The Aston Martin Rapide, Bentley Mulsanne, Ferrari FF, Land Rover Range Rover, and Roll-Royce Phantom are an incredibly diverse quintet, with priorities ranging from ultimate performance to overt opulence. However, one thing these high-end luxury vehicles all have in common is that they can accommodate four passengers. We drove them in England, on real roads and in real traffic, on wet and dry pavement, to find out whether the newest member of the group, the brawny 2013 Range Rover, can challenge and possibly eclipse its even more expensive rivals. In this group test, we are looking not only for speed, space, traction, roadholding, street cred, and the latest technological wizardries. What counts more than any individual strength is the blend of all-around ability and appeal. That includes appearance and ambience, whether your eyes light up when they spot a series of corners, how these cars perform when pushed, and the overall feel-good rating that, even in a four-seater, is defined not only by packaging and functionality but also by style and craftsmanship.
Range Rover Supercharged
A relatively affordable attempt at creating the best of all worlds.
Visually, the new Range Rover is an evolution rather than a revolution, although it does have more bling than its charmingly stiff, upright, and royal predecessor. The only debatable detail is the trademark gills that have been moved from the front fenders -- where they made some sense -- to the doors, where they don't. The tailgate is again split horizontally, and both parts are power operated. The lower one is now less deep, so a person no longer needs a telescoping torso to reach into the cavernous luggage bay. When you opt for the Autobiography trim level and the Executive Class package fitted to our test car, you get two bucket seats that can, with the push of a button, trade rear-seat recline for cargo space. Despite the combed-back windshield and the ten-percent more slippery shape, the Range Rover still faces the wind with the posture of a brick mansion.
Modern luxury surrounds the driver. Like the exterior, the interior is evolutionary, but this time the motto was "less is more." Less as in fewer knobs and buttons; a bigger and easier-to-read touchscreen flanked by eight intuitive keys; more straightforward climate controls; a restyled multifunctional steering wheel; and the same rotary gear selector we know from other upper-class Tata models. So far, so good. The dislikes are not huge, but in this illustrious company no flaw goes unnoticed: The digital instruments look cheap, the inner armrests need to be lifted whenever you fasten or unfasten the seatbelt, some surfaces are borderline in terms of quality and fit, and simple things such as selecting your favorite radio station require more steps than in the other cars. There is no way to avoid going through submenus on the touchscreen, no head-up display, and no automatic stop/start system. Terrain Response 2 lacks a simple comfort/sport selector that would allow you to tweak the character of the car or, better still, its individual dynamic properties.
The new model from Solihull managed to do what few of us can: it lost weight. Depending on the powertrain, between 750 and 850 pounds have been jettisoned, which is a lot but is only about a fourteen-percent reduction of the still-substantial grand total. At 5137 pounds, the supercharged variant is no Lotus Elise, but at least it now compares very favorably with the BMW X5, the Audi Q7, and the Mercedes-Benz M-class. The switch to the Premium Lightweight Architecture (PLA) codeveloped with Jaguar transforms the SUV's handling. Forget everything you disliked about Range Rovers: submarine-inspired understeer, Queen Mary-esque body roll, anteater brake dive, and steering that left school before the cornering lessons started. The 2013 Rover not only feels less top-heavy, it also shed pounds in the chassis department, where aluminum subframes and suspension elements create a playful light-footedness. The engineers are particularly proud of two new features, Terrain Response 2 and Dynamic Response. TR2 is standard and denotes an additional mode that autonomously selects the appropriate drive program from an unchanged choice of five settings; DR is Land Rover-speak for self-acting, switchable antiroll bars and comes on all supercharged models. Driver intervention is still required to dial in low range and hill-descent control.
Shod with optional 275/45WR-21 Goodyears, our Range Rover doesn't ride all that well around town, where the stiff sidewalls and the firm air springs make for bobbing headlights and tap dancing over drainage grids. Above 40 mph, however, all that goes away, and instead, a cushy comfort zone prevails. Unlike its ancestors, which were all over the place when pushed hard, the new Range Rover is in total command. The steering in particular is a real gem. It holds a straight line even on bumpy off-camber blacktop, provides exactly the right measure of turn-in support, is incredibly precise, and executes sudden changes of direction without undue weight and effort. True, the turning circle is vast, and some might prefer lighter steering effort at parking speeds. The brakes combine strong initial bite with plenty of stamina and an easy-to-modulate pedal. It's only on the last few yards before standstill that a heavier-than-expected effort is required to squash that ambitious kinetic energy.
The supercharged V-8 runs smoothly and quietly unless you really push it, but its thirst is enormous and those 510 horses take a little longer than they should to pool their energy and beam the vehicle toward the horizon. With the throttle fully depressed, the SC roars from 0 to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds, according to its maker. Forward thrust expires at a comparatively tame 140 mph. The maximum torque of 461 lb-ft provides an addictive measure of mid- to top-end grunt, making passing maneuvers exceptionally easy. This is sports car swiftness dressed in a traditional SUV silhouette.
