2003 Land Rover Range Rover

Tim Andrew

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.

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"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.

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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.

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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.

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