It's a cold, dreary day and we are in Northern Spain on a steep, narrow farmer's track knee-deep in mud. This is, of course, nothing new for a Land Rover product. After all, even when it was making Discoverys with dismal reliability records and questionable power plants, nobody denied that all Land Rovers were "mudders" above and beyond.
Trading Hiking Boots for Running Shoes But the SUV we're driving has humongous 275/40R20 low-profile Continentals at all four corners and even if they wear an A/T designation proclaiming their all-terrain ability, they sure look as slick as the performance radials that commonly adorn Porsches.
That's because we're driving the Range Rover Sport, a lowered, chopped and supercharged beast that's far removed from the company's iconic models like the Defender. The Sport is Land Rover's answer to the BMW X5 4.8iS and Porsche Cayenne, those SUV-shaped speedsters that think an off-road excursion is hitting a curb at the Nurburgring.
To back up the look, the Sport offers a supercharged engine. It's a gem, too. It's basically the same supercharged, 4.2-liter, double-overhead-cam V8 that powers Jaguar's S-Type R, XJR and XKR, which means it's a honey. It's powerful (390 horsepower), torquey (410 pound-feet) and smooth enough to rival anything from BMW or Mercedes-Benz.
That's good enough to launch the Sport to 60 miles per hour in just 7.2 seconds. More important is the feeling of endless torque. The pudgy Sport may indeed weigh 5,670 pounds, but with so much oomph just a stab of the foot away, it feels pretty darn quick. The supercharger adds so much to the engine's low-end pulling power that even moderately aggressive bursts of speed remain eerily calm. And like those Jaguars, when you really put your foot into it, the engine responds with a most delicious supercharger whine.
It should be noted that the Sport will also be available with the same 300-hp, 4.4-liter Jaguar-based V8 as the recently introduced Land Rover LR3. It's also a willing performer, and quieter than the BMW V8 that used to power the Range Rover, but it definitely takes a hind seat to the supercharged version. If you're going to spend this much money on an SUV, especially one with a "Sport" moniker, go for the whole enchilada.
Stop That Right Now Ditto for the brakes and suspension. Opt for the supercharged Sport and you get a set of four-pot Brembo front brake calipers. And if you think that having "Brembo" stenciled on your brakes is more for garnering envy from your car enthusiast neighbors than actual performance, just drive the base and supercharged Sports back-to-back. The garden-variety two-piston jobbies get the job done. But the four-piston Brembos offer more bite, require much less pedal effort and offer more feedback.
Likewise, the supercharged version's suspension is better suited to high speed than the Base Sport's. For one thing, it comes with Land Rover's Dynamic Response system comprised of computer-controlled antiroll bars that can alter their stiffness thanks to hydraulic pressure. Various sensors measure road speed, steering angle and lateral acceleration and an electrohydraulic pump responds to high-speed cornering by firming the anti-sway bars for less roll. Meanwhile, at more moderate speeds, suspension compliance remains unaffected and the Sport is quite comfortable though the ride isn't as pillowy soft as the standard Range Rover.
By using adjustable sway bars rather than stiff springs and dampers, the supercharged Range Rover Sport can also get the suspension travel and articulation required for serious off-road work. Which takes us back to that steep, slimy farmer's track where we started this story and the revelation that, despite its intentions of challenging the BMW X5 on-road, the Range Rover Sport sacrifices not an iota of its off-road ability. In fact, Matthew Taylor, managing director of Land Rover, says that the Sport is the most able of Land Rover products simply because its shortened length means better approach and departure angles.
Getting the Nikes Muddy Certainly, it handled muddy terrain with ease, despite its wide, low-profile tires. Deep sand, too, was a walk in the park; just keep your foot planted in the throttle and it'll scoot up steep dunes that would leave lesser SUVs stranded. And over the rock pile our English hosts had constructed on the Spanish trail, the Range Rover Sport was positively impressive, the suspension articulating as dramatically as advertised and the four-wheel traction control system keeping the whole plot moving forward despite often having one (and sometimes two) wheels 2.5 feet in the air. And like the LR3, adjusting the Sport's many functions to varying conditions is as simple as choosing one of the Terrain Response system's five positions — on-road driving, grass/gravel/snow, sand, mud/ruts and rock crawl.
Thanks to the company's Electronic Traction Control system, the Range Rover Sport also feels more secure on-road when sheets of rain turned into an impromptu snowstorm. Land Rover had intended that our twisty mountain descent would show off the Sport's handling prowess. Instead, we came away even more impressed with this Range Rover's surefootedness.
