SUVs > Range Rover

Our only experience with the all-new Range Rover came about a year ago at an arduous off-road course near Atlanta. The Land Rover flagship was brilliant climbing over a several fallen trees, slogging through mud-filled trails, and crawling down a slippery slope into a stream. It was magnificent in inching over rocks and boulders.

The Range Rover is loaded with all the gadgets necessary to make off-roading as easy and pain-free as possible. For instance, hill decent control allowed the truck to inch down slippery red Georgia clay inclines at a steady four miles per hour without the need of accelerator or brake. That’s a very helpful feature for novice off-road drivers. Also helpful in sticky situations are cockpit-adjustable ride height and low-range gearing that automatically recalibrates the electronic throttle for added control.

The Range Rover, completely made over for the 2003 model year (only the third Range Rover iteration in more than 30 years), has been called the best sport utility vehicle on the planet for off-road adventures. It lived up to expectations on that sunny early autumn day on a course that had more mud than usual thanks to heavy rains the day before. Thank you Land Rover for supplying an instructor in every vehicle we drove. That was probably more for the protection of the vehicles than to help the fledgling journalists behind the wheel.

Since that eye-opening adventure more than 12 months ago we have lived with the knowledge that the newest Range Rover can negotiate off-road events as well as any of the past. What we lacked that day was the chance to gain some on-road experience. We have now rectified that situation.

A Range Rover HSE has been offered for a week of review and that gave us the opportunity to judge its prowess on pavement, probably where most Range Rovers will spend 99 percent of their life with well-heeled American owners. Its unibody design with self-adjusting air suspension gives the high-riding Range Rover a comfortable highway ride with surprising maneuverability. Powered by a BMW-engineered 4.4-liter V-8 generating 282 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque, the big brute has an energetic feel in all driving situations. The verdict: the Ranger Rover is as adept on Beverly Hills pavement as African grasslands.

Land Rover dates back to 1947 when it was first manufactured in Wales. The Land Rover soon became famous as the vehicle of choice for African safaris. It can be seen in many 1950s and ’60s movies. A more civilized version of the Land Rover, called the Range Rover, was introduced in 1970 and was first exported to the United States in 1987. Since then, it has become a status symbol in driveways of the rich and famous.

The company was purchased in 1994 by BMW and sold to Ford in 2000. Much of the engineering and most of the hardware on the third-generation Range Rover, including the V-8 engine, comes from BMW. The new Range Rover is larger than the previous model, growing 9 inches in length and more than 5 inches in wheelbase. It also stands 1.8 inches taller. Designers have managed to keep the familiar Range Rover shape while at the same time giving the body a modern, handsome appearance. This is one sport utility that will turn heads.

The Range Rover is easy to drive and its high stance, which makes it so usable off road, puts the housewife head and shoulders above much of the traffic around her including other sport utility vehicles. And the new Rover does not fill tippy as some Land Rover products in the past. The SUV, with rack-and-pinion steering, tracks nicely on the highway with excellent on-center feel.

And it is loaded with safety gear. Fear not the snowstorm. Don’t fret water in the roadway. Take icy conditions with caution, but know that they can be overcome in the Range Rover. The Rover comes with full-time all-wheel drive with a torque-sensing center differential. It has a two-speed transfer case with high and low range that can be shifted on the fly. In addition, it comes standard with stability control, traction control and cornering brake control. Also standard are antilock brakes, BrakeAssist and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution. Airbags are plentiful with seat-mounted side airbags for the front-seat occupants and full-length side-curtain airbags.

The interior is virtually the lap of luxury with yards of real wood and first-class leather. Optional contour 16-way power front seats were heaven in our test vehicle. Finding a comfortable position was just a matter of tweaking the proper controls. Triple-zone climate control allows for individual comfort both front and back. And the 570-watt, 12-speaker Harman/Kardon surround sound stereo system provided exceptionally pleasing sounds. Gauges are well laid out and the switchgear necessary for daily operation such as the lights, cruise control and climate control functions, are intuitive. But Land Rover has bundled many features into its navigation screen (including a sophisticated off-road system) such as stereo controls and station pre-sets. Learning all the functions will mean some book study. There’s no way to learn all the ins and outs without the owner’s manual.

The rear seat is spacious and there is room for three people across. The Range Rover is truly a five-passenger SUV.

As you would expect, the Range Rover is pricey and its gas mileage is anemic. Base price of the HSE model is $72,250. A luxury interior package raised the bottom line price on our test vehicle to $77,250. For 2004, Land Rover is marketing an even more upscale Westminster Edition. Only about 300 of those vehicles are slated for production.

If fuel consumption is important to you, be advised that the beefy 5,600-pound Range Rover is rated at 12 miles per gallon in city driving and 16 on the highway using premium fuel. If you can manage the purchase price, and the annual fuel cost doesn’t cause you concern, the new Range Rover is simply as good as it gets in the sport utility ranks whether it be on road or off. As a bonus, you will be the envy of your neighborhood.

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