The stretch from Burnenville through the Masta Kink was too heavily trafficked for any hooliganism. But the "Oh my God!" right-hander just before Stavelot was empty, as was the long uphill stretch leading back to the new circuit, so we treated this section as our private racetrack. Paradoxically, the faster we went, the smaller the Range Rover Sport seemed, and as the speedo inched into triple digits, it felt less like an SUV than a refined sport sedan.
The speed-sensitive steering is nicely weighted and provides excellent feedback through massive contact patches-low-profile 275/40VR-20 tires developed by Continental. Designing the tires to handle moderate off-road duty demanded some compromises, most notably a speed limit of 140 mph. But the tires are remarkably capable on the pavement, especially in the wet. Snow and ice, unfortunately, are a different matter, so we had to behave ourselves.
As you might expect of a vehicle carrying so much weight on its nose, the Range Rover Sport understeers on corner entry. But it's never a pig, and there's always ample torque-406 lb-ft at 3500 rpm-to dial out the push with the throttle. Better still-and this is the most impressive thing about the car-there's virtually no body roll. The secret? Hydraulic motors powered by an engine-driven pump that adjust the stiffness of the antiroll bars in response to cornering loads. The computer also modifies the stiffness of the air springs to enhance compliance over bumpy roads.
We were dying to check out the Range Rover Sport at the Nordschleife, where Schuhbauer and his colleagues tweaked the handling during thousands of laps around the original 'Ring. "If it works here," he said, "it will work on any road surface in the world." But driving on the old circuit is verboten, so, just for fun, we did a few laps of slow dirt-tracking-uh, make that snow-tracking-around the new grand-prix course.
We had some time left for a quick blast on the any-speed-goes A1, where we made a surprising discovery. We already knew the car cruised with perfect poise at 80 mph. But it was even better at 100 mph and better still at 120, seemingly loafing along and tracking straight and true. Even maxed out at 140, the Range Rover felt as if it were riding on rails.
The train metaphor seems especially fitting, because the supercharged car accelerates with the seamless power of a locomotive. Clearly, the Range Rover Sport is optimized not for stoplight-to-stoplight drag races but for high-speed, high-style, long-distance touring-with an occasional detour for rock climbing or a champagne picnic in some hard-to-reach paradise.
Whatever your pleasure, the car will be stuffed with luxury appointments. Satellite DVD navigation and a Harman Kardon Logic 7 surround-sound digital audio system are standard; a twin-screen DVD player is optional. Prices will be $56,750 and $69,750 for the HSE and the SC, respectively. That pits the HSE against a base Cayenne S or the X5, while the SC lines up against a fully loaded S and undercuts the Cayenne Turbo by a chunk of change. Of course, if off-roading isn't in your future, then a sport wagon is a sensible alternative.
Ironically, the Range Rover Sport's own brothers promise to be its most serious competition. The LR3 seats seven, whereas the Range Rover Sport manages only five. Then again, the more trucklike LR3 scratches a different itch. So the real sibling rivalry will be with the Range Rover. The Sport isn't as practical or as elegant, but it's arguably more stylish and offers better performance.
So, if you don't need the extra room, the Range Rover Sport gives you all the prestige of the Range Rover-at about a $20,000 discount.
Price: $69,750 (SC, as tested
Engine: 4.2L DOHC V-8, 385 hp, 406 lb-ft