The concept: push the brand-new Range Rover Sport to the limit to see if it raises the bar for high-performance sport-utility vehicles.The plan: slog through the muddy and hilly English terrain, where the car's off-road capabilities were honed; blast through northern Europe with a pit stop at the old Spa-Francorchamps grand-prix circuit; then flog the car around the Nrburgring, where the Range Rover Sport learned its on-road manners.The problem: snow in England, snow in France, snow in Belgium, and snow in Germany. "I think maybe your timing could have been better," Wolfgang Schuhbauer allowed politely.
Schuhbauer runs the test center that Jaguar maintains at the Nrburgring's Nordschleife, the fearsome racetrack that was Formula 1's greatest challenge until Niki Lauda was flambed there in 1976. At the moment, the circuit is knee-deep in snow, and the famed Flugplatz-where cars vault off the ground-looks like a ski jump. "You could go out on the circuit," Schuhbauer said doubtfully. "But I think maybe you wouldn't come back."
Wait a sec. Aren't we talking about a Land Rover? This is a company that prides itself on building the world's ultimate go-anywhere, do-anything SUVs. Even the top-of-the-line Range Rover, luxurious enough to impress the most jaded Beverly Hills valet attendant, could conquer the Nordschleife without breaking a sweat.
But the Range Rover Sport is a new breed of Land Rover that deviates sharply from the company's traditional values. Its hallmarks are comfort, agility, and on-the-road performance. Like the 4.8-liter version of the BMW X5 and the Porsche Cayenne, the Range Rover Sport isn't an SUV so much as it's a fresh take on the grand-touring machine.
Given half a chance, the folks at Land Rover drone on and on about how the Range Rover Sport has more off-road chops than any of its rivals, which is factually correct but a bit like bragging that you're the world's funniest mortician. Better to think of the car as a handsome, brawny sport-sedan alternative with a 385-hp, supercharged V-8 that allows it to gobble up endless miles at speeds fast enough to scramble a squadron of California Highway Patrol troopers. Call it Land Rover's sporty-utility vehicle.
In the United Kingdom, Land Rovers long have been regarded as British Jeeps, only more so-more capable and more prestigious, equally at home in war zones and polo paddocks. But Americans never have known quite what to make of them. Bel Air grocery getter? Rap-star posse hauler? Luxury mud-bog crawler? The Range Rover Sport promises to be all of the above-and more.
Ever since the current Range Rover debuted, Land Rover has dreamed of complementing it with a downsized derivative offering sportier performance. As Jeff Maranhas, brand manager for the U.S. market, puts it: "The Range Rover Sport was a product idea before it was a marketing equation." But, despite its name, the Range Rover Sport shares virtually no components with its big brother. In fact, it's built on the same platform that underpins the Land Rover LR3, although the wheelbase is six inches shorter.
Two versions of the Range Rover Sport will go on sale here in June as 2006 models. The base HSE features the same Jaguar-sourced 295-hp, 4.4-liter V-8 found in the LR3. But we decided to sample the high-line SC, which takes the LR3 engine, scales it down to 4.2 liters with cast-iron cylinder liners, and then pumps it up with an Eaton supercharger.
Photographer Martyn Goddard and I took delivery of the car-Land Rover officials blanch visibly if you call their steeds trucks-at Eastnor Castle in southwest England. Besides being the Land Rover proving grounds, this is also the home of the Land Rover Experience driving school, just the ticket for off-road loonies-oops, we mean enthusiasts-whose idea of fun is a two-day class in winching techniques.
There's no missing the family resemblance between the Sport and its siblings. The common DNA is clearly seen in the headlight clusters, the horizontal grille, and the "floating" roof. But the Sport is less boxy and far flashier, with bad-boy twenty-inch wheels (in the SC) and boy-racer side vents. The short front overhang, the long rear overhang, and the roof spoiler emphasize the sporty character.
The interior design and components come mostly from the LR3-and the Ford parts bin. But instead of the traditionally blocky SUV architecture, the Range Rover Sport features a wraparound cockpit that envelops the driver in a well-appointed ergonomic cocoon without inducing claustrophobia. And while Land Rover maintained its so-called command-position driver's seat, it's noticeably lower and offers more lateral support than the wide-body high-altitude numbers found in most sport-utes.