2003 Land Rover Range Rover First Drive

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2003 Land Rover Range Rover SUV

(4.4L V8 4x4 5-speed Automatic)

So there I am, on top of what is probably the steepest decline that I've ever faced (limited though my offroad experience may be), and the instructor gives me stern warning not to touch the brakes on my way down.

That goes against all conventional wisdom, doesn't it? The last thing you want to do in a vehicle is to go careening down the side of a hill in an uncontrolled slide, only to land at the bottom in a bloody, crumpled heap. A restrained, leisurely descent is much preferred. That means being in a low gear and placing a firm foot on the brakes. Yet the Zen-like voice of the Land Rover instructor kept urging me to "let go and let God." Well, not exactly. It was more like "let go and let Hill Descent Control do its work."

Just how much trouble can I get into by following instructions? At the very least I can scurry out of the shiny-side-down vehicle and claim, "It wasn't me." I needn't have worried. The Land Rover-patented HDC, which applies individual braking as necessary and provides brake bias to the front or rear axle (depending on whether you're in forward or reverse), senses slippage, maintains traction and forces the Rover to creep along at just 2.4 miles per hour when first gear in low range is engaged (6.5 mph in high range and up to 29 mph in fifth gear), and does it with much greater speed and finesse than any clod-hoofed journalist can manage. All I had to do was let go and let the computer sensors do their thing.

This is the first appearance of HDC in a Range Rover. It was initially used on the Freelander (a staple in Europe since 1997 before it hit these shores in 2002), then climbed up to the Discovery II in 1999 before finally making its way into Land Rover's flagship. BMW has had it in its X5 as standard equipment since its inception in 2000.

Ah, yes, the BMW connection. Land Rover wavers between making a solid association to the Teutonic company. It's like being a Kennedy; you're at once proud, but you have to try to establish yourself as your own worthy entity. A short historical background: borne of the need to compete with the Jeep, the Land Rover first tromped around its native habitat of Wales in 1947 before being linked with exotic safaris in British colonies. The Range Rover, a more civilized version, came into being in 1970. In 1994, BMW thought it would be a good idea to buy Land Rover in order to give the company entry into the lucrative high-end sport-utility market, but the acquisition proved to be expensively unfruitful. In order to cut its losses, the company unloaded Land Rover to Ford in 2000. During its short ownership period, however, BMW completed a significant amount of engineering work on this latest Range Rover. For more details on its history, read our story below.

Cut to present time and enter the third new Range Rover in 33 years. For one thing, its new 4.4-liter V8 powerplant is the same one that powers the X5 4.4i; only it's been modified for greater offroad capabilities. Making 282 horsepower at 5,400 rpm and 325 pound-feet of torque at 3,600 revs, it's a significant improvement of 62 horses and 30 lb-ft of thrust over the previous Range Rover engine. Mated to a quick-thinking five-speed automanual transmission that's also sourced from BMW, Land Rover claims that it's able to propel this 5,379-pound vehicle (a porky gain of 419 pounds) from a standstill to 60 mph in 9.0 seconds, which is about 0.3 seconds less than the previous Range Rover we tested a couple of years ago and about on par with what other truck-based SUVs can do. It can tow up to 7,700 pounds and needs premium gas, guzzling a gallon for every 12 to 17 miles traveled. As befitting a BMW engine, power is smooth and copious, with an excellent topnote to remind you of its eight cylinders.

Other Teuton-derived aspects include new rack-and-pinion steering with a slim turning circle of 38 feet. While it lacks the X5's sport-sedan-in-disguise heft and telepathic feel, it's still perfectly linear, and its light steering will help pilot the vehicle in traffic-sluiced areas. We didn't notice that it was overly twitchy on the offroad section either, which favors a slower, more numb recirculating-ball steering rack, like the previous configuration. Brake feel and modulation induced no complaints, with the 13-inch discs in all four corners enhanced by all-terrain ABS, electronic brake force distribution and brake assist. Also, a stability control system makes its debut in the Range Rover, which uses engine braking, individual braking and suspension travel to help keep the vehicle in line if a sensor determines that it's off its intended trajectory. Also helping to keep you in one piece are side curtain airbags for front and rear and a tire-pressure monitoring system.