The one reason, however, that someone might not choose the Range Rover Sport — besides its firmer ride and reduced interior capacity — over the costlier Range Rover is the interior. Based on the new LR3 as well as being similar in layout, there is not the feeling of completely hedonistic luxury that envelops passengers in the Range Rover. It's a far cry from the almost plasticky feel of the LR3 (that SUV's major sore point), but despite the addition of sumptuous leather and more tactile cloth materials, the Sport lacks the elegance that makes the Range Rover so extraordinary.
An Audio/Video Delight As you'd expect, the standard equipment list reads like a what's-what of automotive gadgetry. There's a Harmon Kardon Logic7 audio system with 13 speakers and an in-dash six-disc CD player, a DVD-based navigational system, Bluetooth connectivity for a cell phone and front and rear park distance control. One item we won't be getting is a nifty portable camera that can be attached to any part of the Ranger Rover to display a view of the terrain on the navigation system's screen. It's particularly useful for traversing treacherous rock formations and tight trails while off-roading. Our laws governing active TV screens for the front passengers prevent Land Rover from offering it here, at least for the time being.
No such limitation affects the rear-seat passengers, of course, so Land Rover offers two 6.5-inch rear-mounted LCD screens fed by a six-disc DVD changer. Other options include a cold climate package with heated front and rear seats as well as a heated windshield. A luxury interior package offers those two items as well as upgraded leather trim, wood accents and adaptive front headlights.
A Bargain at $60 or $70 Grand? Base Range Rover Sports will begin at $56,750 while the supercharged model goes for $69,750, or about $18 to $20 grand, respectively, less than the Range Rovers powered by the same engines. Which makes the Range Rover Sport a compelling deal. Yes, this is a sporty sport-utility vehicle. Yes, it's fairly fast. And if you try to hustle it over a twisty road, you'll find it more than a willing participant. But most of all it is a Land Rover. And probably the best one yet.
Sidebar: Terrain Response
With every bit of sophistication that comes with the modern automobile comes an equal dose of complication. One needn't look further than the dashboard of the modern luxury sedan to see the microchip's double-edged sword. MMA, iDrive and COMAND may all be wonderfully powerful tools but they nearly require an MIT degree to operate with any semblance of decorum.
Even the lowly sport-utility vehicle has succumbed to the wonder of computerization. In the beginning, you just popped the transfer case into four-wheel drive and away you went. Now there's antilock brake efficiency to maximize safety, Hill Descent Control to minimize your speed on tight downhill runs, electronically controlled all-wheel drive, computerized all-wheel traction control to keep you moving and even high-speed Dynamic Stability Control to keep you going in the intended direction.
Which button to push? When? It's enough to make you wish for the days of clapped-out Ford Broncos and the knowledge that momentum conquers all, even if the suspension gets a tad bent.
Recognizing that all the subsystems were getting a little too complicated for their average customers, Land Rover decided to simplify things. The Range Rover Sport's version of KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is called Terrain Response. With one center console-mounted rotary dial, it controls engine mapping, shift points, the air suspension's ride height and firmness, the center differential, the electronic traction control system, the Dynamic Stability Control system, Hill Descent Control and the antilock braking system.
Terrain Response offers five settings: 1) on-road, for everyday driving, 2) grass/gravel/snow, 3) mud/ruts, 4) sand, and 5) rock crawl. For each, Terrain Response adjusts the aforementioned parameters to perform best for each driving condition.
The on-road mode is, of course, the default position, providing optimum traction, stability and braking in 99 percent of conditions and roads the Range Rover is likely to face. The other four positions alter the Sport's baseline setting according to the conditions. For instance, grass/snow/gravel alters the engine for gentler throttle tip-in, automatically starts out in 2nd gear in high range to reduce wheelspin, locks both the center and rear differentials for less slip and sets the electronic traction control for reduced slip.
Mud/ruts does basically the same thing with the engine and also locks the center differential to a greater degree than the on-road mode, but the traction control system allows much more wheelspin. Hill Descent Control (HDC) is automatically selected and the message center recommends that the driver select the higher ride height.
Sand provides a much more aggressive throttle map as momentum and wheelspin are what get you over dunes. The transmission holds each gear longer for the same reason. The ABS also allows more wheel lockup since having the tires dig into the sand is the quickest way to stop. Meanwhile, the last mode, rock crawl, reverts back to a very progressive throttle map but starts out in first gear and holds it longer for more control in low-speed maneuvering. Of course, rock crawl is only available when the low-range gear set is selected. The center and rear differentials are almost totally locked so that, even if two wheels are waving in the air, the remaining wheels will have torque to move forward. HDC is turned on and its minimum possible target speed is selected.
In the real world, it works much more simply than it's described. Sand really does let the wheels spin more and gain momentum to avoid getting stuck. And yes, even with two wheels in the air, the Range Rover Sport can still crawl over virtually any rocky crag. It's all deliciously simple and wonderfully effective.