RANGE ROVER SPORT REVIEW
Lighter, faster and bigger inside, is the new Range Rover Sport at last a vehicle that can match its undoubted style with substance?
I once asked a senior Land Rover designer why his company was touting a 2.3-ton diesel family car which struggled to better 25mpg. He looked embarrassed. "It's engineering that sets the targets, not us," he said. So which engineers were they? BMW owned the company from 1994 and Ford bought it from BMW for £1.8 billion in 2000 and sold it to Tata in 2008. Perhaps we'll never know, but some sympathy is due to the designers of the Integrated Body Frame (IBF), a semi-monocoque steel body sitting on a steel ladder frame, which underpinned the 2004 Discovery 3 and the 2005 Range Rover Sport. You can mend it with a hammer, it's strong, tough, suits a variety of bodies and is cheap to build, but it's also heavy, which compromises performance, dynamics and fuel economy.
The IBF was also launched at a time when the world was starting to take a dim view of heavy, dipsomaniac SUVs. In May 2005 Greenpeace activists chained themselves to vehicles on the Solihull production line in protest. But if Land Rover's timing wasn't great, its marketing of the Range Rover Sport was borderline misleading. For the vehicle shared only a badge with the Range Rover and was really a Discovery in a different hat. And then there was that Sport badge...
The best illustration of how much of a boat anchor the old model was is to compare data with the new Range Rover Sport, which goes on sale on July 24 and shares its aluminium monocoque with last year's new Range Rover. Figures for the SDV6 diesel (old model in brackets) are: top speed 138mph (112mph), 0-60mph 6.8sec (8.8sec), kerb weight 2,150kg (2,583kg), Combined fuel consumption 37.7mpg (32.1mpg) and CO² emissions 199g/km (230g/km). There's also an eye-watering price hike from £48,795 to £74,995. So it's an expensive diet, but what a difference it makes – and that 433kg weight saving further benefits the dynamics and is even more impressive when you factor in the expanded dimensions; 62mm longer, 55mm wider and a 178mm longer wheelbase.
In appearance the new Sport is more balanced, subtle and less blinged up, with less thuggish lower sections. While the overhangs are smaller, this is still unmistakably a Range Rover, with the clamshell bonnet and long tail. Shame you don't get a split tailgate and boot space is 784 litres versus the 958 litres of the old model. There is a £1,500 seven-seat option, which you don't get with the full Range Rover, but these electronically deployed perches are small.
The chassis is the same as the Range Rover's, with short and long arm front suspension with air springs and a similarly sprung multi-link rear. Standard cars get passive damping and anti-roll bars, which are progressively upgradable to a fully adaptive system. The standard driveline is permanent four-wheel drive via a ZF eight-speed automatic with a Torsen centre differential. The top two models get a two-speed transfer box for ultra-low crawler gears, electronic terrain response, along with the fully adaptive suspension and a torque vectoring system. Upgrading a standard SDV6 model to the full-monty driveline costs an extra £3,370. Standard wheel diameters run from 19 to 21 inches, with the option of 22 inches.
Engines are a choice of the PSA/Ford three-litre V6 turbodiesel with two outputs; 258bhp, which costs £51,550 in SE spec and 288bhp, which costs up to £74,995 in the top Autobiography Dynamic spec. The single UK petrol option is a 503bhp, 5.0-litre supercharged V8, costing £81,550 fully loaded.
We drove the more powerful of the diesels with the full off/on-road suspension and then a supercharged V8. The blown petrol is nice, but super-thirsty if you use the power and you'd struggle to justify more than that delivered by the creamy V6 diesel, which works so brilliantly with the ZF transmission. Driven hard we achieved an average of 24mpg.
The cabin is high quality, lovely to the touch and thoughtfully designed. There are a lot of buttons, but they're logically laid out and well labelled, although the window switches on the doors seem like an afterthought. The seats are gorgeously comfortable and it all feels rather grand, although the striated wood trim option isn't particularly attractive. Accommodation is generous and the rear seats commodious, and there's loads of useful storage including a coolbox in the centre console. The driver is faced with JLR's all-electronic dashboard, which isn't the last word in appearance or clarity and the touchscreen centre console takes some learning.
Our test car came shod with standard 275/45/R21 Pirelli tyres. We started the day driving to Wales on motorways and cruising on these Italian covers was quiet, with a responsive feel to the wheel. The Sport feels supple rather than sharp, but it doesn't flop around when you waggle the steering wheel. In fact the vehicle was at its worst on smooth motorways on a light throttle when the suspension has nothing to do and the rear axle never fully settles – a bit like having naughty children in the back. Other than that the ride quality is exemplary and cosseting.
The electronically assisted steering has been reprogrammed with a steering smaller wheel, the suspension is stiffened and the dampers revalved. Add in a battery of chassis control systems and a lot of testing love from Mike Cross's team of engineers and you end up with a vehicle that's astonishingly able. It turns in well and corners with a nicely restrained body roll and while you can feel a lot of weight being transferred, the brakes have to work hard and feedback to the major controls is muted, this new Range Rover is at least the dynamic equal of its German rivals and indecently good fun to drive.
And then you turn off the road and, with no adjustment to anything, tackle Land Rover's formidable test track at Eastnor Castle near Ledbury. Leave it in Auto and as soon as the going gets tough you can feel the electronics transferring torque to the wheel with the most grip, slackening off the suspension to allow the wheels to drop into pot holes and keep moving. It won't even allow you full throttle at times as it's figured out (correctly) that you'd merely dig yourself in.
You can manually select the terrain response settings, but Auto allows the vehicle to select the best compromise of driveline and suspension while showing what it is doing in a real-time centre display. This is super-impressive stuff and while the optional wading-depth indicator is a bit of gimmick, the all-round cameras are a good idea whether you are trying to protect the tyres from sharp rocks or Kensington kerbs.
The Range Rover Sport is obviously set up principally for roads, with 20mm less wheel articulation and 50mm less wading capability than the full-fat Range Rover. Off-road you'll barely notice as you can see from the picture above. Only once did I think a Range Rover might have made better progress on Eastnor's fiendish Gearbox Hill.
The only other time we stopped was in Wales when a turbo pipe became detached, which Penybont Garage quickly fixed (thanks lads). Land Rover staff were mortified and even produced the on-line service bulletin to fix the badly tightened clip that had caused it.
So finally the Range Rover Sport lives up to its name, being now actually based on a Range Rover and sporty. Most of all, however, it's a proper Range Rover and all the better for it. Never mind chaining yourself to it, I'd like to get better acquainted with the ignition keys.
Range Rover Sport SDV6
2,993cc V6 twin-turbo diesel, eight-speed ZF automatic transmission, permanent four-wheel drive
£74,995 as tested (range from £51,020 to £81,550)/July 24
288bhp @ 4,000rpm.
443lb ft @ 2,000rpm.
0-60mph in 6.8sec
32.5mpg/37.7mpg (EU Urban/Combined). 24mpg on test
J (£475 first year, £280 thereafter)
What a difference a diet makes, although honing of the steering and damping has an equal affect on the big Range Rover's dynamics. Fine-riding, dynamically able, unsurpassed by rivals off-road and a great deal better to drive than it has a right to be. You pay for it, though
Four out of five stars
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