With state-of-the-smart 4WD and 400 horses underhood, what's not to like? And get over the 20s already.
Last year, Land Rover unveiled the LR3 (Discovery 3, in Euro-speak), a midsize luxury 4x4 SUV that marked the company's first all-new offering as a member of the Ford stable. Based on a two-piece hydroformed chassis code-named T5, the LR3 boasted such new developments as four-wheel independent air suspension and a dial-actuated "Terrain Response" four-wheel-drive system, that allows the driver to literally tune the vehicle's performance parameters to best suit the terrain at hand.
This year, Land Rover returns with two more entries. One vehicle, already safely ensconced in the pantheon of 4x4 legend, sports enhanced levels of performance and refinement; while the other, brand new for '06 and based on the T5 chassis, takes the Land Rover brand in a radically new direction-the rarified high-performance sport/touring segment previously thought the province of SUVs from Mercedes, BMW, and Porsche.
All new for 2006, the Range Rover Sport could just as easily be called the Rover GT, as it's built with the "Grand Touring" concept in mind: smaller, lower, cozier inside, and sportier on pavement than the Range Rover. Five inches shorter in wheelbase (via a chopped frame), 7 inches shorter in length, and 2 inches lower in ground clearance, with 40-series radials on 20-inch rims (get over it already!), the Rover Sport aims to expand Land Rover's presence in the luxury SUV segment. And while the Sport may have the looks of an AWD sport-tourer, it has all the four-wheeling hardware found on the Range Rover-and quite a bit more.
A peak at the body specs alone provides a hint of the degree of technology that went into the Rover Sport's development: Aluminum bonnet and tailgate, zinc-coated steel doors, new die-cast magnesium crossbeams and magnesium alloy front body panels for reduced weight and better crash protection, and brand-new body dampers which supplement the factory body mounts and bushings to reduce on-road vibrations at lower speeds.
Or consider the all-new Dynamic Control system, a mind-boggling ride and handling assist that employs sensors in the A-pillar and steering-to gauge levels of body roll and steering input under throttle-to engage pump-driven front and rear antisway bars (via an internal motor in each sway bar) to compensate for excess body lean. Additionally, the system shuts off automatically in low-range-unless, of course, it senses the vehicle tottering precariously on a sidehill. Simply put, the Rover Sport is the most technologically advanced vehicle Land Rover has built to date.
The Rover Sport utilizes the same power- and drivetrain as the Range Rover, with both naturally aspirated and supercharged versions of the 4.4/4.2 V-8, slightly de-tuned for the RS application, with the ZF six-speed transmission and two-speed transfer case with 2.93:1 low-range. Height-adjustable, wishbone-located air springs-with graphite knuckles and re-engineered bushings-are at all four corners, with locking center and rear differentials monitoring wheelspin and torque transfer. The Rover Sport comes with premium tires: HSE versions get 255/50R19 Dunlop Grandtreks on 19x9-inch rims; Sport SCs get 20s and 275/40R20 Michelin M + S Synchrones. The tires are V-rated-a good thing, as the Rover Sport's top speed is a governed 140 mph.
Because it squats lower to the ground and has a poorer ramp breakover angle than the Range Rover, it is a good thing that the Sport version is additionally equipped with the Terrain Response System, which debuted last year on the LR3. The system, which is activated by a dial on the center console, essentially reprograms the vehicle's ECU on the fly to re-adjust a slew of vehicular functions to best suit the demands of diverse terrains: mud, ice, snow, rock, sand, and pavement. With a flip of a dial, throttle tip-in, transmission shift points, suspension movement, torque bias and hundreds of other functions are electronically recalibrated to provide optimal performance on whatever surface the vehicle happens to be driving on.
