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2006 Range Rover Sport Sneak Preview

The Range Rover Sport brings new terms to Land Rover's mud-gundog-and-tweeds vocabulary. In the words of design manager Mike Sampson, who was responsible for the exterior: "Land Rover has never before been identified with a high-performance vehicle or with spending a lot of time in wind tunnels, fine-tuning components that contribute to aerodynamic efficiency. "Performance figures have not been revealed, but there should be enough grunt to put a smile on your face. Based on Jaguar's acclaimed V-8, the basic 4.2-liter engine delivers 300 hp, while the supercharged version complements 390 hp with 410 lb-ft of torque. Permanent four-wheel drive, the core of Land Rover's image, is allied to a six-speed ZF automatic transmission for turbine-smooth shifts. Performance also benefits from the Sport being about 450 pounds lighter than its lardy LR3 stablemate.

Increasingly close ties within the Ford empire's Premier Automotive Group have enabled this sports-touring SUV's road manners to be honed by ride-and-handling gurus such as Jaguar's Mike Cross and Peter Davis. The newcomer's background includes thousands of miles on the northern loop of Germany's Nrburgring track, where the world's leading automakers push prototypes to the limit.

Most of the eye-catching design's key elements were revealed in January 2004, when the three-door Range Stormer was unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Although described as a concept, it was an obvious toe-in-the-water exercise. One of the main differences is that the Sport has five doors. The three-door mega-coupe idea was rejected by potential customers as not practical enough.

The name is slightly misleading, because Land Rover's answer to the likes of the BMW X5 is based on the impressive LR3, which has just replaced the Discovery. That said, the design is clearly Range Rover. The overall shape is much the same, but the

Sport is slightly lower, slightly narrower, and six inches shorter than the marque's flagship. A more rounded nose and tail help cheat the wind, and lower-door extensions smooth airflow while also reducing stone-chip damage.

"We did a lot of the aerodynamic work in Pininfarina's wind tunnel in Italy," says Sampson. "The facility's rolling road cre-ates conditions that are much closer to the real world than you get in a fixed-floor tunnel."

"Cozy but not cramped" is how Range Rover brand manager Finbar McFall describes the interior. The front seats are snug and supportive, while the rear provides adequate space for two adults or three youngsters. Creating enough room while making the Sport more compact than the Range Rover was a challenge, especially with the new vehicle's steeply raked rear window.

Although based on the LR3, the steering and front and rear suspension layouts have been modified in line with the Sport's road-biased character. What Land Rover calls its Dynamic Response suspension is standard in the supercharged version and optional with the normally aspirated engine. A brief ride on rural roads near the company's headquarters in central England gave the impression that it sets new standards for this burgeoning sector of the market.

"The Sport can corner at about 1.0 g," says Ian Garrett, the project's vehicle engineering manager. "The roll-control system could be set to provide absolutely flat cornering, but a lot of drivers would struggle to cope with that, because it doesn't give the feedback we're all used to experiencing. So the system keeps the vehicle flat until we reach about 0.4 g, then allows a bit of roll from there on."

Land Rover claims that a surprisingly high percentage of owners use their vehicles off-road, even if that means nothing more adventurous than towing a horse trailer across a firm, smooth field. Off-road ability is still an essential ingredient, says McFall, whose "breadth of capability" mantra embraces the Terrain Response technology that's shared with the LR3. He expects this niche-within-a-niche model to account for about fifteen percent of Land Rover's total worldwide annual sales, not counting the utilitarian Defender. The Sport's arrival gives the company a fifth model for the first time since the original Land Rover was launched back in 1948. It slots into the lineup between the LR3 and the Range Rover, but there will be a degree of price overlap in some markets.