The Rover rides on a chassis that's light years' ahead of its predecessor. Perhaps most significant is the switch from a body-on-frame design to a unibody frame. While traditionalists might object that this would compromise its offroad prowess, it pays off dividends in increased torsional rigidity and on-road manners. It feels much more car-like and agile than the second-generation Rover. The MacPherson strut front and double wishbone rear suspensions are aided by an electronic air suspension system that allows you (or the computer) to determine ride height, lowering during highway speeds to minimize drag as well as upon parking the vehicle for facilitation of ingress/egress. And like most air suspensions, it adjusts itself for carrying heavy loads, especially important when towing a trailer. This system also automatically softens the ride on rough terrain to absorb the shock and stiffens it on asphalt to aid in handling. Moreover, whereas the previous system adjusted the height of only the body, the new system takes care of the entire chassis.

Since most Range Rovers are sighted around the wild plains of the Ethan Allen parking lot rather than tracking the Arabian oryx, we think that the new focus toward good blacktop comportment is a good thing. But don't think that it's lost its core capabilities; the Range Rover still has few equals in the sticks. With a maximum ground clearance of 11.1 inches, total wheel travel of 10.6 inches in front and 13.0 inches in back (an increase of 2 inches over the previous version), a low-range transfer case with a Torsen center differential and full-time four-wheel drive, the Range Rover is still made for scampering over terrain unadulterated as of yet by a straight edge. Land Rover maintains that its consumers more frequently take their vehicles offroad than owners of other SUVs, so hopefully all this technology will be put to some use.

To that end, Land Rover took us out to a specially designed offroad obstacle course on a private ranch in the Los Padres Forest north of Santa Barbara, where we tackled the aforementioned Decline of Death and ridges that caused two wheels to be suspended in the air. Never did the Range Rover break a sweat. Low-range gearing, which reprograms throttle response, kept the vehicle on momentum, and the differential maintained torque bias and traction in the direst of (albeit controlled) situations. Try that in a BMW X5. On second thought, don't.

BMW's influence also permeates the interior. While Range Rovers have always coddled their passengers with plenty of wood and leather, their build quality left much to be desired and their ergonomic layout could be termed nothing short of a disaster. In the 2003 version, the controls are placed for convenience and ease of use; they actually make sense. The tri-zone climate controls are managed by three simple knobs, the window switches are located on top of the door panel rather than in the center console, and the cruise control is mounted on the steering wheel.

About the only complaint we had pertained to the stereo that's completely integrated into the navigation system. Entirely sourced from BMW, it's just as teeth-gnashingly frustrating to figure out and use on the Rover as it is in the Bimmer. A six-disc CD changer comes standard, but the changer cartridge resides in the glovebox and not in the dash. We made good use of the steering wheel-mounted controls. The navigation system, also standard, is CD-ROM based and thus inferior to the greater information-holding capacity of DVD-based systems. It's controlled by a toggle switch, which we feel is more complicated than a touchscreen system; what would be best of all is a voice-activated system, as on the new Honda Accord. On the whole, however, there is a commendable improvement in overall layout. One Land Rover rep commented that he was a little sad to see the quirky British nature of the previous interior landscape disappear; we replied that it was like an Englishman getting his teeth straightened and capped. Sure, he loses some of that Anglo charm, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

On the whole, it's a lovely place to while away the day. A refreshing lack of tarted-up lacquer was the first thing to be noticed in our vehicle; the grain of the cherry wood is enhanced by the matte finish. Other materials that are pleasing both visually and tactilely are brushed steel, soft-touch plastics and supple leather covering the seats. Contrasting piping adds visual interest to the buttery hide. Well-designed front seats with a myriad of controls and a tilting and telescoping steering wheel help the driver achieve maximum comfort, and the view is aided by the sloping hood and low cowling. Rear seaters fare well also, with their own climate controls, power split backrests and power adjustable headrests. The seats will fold completely manually or via a switch in the cargo area. Heated seats for the front and rear is one of two options; the other is bi-xenon headlamps (regular xenons come standard). Every other feature is standard; possible future additions will include an in-car entertainment system, communications systems and telematics. Flipping the rear armrest reveals a center console and a ski pass-through. This is just in case you have a long slender item to carry; unfortunately, the Range Rover's 63 cubic feet of storage space with the rear seats folded, although an improvement of 4 cubic feet over the previous model's, pales in comparison to other SUVs. At least the standard park distance control will keep whatever you can fit into the cargo bay from harm.

We've always fancied the rough-and-tumble external appearance of the Range Rover; the successful formula is little adulterated, with most of the modifications in the headlamp and taillamp area. Noticeable are the charcoal side louvers and door handles; there should be a body-color option, especially on the lighter-colored vehicles. Otherwise, the design, riding on massive 19-inch wheels, is at once handsome and refined, at home at the valet station of the Four Seasons as well as lying in wait for a sighting of the elusive lion-tailed macaque.

