Most car manufacturers strive to create the ideal conditions for the drive programs where media first get behind the wheel of a new car. Sunny, blue skies, gentle ocean breezes, mild temperatures. Smooth, uncrowded roads, nice and twisty ones if you're unveiling a sports car, perhaps not so serpentine if you're introducing a family sedan. The point is to set the stage to best show off your new product. Having just returned from Morocco, where we drove the all-new, 2013 Range Rover, we can tell you that Land Rover, being Land Rover, chose a different path to launch its range-topping SUV. A rocky, muddy path awash in ocher-colored water it was, with nary a ray of sunshine in sight. Yep, it's the rainy season in Morocco, and we were right in the thick of it in our fleet of mud-encrusted 2013 Range Rovers.
Design and Brand Heritage
Truth is, for the past 42 years, the Range Rover has proven its mettle in the harshest climates and worst road conditions the world has to offer. From Paris-Dakar Rallies to Camel Trophy slogs through swamps, rain forests, and deserts, Range Rovers and their Land Rover brethren have established an enviable brand identity that's all about heritage, British resolve, continuity, capability, and clever engineering. If the term "adventure vehicle" is in your dictionary, there's a line drawing of a Range Rover next to it.
The recipe for the Range Rover that debuted in 1970 -- combine the rough-and-ready off-road capability of the Land Rover with an upper-class aesthetic that speaks of remote country estates, hunting dogs, tweed jackets, and Scottish moors -- has remained as unchanged and unswayed by the passage of time as Queen Elizabeth. Her Majesty has loaded more than a few Corgis into Land Rovers and Range Rovers herself over the years, and one imagines that she might find special favor for this all-new, fourth-generation, 2013 Range Rover. After all, as Land Rover Design Director Gerry McGovern points out, the new vehicle sheds the rigid, overly square, Germanic lines of its immediate predecessor, which was designed and engineered under BMW ownership in the late 1990s and went on sale in America in 2002. The new Range Rover has a more feminine and more British countenance, its rounded shoulders and clean lines as painstakingly shaped as one of McGovern's hand-tailored suits. Not that the 2013 Range Rover is a dramatic visual departure from its predecessors. It must, McGovern maintains, be immediately identifiable as a Range Rover from a distance, and indeed it is. The new model's roofline is slightly less than an inch lower than before, the vehicle is slightly longer overall, and the rear tapers slightly inward in what McGovern calls a "boat tail effect." But it's a Range Rover, from any angle.
Engineering Goals for the 2013 Range Rover
Alex Heslop, the 38-year-old chief program engineer for the new Range Rover, tells us that he was tasked with meeting three primary goals when developing the new model: 1) to rid the vehicle of a lot of weight; 2) to create far more commodious and comfortable rear-seat room; and 3) to retain the Range Rover DNA. (Interestingly, Heslop practically has Rover in his own DNA: his paternal grandfather started working at Rover in the late 1930s, and his father apprenticed at Rover in the 1960s before working at Jaguar for many years. When Heslop started his own career right out of university in 1996, he landed at Jaguar.)
All-Aluminum Construction is Lighter, Stronger
Jaguar pioneered the use of bonded and riveted aluminum unibody construction a decade ago in the last-generation XJ sedan, and those same methods are being used for the Range Rover in its new, state-of-the-art production plant in Solihull, England. The first all-aluminum body structure -- both the underlying space frame and the body panels are aluminum -- for a sport-utility vehicle results in an incredible weight savings of some 700 lb for a U.S.-spec V-8 model, representing a 39 percent reduction from the previous steel model. "Our cost structure for aluminum versus steel is very low," Heslop, a native of Solihull, says. "We started engineering this in 1998 and producing it in 2003 [for the XJ]. This experience and expertise is one of the reasons the Tata Group purchased Jaguar Land Rover [from the Ford Motor Company]."
The new Solihull plant's production processes use a significant amount of recycled aluminum, and although most of it is from closed-loop production processes, one wonders if there are a few Guinness beer cans melted into the Range Rover's body panels. Company officials take pains to point out that the aluminum body structure is stronger than an equivalent one made of steel, and that the new Range Rover far exceeds stringent U.S. rollover standards. The Range Rover's one-piece body side panel, which comprises the front and rear fenders plus the doorframes, is the world's largest single aluminum stamping for a car and weighs only 15.4 pounds. McGovern says that the aluminum trim that runs along the lower body sides is a deliberate nod to the "internal structure of the vehicle."
