The African assault course laid out to prove the credentials of the new 2013 Land Rover Range Rovers was one potential disaster after another.
It involved scaling trails over the highest pass through Morocco's Atlas Mountains and then wading through riverbeds that were only slightly shallower than the redesigned SUV's almost 3-foot fording depth. That was followed by a drive up a coastal dune bank that even a balloon-tired Land Rover Defender was incapable of surmounting.
After that, it was a fearsome plunge into a ravine running behind the massive walled garden of a Marrakech mansion, a maneuver that tested the nerve of the Range Rover's occupants as much as it did the vehicle's hill descent control, air springs and structural integrity.
Good thing this all-new SUV feels immensely strong, generating not a rattle, creak or squeak when lurching over boulders or clambering across gullies deep enough to leave its 20-inch wheels momentarily dangling. We rarely heard wheels spinning for grip, though, and its ability to stop itself from sledging to the bottom of steep slopes without our needing to touch the pedals was unsettlingly counterintuitive until we learned to trust it.
So What's the New Recipe?
Actually, the 2013 Land Rover Range Rover is much the same as before in many ways, right down to the familiar silhouette. Like VW and its perennial Golf, Land Rover has chosen not to mess with a flavor its customers love. But there are plenty of changes under the familiar skin.
The outgoing Range Rover was impressive for many things, but lightness was not one of them. So it's no surprise that this fourth-generation model has been shorn of weight. In the case of the top-spec 5.0-liter V8 version we drove, we're talking about a difference of 550 pounds. The fact that it still tips the scales at 5,126 pounds tells you just how dense the previous version had become.
How did Land Rover pare the pounds? By redesigning the Range Rover's core structure, which makes it the world's first all-aluminum SUV monocoque body shell. It's 39 percent lighter than the previous steel body, and the weight-saving mission permeates virtually every crevice of this Range Rover.
There's also a totally reworked suspension, composite reinforced B-pillars, lightweight steel seat structures and lightened wheels and brakes. It's more aerodynamic, too, scoring a decent 0.34 Cd, all of this yielding usefully improved economy and performance.
At least as important is the total redesign of the Range Rover's double-wishbone front and multilink rear suspension, not only to save weight but to improve its agility, stability and, thanks to thinner-walled air springs, suppleness, too.
Land Rover's Terrain Response System — which adjusts the suspension to suit grass/gravel/snow, mud and ruts, sand, rock-crawling and general road surfaces — is now fully automatic. It's all the more effective, too, thanks to the suspension's extended axle articulation, low-range gearing, locking center differential and, on supercharged versions, an intelligent electronic rear differential that not only helps it out of muddy gloop but through high-speed corners as well.
Works Well on the Road, Too
In addition to handling the African desert with ease, the supercharged Range Rover also proved mighty effective on roads unfurling toward the horizon. The 510-horsepower supercharged V8 compresses the 0-60-mph sprint to a supercar-worthy 5.1 seconds before striking its 155-mph limiter. Land Rover's engineers claim it could hit 186 mph without a restrictor.
Its silhouette may have the blocky contours of a foundation stone, but this Range Rover is an almost savagely fast machine, an indelicate right foot producing surges of startling urge and a civilized V8 roar that encourages more than a mere dipping of your big toe. And this time around it has a chassis to deploy all that power with impressive effectiveness. The weight loss, the fresh suspension geometry, an electronic antisway system and the agility-sharpening electronic differential has this four-wheel-drive SUV settling itself into fast corners with the aplomb of a car half its height. Steering feel is improved, too.
And as in every Range Rover past, you sit at imperious altitude in your chair, your head well above the roofs of most other cars on the road. The feeling of comfortable superiority that this promotes is unique to this vehicle, possibly because of its long-standing success. Then again, it could be because of the tastefully tooled cabin, the V8's effortlessly throaty zest and the knowledge that this machine will off-road with the aplomb of a military vehicle should the need arise.
But there are glitches, none more serious than the sometimes sharply thumping ride of the firmed-up suspension in the supercharged version. Never mind those extra-supple springs — all versions had trouble absorbing sharp edges without an abrupt checking and a drumbeat of commotion.
And while rear-seat space is genuinely improved, the cushion fails to provide decent under-thigh support, and the almost nonexistent side bolsters simply aren't supportive enough. A seven-passenger version with a third-row seat is rumored to be part of the plan this time around, but we would be happy just to have a more spacious second row.
Other upgrades to the interior include a less switch-busy dashboard and a reconfigurable flat-screen TFT instrument panel, although its two-dimensional presentation looks cheap. Despite the cleaner dash there's a much higher level of electronic content aboard the 2013 Range Rover, including intelligent emergency braking, automated parallel parking, a system warning you of traffic coming from the side when reversing and another signaling fast-approaching traffic during lane-change maneuvers.
Is It Enough?
That's always the question when it comes to redesigning a luxury flagship vehicle like the Range Rover. The last version felt like it had everything, so redesigning it from top to bottom required some careful decision-making. Thankfully, the overriding directive was "less is more."
The decision to take a chance on an aluminium chassis for a vehicle of this type paid off handsomely. The 2013 Land Rover Range Rover has a considerably different, and altogether more pleasant, feel behind the wheel. It feels smaller, more responsive and quicker to change direction. The sometimes jarring ride could probably be cured with some smaller wheels and less aggressive tires, but we doubt many owners will bother to make the swap.
Like most of the Range Rovers before it, this one is as much about prestige as it is about capability and comfort. Land Rover was smart to keep the look, the luxury and even the big wheels and tires. The fact that it's more efficient, too, will most likely come as a nice surprise to owners who couldn't care less.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.