Land Rover Range Rover Supercharged
BASE PRICE: $99,950
ENGINE: 32-valve DOHC supercharged V-8
DISPLACEMENT: 5.0 liters (305 cu in)
POWER: 510 hp @ 6000-6500 rpm
TORQUE: 461 lb-ft @ 2500-5500 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 8-speed automatic
STEERING: Electrically assisted
FRONT SUSPENSION: Control arms, air springs
REAR SUSPENSION: Multilink, air springs
BRAKES: Vented discs, ABS
TIRES: Goodyear Eagle F1 SUV-4x4
TIRE SIZE: 275/45R-21 110W
L x W x H: 196.8 x 87.4 x 72.3 in
WHEELBASE: 115.0 in
TRACK F/R: 66.5/66.3 in
WEIGHT: 5137 lb
CARGO CAPACITY: 32.1/71.7 cu ft(rear seats up/down)
EPA MILEAGE: 13/19 mpg (est.)
0-60 MPH: 5.1 sec
TOP SPEED: 140 mph
Aston Martin Rapide
A remarkably emotional achievement on a shoestring budget.
Every Aston Martin -- besides the silly Cygnet -- is built on the company's VH architecture, which combines dimensional flexibility with a choice of body styles. Thanks to VH, Aston can build small production runs (1000 Virages, 101 Zagatos, fewer than 150 V12 Vantage roadsters) at a profit. The Rapide, the brand's second-most-popular model, is loosely based on the DB9. The beautiful four-door "coupe" sports a long if narrow liftgate and a large, 11.2-cubic-foot trunk. Less generous is the second-row passenger compartment. There are two seats, but access through the narrow swan-wing doors is handicapped by tall sills and a sloping roofline, and the center console is unnecessarily wide. The space suffices only for children and flexible adults. Although the rear of the Aston is marginally easier to access than the Ferrari's, once you're inside, the FF is actually roomier and more comfortable.
Inside, the Rapide is old-school Aston Martin. Welcome to an orgy of leather and wood and chrome, handbuilt to order, beautiful to the eye and memorable to the touch. Never mind the center console, which looks like a complicated high-end stereo from the 1970s. It's best to leave it alone, choose a temperature setting, set the transmission to Sport and the dampers to Track, and keep an eye on the small digital speedometer. One dab at the Emotion Control Unit (a.k.a. the ignition key) will startle the neighbors. The sounds of the V-12 range from a hammering, tinnitus-inducing idle to a low-frequency midrange yell that can shake windowpanes loose to full-throttle thunder that strips trees of their fall foliage as you fly past. The extroverted V-12 may deliver a relatively modest 470 hp, but when the intake plenum fills its mighty lungs, the Aston sounds and feels like the fastest car in this group. In reality, it takes 5.0 seconds to bellow from 0 to 60 mph. The top speed is a remarkable 184 mph, and the fuel-mileage rating is tied for the best in this thirsty group, but that's really not saying much.
Although the six-speed automatic transmission works well in D, it would be a shame to ignore the ergonomic shift paddles, which are much more rewarding to use. In sport mode, a heavy right foot is all it takes to make the fat Bridgestones shriek with joy in first and second gear, but thanks to the 295/35YR-20 rubber and the transaxle layout, traction isn't really an issue. The car simply tucks in, hangs on, and comes clean. Although deactivating stability control encourages the Rapide to fishtail at the exit of just about every second-gear bend, drama is not the Aston's forte, nor is it its main trait. Instead, this is a wonderfully communicative GT, a car that will talk you through all the way to the limit and beyond, a gifted g-force artist and a totally transparent tool. The number-one sweet spot is the steering. Initially a touch on the light side, the electro-hydraulic rack-and-pinion device keeps you informed and in charge at all times. Everything about it is spot-on: ratio, sensitivity, speed, weight, action, holding force, self-centering motion, dampening. Full praise also goes to the brakes. They can be noisy, and they smell when worked hard, but the pedal is a pleasure to modulate, effort and deceleration are always in balance, and we have yet to find a road that exhausts the system's remarkable stopping power.
Range Rover vs. Rapide? Both represent modern British luxury, both are ultracool statements on wheels, both are equally at home on the highway and on narrow two-lanes. The Aston is a compromised four-seater, but at speed it is even more involving than the Range Rover -- plus it sounds better.
Aston Martin Rapide
BASE PRICE: $212,110
ENGINE: 48-valve DOHC V-12
DISPLACEMENT: 5.9 liters (362 cu in)
POWER: 470 hp @ 6000 rpm
TORQUE: 443 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic
STEERING: Electrohydraulically assisted
FRONT SUSPENSION: Control arms, coil springs
REAR SUSPENSION: Control arms, coil springs
BRAKES: Vented discs, ABS
TIRES: Bridgestone Potenza S001
TIRE SIZES F, R: 245/40R-20 (95Y), 295/35R-20 (105Y)
L x W x H: 197.6 x 84.3 x 53.5 in
WHEELBASE: 117.7 in
TRACK F/R: 62.6/63.5 in
WEIGHT: 4387 lb
CARGO CAPACITY: 11.2/31.3 cu ft (rear seats up/down)
EPA MILEAGE: 13/19 mpg
0-60 MPH: 5.0 sec
TOP SPEED: 184 mph