The 2011 Land Rover Range Rover strikes a remarkable balance between high performance and high class. Maintaining its unmistakable towering silhouette, this luxury SUV delivers not just a comfortable ride, but a true sensory experience.

For the record, we tested the base HSE version, but other available trim levels include the HSE Lux, Supercharged and ultra-luxurious Autobiography.

HSE versions of the 2011 Range Rover are powered by a direct-injection 5.0-liter V8 engine that produces 375 horsepower and 375 pound-feet of torque. Supercharged and Autobiography models get a supercharged version of the 5.0-liter V8 that produces a massive 510 horsepower and 461 pound-feet of torque. This translates into superior rock-climbing capability, if you're so inclined, as well as the power to rocket the nearly three-ton vehicle from 0-60 in just 5.9 seconds, or tow up to 7,700 pounds.

All Range Rovers feature a six-speed automatic transmission with Land Rover's CommandShift technology, which responds to individual driving style and conditions by reconfiguring shift patterns as needed for optimum capability. Although there was plenty of power available in the HSE model we drove, we found that the engine really had to rev up to motivate the heavy SUV from a standstill, generating a lot more engine noise than you'd expect in a luxury vehicle.

Don't be fooled by all the luxury appointments; the Range Rover is a seriously capable off-road vehicle that can get dirty when it needs to. And the 2011 model is even more capable thanks to its upgraded Terrain Response system. Simply selecting the icon that represents the type of terrain you want to conquer, and the system reconfigures the engine, transmission, suspension, and traction settings for optimum drivability across a wide range of surfaces and conditions. The upgraded system now includes Gradient Acceleration Control, to automatically pressurize the brakes on a steep descent, and Hill Start Assist, which helps prevent the vehicle from inadvertently rolling backwards on an upgrade.

So with all these features and capabilities, what's it like to drive? It might be useful to start with a bit of history. The evolution of the Range Rover spans more than 40 years, with its early models far more pedestrian than the offerings of today. As introduced in 1970, the Range Rover was anything but luxurious. Creature comfort took a back seat to ruggedness, as was evidenced by the fairly basic, functional interiors with vinyl seats and plastic dashboards that were designed to be washed down with a hose.

Contrast that with today's model, where once you climb inside, you may find yourself believing that the Range Rover actually loves you; it stops just shy of actually tucking you in. For starters, it has softly supple leather seats, and authentic wood in the leather-wrapped steering wheel that feels warm and reassuring in your hands. And materials like Cherry Wood, Burr Walnut, and Burr Maple would be just as much at home in fine furnishings.

The dashboard is a sight to behold, with every inch covered in functional and infotainment controls or sumptuous leather and wood. In place of traditionl speedometer, tachometer and other gauges, there's a slick 12-inch display screen that presents all of the vital statistics as virtual dials and graphical displays.

Essentially everything the driver and front-seat passenger need to ensure a controlled and comfy ride is easily within reach. We just recommend that you familiarize yourself with the owner's manual first. There's a lot going on, and you won't want to miss out on any of it.

At 73.9 inches tall with a standard ride height of 9.1 inches, the Range Rover puts driver and passengers way up high, providing a veritable bird's-eye view of the surroundings. Visibility is excellent in all directions thanks to large windows all around (with privacy glass in back).

The only time the high ride height made us pause was when making turns at speed, like negotiating a freeway cloverleaf. Despite knowing that the Range Rover is not likely to tip thanks to plentiful safety controls, the sensation that it might is definitely there, and it caused us to ease up on the accelerator (if not tap the brakes) in some instances.

The experience in the backseat is nearly on par with the front. In addition to the sumptuous leather, reclining seats, climate controls and ample legroom, a 1200-watt Harman/Kardon audio system employs 19 premium speakers to make you feel like you're inside the sound, not just surrounded by it.

While the cabin space is extremely conducive to a long trip, the Range Rover's cargo capacity comes up a bit short. At just 74 cubic feet, it offers less room for luggage and gear than most of its competitors.

Lastly, we would be remiss if we didn't mention fuel economy. It's not surprising that a vehicle weighing nearly 6,000 pounds would be on the "less economical" end of the scale. The EPA-estimates are 12 mpg city/18 mpg highway. Our results were pretty close to that, leaving us with the general impression that this is one thirsty SUV, even without the supercharger.

While Land Rover's inconsistent reliability throughout the years can't be ignored, the overall performance, comfort and enjoyment this vehicle affords cannot be overstated.

Drive one, and prepare to trigger the reward centers in your brain.

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Jesse Rhodes is a lifelong car enthusiast who has worked as a writer, editor and marketing specialist in the automotive engineering and advertising industries for more than 15 years.

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