Carryover Powertrains but Improved Performance
The 375-hp, 5.0-liter V-8 that's shared with Jaguar and was in the last-generation Range Rover carries over, as does the 510-hp, supercharged version of it. (Range Rover brand aficionados will recall that the first few years of production of the outgoing model used a BMW V-8, since that generation was engineered when BMW owned the Rover Group, before selling Land Rover to Ford. The Jaguar V-8 came on-stream in 2005 and has since been enlarged and reengineered extensively.) Both engines are now mated to the increasingly ubiquitous ZF eight-speed automatic transmission, which can be controlled either by a circular knob that rises from the center console like the one in the Jaguar XF and XJ or via steering wheel paddles.
According to Range Rover, the 0-to-60-mph time with the base V-8 drops by 0.7 second, to 6.5 seconds, due to the lower curb weight. The Supercharged model now gets the job done in 5.1 seconds, an improvement of 0.8 seconds. Fuel economy is likely to rise by 8 or 9 percent, but EPA figures have not yet been established. The outgoing model's EPA figures are 12/18 mpg for both engines. Sadly, we still don't get a diesel option, even though Range Rover offers both V-6 and V-8 diesels in other markets.
A New Level of Interior Comfort
A decade ago, the third-generation Range Rover established a new benchmark in sport-utility interiors. No automaker before then had managed to apply vast expanses of supple leathers and beautifully crafted wood veneers quite so tastefully and expertly in an SUV cabin. The overall effect was a stunning aesthetic success, but Land Rover's design team has managed to raise the bar again. The visual backbone to the interior is a wide, wood-paneled center console that is not overly cluttered with switches and controls. The instrument panel is equally clean and appealing, and somehow the dashboard looks substantial without being too tall or deep to easily look over. Scottish firm Bridge of Weir supplies all the leather, and, predictably, it's good stuff and available in a wide array of colors and pipings. The top-of-the-line, $130,950 Autobiography model has special aniline leather that is even softer to the touch; the cows that donated those hides did so not in vain.
Most secondary functions are controlled via the latest version of the Jaguar Land Rover touchscreen system in the center stack, and although we've not been fans of this particular interface over the years, it seems to react more quickly to fingertip inputs than it used to. Primary instruments are electronically displayed in a 12.3-inch screen behind the steering wheel, as in the Jaguar XF and XJ. Range Rover developed an all-new climate control system that it claims will work effectively from negative 22 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit.
A 1.7-inch increase in wheelbase allowed the Land Rover design team to carve out a generous 4.7 inches of additional rear-seat legroom, and the rear seatbacks can be manually reclined by 7 degrees. The seats themselves sit a little lower than before, and the rear-door opening is slightly larger, which makes it easier to clamber inside the cabin. An optional "individual" seating package replaces the 3-passenger rear bench with two wide, sumptuous captain's chairs flanking a wood-veneered center console with available refrigerator box that essentially is a continuation of the center console between the front seats. With 9 degrees of power-recline, a dedicated multi-zone climate control system, plus, of course, headrest video screens, the second row of the Range Rover becomes the equivalent of a business class cabin. An available, huge panoramic moon roof stretches over it all.
There are three available stereo systems from Meridian, a British maker of premium audio components whose technical director, in a promotional Range Rover video we were shown, sniffed that his company has a lot in common with Range Rover because "we're British, we're high end, and we obsess over the details." The top-of-the-line Signature Reference setup boasts 1700 watts and 29 speakers. It sounded great, with incredible clarity and tone, but we are starting to wonder how far premium automakers can take their horse race for one-upping each other in wattage and speaker counts.
Off-Road, Where a Range Rover Belongs
It goes without saying that the 2013 Range Rover is equally at home inching along the Continental Divide as it is inching along Santa Monica Boulevard, even if most Range Rovers sold in America are far more likely to be seen doing the latter. The all-wheel-drive system still includes a low range, and a new version of Land Rover's Terrain Response system removes virtually all of the guesswork from how to best take advantage of the vehicle's abilities. Terrain Response 2 is able to switch automatically between the five settings: General; Grass/Gravel/Snow; Mud/Ruts; Sand; and Rock Crawl, or you can still manually select the setting you prefer, manually select low or high range, and manually raise and lower vehicle height via the air suspension.
Departure and approach angles both have been increased over the previous model, and Land Rover engineers were able to reposition the air intake for the engine along the lower edge of the clamshell hood, thus raising fording depth from 27.6 inches to 35.4 inches. We drove through some pretty nasty standing water on some flooded roads near Marrakech, but it wasn't anything that Mercedes diesel taxicabs weren't taking in stride.
