Shortly after (gratefully) climbing into our heated leather saddles, Goddard and I encountered our first challenge: water hazards large enough to merit proper names and lifeguard stands. No problem. Unlike a lot of SUVs with macho names and steroidal styling, the Range Rover Sport is more than an off-road poseur, and it crawled unflappably through, over, and around every type of terrain Eastnor Castle had to offer.
The car benefits from Land Rover's unique body-on-ladder-frame construction. In contrast with many off-road wannabes, the Range Rover Sport is equipped with a transfer case containing high and low gears, and you can shift between them on the fly. Power is routed to all wheels all the time through three dif-ferentials, two of which (center and rear) are fitted with electronically controlled limited-slip devices. The normal torque split is 50/50, but both diffs lock automatically when conditions warrant, and you can lock them manually if you think you're smarter than the onboard computer. The status of the diffs-green for open, red for locked-is displayed on a spiffy screen shared by the navigation system.
The driver also can adjust ride height-2.1 inches up or down-with the flip of a rocker switch. This levitation act is possible because the car rides on an electronically controlled air suspension rather than conventional steel springs. These air springs are a critical component of the Range Rover Sport's "Terrain Response" system.
Set in the center console is a pop-up knob adorned with nifty icons that allows you to shift to any of five driving styles: normal, grass/gravel/snow, mud and ruts, sand, and rock crawling. Changing the setting adjusts ride height, damper valving, throttle response, and the calibration of the stability control, traction control, and antilock braking systems. There's also a hill-descent system that uses the ABS to control downhill speeds.
Speaking of hills, we saved the best-make that the worst-for last during our visit to Eastnor Castle. From the bottom of a veritable mountain of slurpy mud and killer ruts, it seemed there was no way we'd make it to the top. After all, the Range Rover Sport rides on an independent suspension, with unequal-length control arms front and rear, which isn't optimal off-road gear. Not to worry. In off-road mode, the antiroll bars electronically decouple to allow the wheels to articulate, and with rocks clanging harmlessly off the skid plates, we climbed the hill like a billy goat.
After conquering Eastnor Castle, we hightailed it for the Chunnel. In the pelting snow, the picturesque twisties were clogged with dawdling traffic. With an electronically limited top speed of 140 mph, we figured we ought to be able to make like Schumacher carving through backmarkers. But 385 hp isn't all it's cracked up to be when you're motivating a sport-ute rather than a muscle car. Even with the supercharger whining, the Range Rover Sport didn't flatten us against the backs of our seats. (Land Rover quotes a 0-to-60-mph time of 7.2 seconds.) Don't forget: we're talking about a vehicle weighing nearly three tons.
Although the Range Rover Sport never felt ponderous, we were always aware that it was packing some serious mass. This sensation was particularly noticeable under braking. The SC features four-piston Brembos visible through the spokes of the stylish front wheels. (Ventilated discs are standard all around.) The brakes are aggressive-maybe even too ag-gressive-at low speed. Then again, they're calibrated to provide the confidence you crave when you're screaming along the autobahn at a buck twenty and change.
Leapfrogging traffic gave us plenty of chances to enjoy the ZF six-speed automatic. The requisite normal and sport settings are fine and dandy. But shifting manually is a revelation. Most manu-matics are slushy abominations. But in manual mode, the Range Rover Sport produces nearly instantaneous upshifts and crisp downshifts, aided, in the SC, by a throttle blip. Shifting manually was so effective and rewarding that we resolved to do it all the time.
We eventually slogged through England and France to the Ardennes Forest of Belgium. Spa-Francorchamps is the most challenging stop on the modern F1 calendar, this despite the fact that nearly all of the most daunting parts of the original circuit are no longer used. Well, they're not used for racing, anyway. But since they're public roads-one lane each way, with unforgiving stone buildings serving as turn-in and track-out points-we were able to drive our Range Rover Sport in the tire tracks of Fangio and Caracciola.