On highway, the supercharged Rover Sport provides an outstanding ride-quick and nimble, crisp and precise, unmistakably carlike. Our test unit showed excellent lateral stability when pitched into high-speed turns, and brake feel in particular was exceptional-no grabs or twitches, with progressive, predictable response to pedal input. Caught in a nasty snowstorm on a high mountain two-lane, we piloted the Sport in 1st gear for about half an hour-downhill all the way, 12 miles' worth-with no rear-wheel slippage, loss of handling, or need to ride on the brakes-we didn't use the brakes at all, in fact. The Sport's racing-style bucket seats are smaller and narrower than the seats in the Range Rover; they envelop the driver's body with form-fitting leather side bolsters, providing outstanding support and bestowing a sportier feeling to the Sport's interior.
Off-pavement ... well, we were a bit worried about those 40-series tires and quasi-dub rims, but our fears turned out to be unfounded. Our testing this time took us through rain-soaked gulleys, muddy trails, and even a Mini-Rubicon-style rockcrawling course. As with the Range Rover, the Rover Sport relies on its locking diffs and electronic traction controls to keep the vehicle moving, and they worked flawlessly in mud and on rocks. The "Rocks" setting on the Terrain Response dial radically remaps the Sport's throttle and gearing algorithms-you can rev the V-8 up to nearly two grand in 1st gear, and still keep vehicle speed at near-idle levels in low-range. (A couple of vehicles in our test group suffered sidewall punctures-tough to do, we reckoned, as there's not much sidewall to mess with-but this happened not on the rocks but in a rainy sluice littered with sharp stones and tree branches. Other, more "trailable" tires would likely have suffered the same fate at the street pressures we were running.)
Comparing these vehicles is a little like apples and apples-similar in DNA and design, but divergent enough in taste to appeal to many palates.
For traditionalists, the new Range Rover offers all the creature comforts and off-pavement prowess the vehicle is known for, as well as a level of street performance previously unfamiliar to the marque. It also comes with a premium price tag: nearly $75,000 for the base-model HSE. It's rather a bit rich for our blood, but we suspect that for the typical Range Rover buyer, this would be of secondary concern.
The Rover Sport, however, ups the ante in the upscale sport-touring segment considerably, with Teutonic-level ride and handling characteristics on pavement, all the green-lane aptitude of the LR3, and a price that makes it an instant competitor: As one media wag put it, "For $60K and change, who would buy an X5 anymore?" Not the most tactful comparo, perhaps, but one we'd imagine would leave some Land Rover aficionados-and perhaps a few LR execs, in private-licking their chops with malicious glee. We'll have both vehicles in hand for our 2006 Four Wheeler of the Year test, coming in our February 2006 issue. They both figure to be serious playas-stay tuned for all the results.
Vehicle: 2006 Range Rover Sport HSE/SC
Base price: $56,750/$69,750
Engine: Aluminum 90-degree AJ V-8Displacement (liters) 4.4/4.2
Bore x stroke (in.): 3.47 x 3.56/3.39 x 3.56
Aspiration: Twin-impeller Eaton supercharger
Valvetrain: DOHC 4 valves/cyl.
Max hp @ rpm: 300 @ 5,500/390 @ 5,750
Max torque (lb-ft) @ rpm: 315 @ 4,000/410 @ 3,500
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Transfer case: Full-time two-speed
Low range ratio (:1): 2.93
Axle ratio (:1): 3.73/3.54
Crawl ratio (:1): 45.57/43.25
Suspension: Four-wheel independent; double wishbones, adjustable air springs
Differentials: Locking center; locking rear
Steering: ZF Servotronic rack and pinion
Brakes, f/r: HSE: 13.5-in./13.9-in. Bosch four-channel,
SC: 14.2-in. Brembo/13.9-in. Bosch four-channel
Wheels/Tyres: HSE: 19x9 alloy/255/50R19, SC: 20x9.5 alloy/275/40R20
Wheelbase (in.): 108.0
Length (in.): 188.5
Width (in.): 75.9
Max height (in.): 69.6
Base curb weight (lb.): 5,468-5,670
Max ground clearance (in.): 8.9
Max approach/departure angles (deg.): 34/27
Max breakover angle (deg.): 25
Max towing capacity (lb.): 7,716
Interior cargo capacity (cu. ft.): 71.0
Fuel capacity (gal.): 23.3
EPA mileage estimates, combined (mpg): 18.5/17.5
Seating capacity, persons: 5