 weighs a scale-shattering 5796 pounds. That's nearly 1500 pounds more than the SRX and 200 more than Cadillac's much larger Escalade. Although the LR3 is quite refined and much nimbler than its predecessor, all that weight and a tall body make the truck much less agile than the SRX. Despite having 300 hp, it feels like a big, heavy brick on wheels, which it is. We're surprised by the lack of wind noise at highway speeds given the boxy design.
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The Cadillac SRX and the Land Rover LR3 come from two completely different schools of thought. With the soul (and chassis) of a sport sedan, the SRX offers an agile, exciting driving experience with minimal frills but minimal people space (adults should consult a chiropractor before attempting a third row seating maneuver). The LR3 represents the other end of the SUV spectrum with more tanklike architecture and as many toys as Land Rover could squeeze in along with real space for seven adults. If you're a gadget freak with $50,000 to spend and no need to get anywhere fast, the LR3 is a great vehicle. We pack lightly, and we prefer a sprint across the countryside to a slow crawl up a mountain any day of the week. The SRX remains our favorite mid-size SUV.

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