Over the Dunes, Through the Creek beds, and Up the Atlas Mountains We Go
It was wet in Morocco, very wet. A layer of red clay soil seemed to be washing over the entire countryside, roads were flooded and seemingly disintegrating before our eyes, and the off-road trails that our Land Rover hosts had laid out in the dunes and rocky creek beds on the Atlantic coast near Essaouira were challenging enough to require multiple spotters. Conditions were changing rapidly due to the hard, driving rain. Truth is, we were in the midst of two environments: the harsh external one and the calm, serene, ultra comfortable one inside our Range Rover Supercharged Autobiography. Lacking rain apparel, we were quite happy to stay behind the wheel and do our very best not to get stuck and have to climb out into the driving rain.
We needn't have worried. We selected the Sand setting in the Terrain Response system, hit the low range button, and easily slithered up and down dunes thick with wet sand. Give it some gas to get to the top of a dune, brake slightly as you start down the crest, and then feet off the pedals as you go down. Easy peasy. The Range Rovers looked so at home in the stark beauty of the dunes. We were certainly at home in the cabin. The fully revised, all-independent suspension with adaptive damping provides 10.2 inches front and 12.2 inches rear wheel travel, enabling the Range Rover to climb over obstacles that would stymie lesser SUVs. What was really noteworthy was not only how utterly unfazed the Range Rover was at any off-roading challenge it encountered, but also by how little its occupants were jostled or tossed about in their aniline leather thrones. Most of the time, we could have been sipping Twinings Earl Grey tea without spilling any into the saucer.
On Pavement, It's a Luxury Sedan
The night before we drove the 2013 Range Rover, Land Rover executives boldly claimed that the new Range Rover should be able to conquest sales from the Mercedes-Benz S-class, the BMW 7-series, and the Audi A8. (They conveniently didn't mention that it could also cannibalize them from the Jaguar XJ.) After driving the vehicle, we have to admit that they have a point. The new vehicle is so quiet, so refined, so comfortable, and so luxurious, especially when fitted with the captain's chairs in the second row, it could effectively take the place of both an SUV and a luxury sedan in one's garage.
Driving a Supercharged Autobiography down the Atlas Mountain range toward Marrakech, on a rare stretch of twisty road that was both well paved and unflooded, was a bit of a revelation. This was where the Range Rover's weight loss was most evident, and where the Range Rover instantly transformed itself from off-roader to sport sedan, demonstrating a level of surefootedness, body control, steering precision, and brake pedal response that are a new frontier for the brand. Sure, the BMW X5 and the Porsche Cayenne drive really well, too, but they just don't feel as good or as light or as easy to toss into corners. On the freeway outside Marrakech, the feeling of lightness intensified when we hit the gas at 70 mph and made a quick, furtive burst to 100 mph (there are radar cops everywhere in Morocco). Acceleration was startling.
A Fitting Flagship for an Expanding Brand
Design chief McGovern is justifiably proud of his new flagship, which follows on the heels of the extremely successful launch of the Evoque, at the other end of the Range Rover spectrum. There's a lot of room in the lineup between the two models, and McGovern promises that it will be filled with at least a couple versions of an all-new Defender by 2015. The Range Rover Sport, which doesn't feel remotely sporty now that we've driven the new Range Rover, is also due for a re-do. McGovern and his colleagues are coy about the prospect of a three-row, seven-passenger Range Rover model, pointing out that the Land Rover LR4 capably serves that clientele, but one might surmise that a future Defender would have more than five seatbelts in it. McGovern is adamant, though, that the range-topping Range Rover will not succumb to the three-row trend: "A Range Rover is a selfish purchase, an indulgence. It's not for hauling kids." Amen to that.
2013 Range Rover
On Sale: December 2012
Range Rover: $83,500
Range Rover HSE: $88,500
Range Rover Supercharged: $99,950
Range Rover Supercharged Autobiography: $130,950
5.0-liter V-8, 375 hp, 375 lb-ft
Supercharged 5.0-liter V-8, 510 hp, 461 lb-ft
8-speed automatic transmission
Brakes 15.0-in front Brembo discs, 14.3-in rear vented discs
19-, 20-, 21-, & 22-inch wheels
Length x width x height 196.8 x 81.6 x 72. 3 in
Wheelbase 115 in
Track front/rear 66.5/66.3 in
Approach angles (standard height/off-road height) 26.0/34.7 degrees
Departure angles (standard height/off-road height) 24.6/29.6 degrees
Ramp breakover angle (standard height/off-road height) 20.1/28.3
Wading depth 35.4 in
Turning circle 12.3 ft
Drag coefficient 0.35
Curb weight (V-8/Supercharged) 4850/5137 lb
Cargo volume (under luggage cover/behind 2nd row/behind 1st row) 19.4/32.1/71.7 cu ft
Performance: (manufacturer provided, V-8/Supercharged)
0-60 mph 6.5/5.1 sec
Top speed 130/140 mph