Since it was first imported to the USA back in 1987, the Range Rover has occupied an enviable position at the prestigious peak of the SUV pyramid. And unlike some of its rivals, the regal Rover always gave the impression that it really could be driven straight up to the top.
True off-road credibility is only part of the Range Rover's mystique, however, with luxurious interiors, effortless style, and posh pricing being significant factors as well. The recently introduced fourth-generation Range Rover seamlessly advances the concept.
Looking good without trying hard
The new version is undeniably a Range Rover. It carefully evolves the design of the previous version, with some elements that go all the way back to the first model. Blacked-out pillars make for a "floating" roof; "RANGE ROVER" is spelled out in large letters on the clamshell hood; the beltline is straight, the greenhouse upright. Most of the changes are for better aerodynamics, such as the more laid-back windshield and smoother detailing. Despite the slab sides and a lack of ornamentation that would leave a Mercedes-Benz GL feeling naked, the Range Rover manages to have real presence -- even in my test examples dull, gray-brown hue of Havana. There are three more grays, and three blacks, among the sixteen color choices offered U.S. buyers. In its home market, by contrast, the Range Rover comes in a choice of 33 colors (including 22 exclusive to the Autobiography model).
Room with a view
The Range Rover's characteristic low beltline, slim pillars, and elevated driving position once again make for great outward visibility. A back-up camera is standard; the vision assist pack brings enough cameras to outfit a London subway station, with a "junction view" that obviates the need to peek one's nose out into traffic to see what's coming, an overhead view, and cross-traffic detection when reversing. Combine that with the fairly tight turning circle (40 feet, curb-to-curb), and you have a big machine that's relatively easy to maneuver in tight spaces. For those who are still intimidated, there's an available automatic parking assist system that will parallel-park the car for you.
For all that, the view inside is at least as good as the view outside. The interior of the fourth-generation Rover is an evolution of the highly success design theme introduced with the outgoing car. Everything you touch has a luxurious, high-quality feel -- that's particularly true in the case of the top-spec Autobiography, in which semi-aniline leather covers nearly every surface that isn't polished wood or brushed aluminum.
Two items that are new with the 2013 model are debatable, however. The first is the electronic instrument cluster, with replaces physical gauges with an electronic representation thereof. Granted, it provides an extra measure of versatility (screen space can display different information depending on the situation) but it also seems inauthentic. The second is the dial gearshift -- borrowed from corporate sibling Jaguar, as are the virtual gauges; subjectively, it just feels less satisfying than a lever for selecting gears. The multifunction navigation screen is also merely OK, with too many functions (such as radio presets and navigation zoom) on the screen rather than having physical buttons. One high-tech item that's much better than average, however, is the voice control system, because at each stage a list of available commands is displayed in the gauge cluster, so you're never left guessing what magic phrase will get the outcome you want.
Rear seat for two
One feature that is exclusive to the Autobiography -- as a no-cost option -- is the "executive-class" individual rear-seat package in place of the standard 60/40 split bench. The individual rear seats are power adjustable (including message function) and are bisected by a wide, wood-veneered center console. They're plenty comfortable -- and the new Range Rover boasts nearly 5 inches more rear-seat legroom than before -- but there are downsides. Not only do you give up the center seating position, making the Range Rover a 4-person conveyance, but there is also a fixed bulkhead behind the seats, which means they can't fold down to expand the cargo hold, nor is there a pass-through for long items such as skis. That takes an awful lot of the utility out of your sport-utility vehicle.
In better cargo news, Range Rover has retained its split tailgate, with a larger upper half that swings up and a smaller lower half that drops down. The latter is not so large as to be in the way when you're reaching into the cargo hold but it does make a great seat for tailgating. Now, however, both tailgate elements are power-operated, which seems a little over-the-top.
There's supercharged, and then there's Supercharged.
As you'd guess from its model designation, the Range Rover Supercharged is powered by a supercharged 5.0-liter V-8. And yet you'll also find a supercharged engine under the hood of the standard Range Rover and the HSE, only this one is a 3.0-liter V-6.
The V-6 replaces the previous naturally aspirated V-8, and its 340 hp is 35 ponies shy of the old V-8. Maybe that's why Land Rover won't let it do a capital-S "supercharged" boast. Whereas the supercharged V-6 Range Rover hustles from 0 to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds, the Range Rover Supercharged, with its 510 hp, chops that time by 2.0 seconds. Gone is the previous six-speed automatic, and in its stead is an eight-speed ZF gearbox (which is fast becoming the luxury-car standard).
Of course, the six-cylinder slurps less fuel than its V-8 sibling (17/23 mpg versus 13/19 mpg), but gas mileage is likely not a primary concern for Range Rover buyers. Know, however, that the V-8 powertrain is ultra smooth, with a lovely, gradual throttle tip-in and utterly seamless shifts.
Weight-loss success story In U.S. trim, the latest Range Rover isn't exactly trim but it has dropped some major pounds -- roughly 700 by its maker's count. That helps acceleration, braking, fuel economy, and handling. Regarding the latter, Land Rover engineers have taken better advantage of the Range Rover's standard air suspension system. It crouches lower for easier entry and exit, can stand higher on its tiptoes for extreme off-roading.
The Supercharged and Autobiography models also add Dynamic Response, which actively counters body lean. Even with the system, however, the Range Rover still feels like it's leaning in corners, particularly in quick transitions; it does not have the flat cornering attitude of, say, a BMW X5. More successful are the electronically variable dampers -- standard on all models -- that help make for a smooth ride.
Range Rovers are expensive; you know that and, importantly, other people do too. So you might not be shocked to discover that the Range Rover Supercharged costs a cool 100 grand (with five bucks change). The base model Range Rover and one-step-up HSE can be had for less: $83,545, and $88,545, respectively -- but that's still a big jump over the previous version. Beyond the Supercharged, there is the Autobiography -- listed as an option package on the window sticker of my test car, but looking more like a trim level if you go to build one on the Land Rover North America web site. Either way, the Autobiography package adds a not-inconsiderable 30 percent to the price of the Supercharged, but it does include just about every option.
The 2013 Range Rover endeavors to ask, how high is up? The answer is pretty high indeed. But one gets the sense that if any SUV can ascend those heights, this is the one.