In the Range Rover, Land Rover has created a most desirable vehicle. On paper, it certainly has its superiors; there are luxury SUVs more powerful and more spacious. However, the new Range Rover sets new standards in ride quality with little compromise to its non-pareil offroad ability, as well as luxurious digs from which to enjoy it all. Plus it has that ineffable quality of prestige, of not being a mainstream vehicle that every Joe and his brother seems to own. Certainly, its near-$70,000 price tag is not easy to swallow, but how many vehicles can you get that assume control and do the work for you? If you've got the means, this is one versatile and luxurious vehicle to consider seriously.

2003 Land Rover Range Rover
by Alex Law

When you consider how mediocre Land Rover products have been in recent years (and still are, by many counts), the fact that throngs of people continue to covet them speaks volumes about the power of their image.

The Range Rover was subpar until the mid-'90s, and since then it's been merely average, though the company's product now appears to be on its way up again. By the way, no matter what you see written about the new Range Rover here, or anywhere else, this does not improve the lamentable ergonomics of the Discovery, or undeniably make the Freelander worth its price of entry. So be warned.

There is no doubt, however, that the 2003 Range Rover that Land Rover will start selling in May is vastly superior to the model it succeeds. Every piece of evidence points to its improvement, from the rather confusing ownership situation of its parent company to its current management makeup; and from the vehicle's numerous upgrades to its assembly factory, to our experience driving it.

Until the mid-'90s, Land Rover was part of the woeful Rover organization, which was the last example of a major independent British car company. Then Rover was bought by BMW, which financed and managed the development of the new Range Rover.

When that star-crossed arrangement finally ended, BMW sold the Land Rover SUV division to Ford and pretty much paid a gaggle of British investors to take the Rover car division off its hands. So now you have an American firm building and marketing a German-designed and -engineered version of a quintessentially British product. Welcome to the global auto business.

For consumers who want to tap into the Range Rover mystique, the key part of this history will be that bit about the BMW design and engineering. They may be thinking that this will increase their chances of getting a solid product, and in this they are correct. The new Range Rover is very much a BMW, especially from the waist down, where it shares a great many components with the highly popular X5.

But it also benefits from being owned by Ford, since that firm's success with saving Jaguar suggests it knows how to deal with a factory full of ill-tempered English workers, which is no mean feat. All of this is preamble, of course, to testing the actual vehicle, and a few hours of plowing through the mud and knee-deep waters of the grounds of Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire, England, suggest the odd circumstances will pay off.

Land Rover promised that the new Range Rover would still be able to manage off-road situations that likely would foil most other SUVs, and it has delivered on that. Through a combination of technology and experience, the German-British development team has created a world-class vehicle in that regard. This off-road prowess is extremely important to everyone who buys a Range Rover, even the people who'd never dream of taking one off road. It's part of the fantasy associated with being in the landed aristocracy, don't you know? Even this staff, many of whom find the concept of off-roading eccentric at best, can appreciate the skill with which the new Range Rover acquits itself in hostile circumstances. During our brief period behind the wheel, it handled everything it encountered with a sense of aplomb, the likes of which we have rarely experienced in any other SUV.

More importantly for the day-to-day reality of owning a Range Rover, the new model is as comfortable and luxurious as any car in this price range, which would be $70,000 and up and includes some serious competition indeed. That was the intent when the vehicle was designed — to make it a natural competitor for such upscale cars as the Lexus LS and the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, with the ability to go to as many off-road places as any four-wheeled conveyance in the world. This would make it the world's ''most competent'' vehicle, in the eyes of Land Rover.

That may be a moot point to most owners, but there's no denying that the advance from the previous model is great. The 4.4-liter V8 takes it from 0 to 60 in 9 seconds, and it will do a hot lap of the long and treacherous Nürburgring track in Germany approximately 30 seconds faster than the previous model, which means it handles better and has a truly useful powerband.

Interior space is way up, thanks to the stretched (by about 3 inches) wheelbase and the greater roof height. But the best thing by far about the new Range Rover is its instrument panel, which is one of the most beautiful in the market for any amount of money. It's a pleasure just to look at this combination of modern finishes and very traditional wood pieces that haven't been glossed up to within an inch of their life. Comfort levels have gone up substantially, thanks to the extra room and the great seats and the vastly improved highway ride, though our limited experience at elevated speeds forbids us from expounding on that point.

On balance, this is by far the best vehicle Land Rover has ever built, and if Ford can bring the quality issue under control, it would be a very pleasant vehicle to own. Given that lots of people were willing to spend vast amounts of money for the previous model, it's easy to imagine that they'll be even more willing to pay big bucks for something as good as the new Range Rover.

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