by Phil Berg
Luxury disguised as rough-and-tumble sport-utility.
Base Price $58,625
As Tested $69,620
The Range Rover is a true dual-personality sport-utility vehicle, equally comfortable heading to a five-star restaurant or traversing seemingly impassable terrain. That shouldn't come as any surprise: Land Rover created the modern luxury sport-utility vehicle when the company introduced its upscale Range Rover model to the U.S. in 1987. This year, Land Rover's Range Rover SE and HSE receive significant updates.
A new traction control system is standard. The interior trim is improved, with smoother switch surfaces and new seat upholstery patterns. Side airbags are built into the front seats, and the front shoulder belts get pre-tensioners, devices that cinch the belts tight during a frontal crash. The stereo has been improved. And the engine has been revised to deliver more power with reduced noise and vibration.
Distinguished by a chunky, rugged appearance, there's no confusing Range Rovers with other sport-utilities. Though they look purposeful, they say class in understated British fashion.
Two Range Rover models are available: the $58,625 4.0 SE and the $66,625 4.6 HSE. The SE gets a 188-horsepower V8. The HSE is driven by a 222-horsepower version of the same engine-an aluminum pushrod design. Both engines drive the Range Rover through a four-speed automatic transmission.
A four-channel anti-lock braking system comes standard and is now used to provide traction control on each wheel. (The previous traction control system only transferred torque forward when the rear wheels would slip.) The full-time four-wheel-drive system retains its viscous center differential lock; the center differential locks completely when the system is shifted into low range. The traction control and differential lock operate without intervention from the driver, so the Range Rover provides optimum grip no matter who's driving.
Range Rovers are supported by air springs that raise and lower the body, which makes it easy getting in and out. Two higher-riding settings are used for high ground clearance off road, while two lower settings are used for pavement cruising. The body mounts on top of a steel ladder frame, and holding it all off the ground are live axles front and rear.
The four-wheel-drive system works full time. The driver can shift into low range for rough going. Land Rover claims the monster 18-inch low-profile tires on the HSE model are rated for off-road conditions. There is just one extra-cost option from the factory, an integrated navigation system called J.A.M.E.S. for $2995. Land Rover Centres and dealerships offer a wide range of accessories, from basher bars and guards to driving lights and winches and gear racks.
The Inside Story
Inside the Range Rover is a quiet and comforting environment adorned with sumptuous leather and burled walnut trim. The characteristic high seating position and low waistline means outward visibility is the Range Rover's forte. You can see closer in front of the vehicle than you would in a Lexus LX470, which is a good feature when traversing a narrow path alongside a bottomless gorge. The seats are comfortable and the new leather trim feels nice. But tall drivers sometimes rub their right knee on the center console.
The Range Rover comes with a new 300-watt entertainment system with 12 speakers. The receiver includes weather bands, and can be controlled from switches on the steering wheel.
The steering wheel is angled to the left of the plane of the instrument panel, and the driver's seat is centered left of the steering column. This asymmetry is at first disorienting, but as you get used to it, it doesn't detract from the driving quality. The tilting and telescoping steering wheel is also angled forward at the top. The angle facilitates more deft steering motions, as you feed the wheel rim toward and away from your torso.
In the back seats, passengers have the same tall view as front-seaters. Legroom is gracious, which is something that couldn't be said of the previous-generation shorter-wheelbase Range Rover. One notable feature is deadbolt locking, which prevents the doors from being opened even if a window is broken.
The split tailgate makes it easy to load cargo. The tailgate is made of aluminum, so it's very light and easy to close, yet is designed to handle weight when loading.
Ride & Drive
BMW purchased Land Rover in 1994 and, for 1999, the Range Rover engines benefit from BMW technology. The engine management system used on BMW's 7 Series flagship sedans now boosts power and torque on the Range Rovers. The intake systems have been revised and twin-tailpipe exhaust has been added. The bigger HSE engine gains 1 mpg in fuel efficiency, returning 13 mpg on the EPA city fuel economy test.
We drove a Range Rover 4.6 HSE.
The new 4.6-liter engine starts instantly, and sings when you rev it to its 5500 rpm redline. You notice slightly more oomph when you open the throttle wide with your right foot. Acceleration from 0-60 mph has been improved by more than 10 percent over last year. The engine is tuned for low-rpm torque for off-road driving. Bottom end performance has been improved by 14 percent.
The steering is light and feels over-assisted, a trait that's always been part of Range Rover. In addition, the steering feels unusually slow to respond. However, there's a reason for that: When you're driving off-road and on greasy, slippery surfaces, the fewer jerky, quick motions you make, the less chance you'll lose traction. So the steering is deliberately slow. The throttle pedal has a long distance to travel before you're into big power, too. So, a tap on the gas doesn't mean spinning wheels. This means you can finesse the Range Rover over obstacles easier than other sport-utilities. The price you pay for this wide range of control is the extra motion you need to make to maneuver the Range Rover. You feel like you put your whole body into driving it, which is just the opposite of responsive sports coupes where often you just think about driving and the car follows.
The Range Rover provides the driver with lots of feedback. On fast dirt roads, the car will drift with its tail swinging wide, more so than any other luxury sport-utility. It doesn't drift far enough to swap ends, but it is behavior you have to grow accustomed to.
Ride height is adjusted automatically according to driving conditions; the electronically controlled air suspension provides 5.2 inches of height adjustment over five settings. Around town, the Range Rover moves along at standard ride height. Above 50 mph, the body lowers one inch for better stability in cross winds. Stop and put the transmission into park, and the front springs let loose excess air pressure to lower the body 2.6 inches for easy access. This makes a real difference if you or any passengers have physical or height challenges. Head off road and shift into low range, and it raises the ride height for more ground clearance. It will raise it higher still if it detects you're high-centered on an obstruction. The ride-height can also be changed manually via a console switch. The air springs tend to isolate the body from high-frequency bumps and vibrations.
Off-road, the anti-lock brakes are remarkable. Braking is the last thing you should do when you're sliding down a steep, muddy hill on the fringes of control. But all human instincts tell you to brake. The Range Rover's anti-lock system senses conditions of instability and compensates, keeping you from making braking mistakes. When you stomp on the brake pedal on a muddy hill, you feel as if the brakes are not doing their job. It's just an illusion: You can trust the Range Rover in these situations, since it applies the correct amount of braking.
We've driven sport-utilities that cost one-third the price of this HSE that can climb so far into the boonies you'd have trouble walking out. Instead, the Range Rover 4.6 HSE is a celebration of the original "100-inch wagon" created in 1970 to be a capable off-roader that's civilized for the highway. It's grown longer and heavier, and added two doors, but still emanates the same stately posture. The classic shape of the Range Rover is to trucks what a boxy Volvo is to cars. Both are relatively timeless designs.
The latest Range Rover is smooth on the highway, and offers a unique driving experience, one that's far removed from any of the other 35 sport-utilities on the market. It is quiet and luxurious, but also lumbering and wallowy the way no luxury car would ever dare to be. It tells you it's a truck in every task it does, yet you feel pampered and comforted like you would in the top level of luxury cars.
In terms of comfort and off-road capability, only the Lexus LX470 can compete with the Range Rover. The Lexus is left behind in the style department, however. And it doesn't have quite the cache of the Range Rover. If you want the best in off-road capability combined with maximum snob appeal, then head to the nearest Land Rover Centre and pick up a Range Rover. While there, you can pick up a pair of khakis, a couple of shirts and a few pairs of socks.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.