c.2014 New York Times News Service
c.2014 New York Times News Service
Many see Range Rovers as dignified transportation for the upper crust. Picture Queen Elizabeth II peering over the steering wheel of this talisman of British gentry, perhaps returning to Balmoral Castle, the royal family’s summer retreat in Scotland, from a grouse shoot.
But the newest Range Rover Sport is much more than stately; it’s more a punk rock-crawler.
“The on-road performance and handling, especially in the supercharged V-8 is almost — I don’t want to say bordering on hooliganism — but it is kind of fun,” said Andrew Polsinelli, product planning manager for Land Rover North America.
The Sport suffix signifies that this model is the frisky smaller sibling — about 5.9 inches shorter overall, almost 2.2 inches lower and around 100 pounds lighter than the Queen Mother ship, the standard Range Rover. Priced to offer an alternative to some versions of the Audi Q7, BMW X5, Mercedes-Benz GL and Porsche Cayenne, the Sport shares its main underpinnings with the current Range Rover, which was redesigned for 2013.
“They are closer under the skin than they were before,” Polsinelli said.
The closeness includes sharing a pair of supercharged engines, either a 3-liter V-6 rated at 340 horsepower or a 5-liter V-8 that delivers 510 horsepower. Each is backed by an eight-speed automatic transmission.
Land Rover intends for the big Range Rover to coddle its passengers, whether on or off paved roads; the focus of the 2014 Sport is on sharper handling for pavement duties, giving up some off-road ability.
Prices for the Sport begin at $63,495, including the destination charge, for the SE model with a V-6. That’s not pocket change, but it is about $20,700 less than the least expensive Range Rover. (That line tops out at nearly $200,000.)
I tested the V-6 with about $13,325 in options, including $5,000 for the HSE package, which includes a panoramic sunroof, fancier 20-inch diameter wheels and some cosmetic goodies. The total price was $76,820. The most expensive Range Rover Sport is the egocentric Autobiography model at $93,295.
From a distance, the Range Rover Sport has the classic Range Rover profile, a high-riding, upright, stolid look. A closer inspection, however, reveals a new smoothness and angularity that confers sleekness, even a hint of aggression.
The interior is richly trimmed but not ostentatious. There are few storage areas, not even a decent tray for doodads. The tested Sport had a center bin, but it was an optional refrigerated compartment.
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Other features also seemed overdone. Some controls were needlessly complicated. Turning on the heated seats, for example, required stepping through several layers of selections on the touch screen.
One can endure such burdens by focusing on the upsides, including a high seating position that could give an imaginative driver the impression of being on a throne. It’s a self-delusional conclusion, but oddly pleasing all the same.
The second row moves fore and aft 3.8 inches to trade legroom for luggage capacity. Setting that row as far back as it will go gives passengers 37 inches of legroom, which is adequate for 6-footers.
Cargo space behind the second seat is rated at 27.7 cubic feet. That’s a substantial loss of 6.1 cubic feet from the previous Sport, partly a result of the rear window’s rakish slant. While that’s enough space for a couple on a trip, it could pose real challenges for a family excursion.
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The Sport has been assigned an odd, dichotomous role that presented a challenge for Land Rover engineers. The model line’s original brief included exceptional off-road capability, and that tradition would be impossible for the Sport to discard without surrendering the marque’s heritage and distinction — crucial selling points in a prestige market segment.
But that all-terrain prowess also requires greater ground clearance, necessitating a higher center of gravity, and a body strong enough for serial off-road battering. All of which can undermine the realization of a lively driving machine.
Range Rover addressed the challenge on several fronts.
First, it abandoned the old body-on-frame construction, which for years the company had defended as the design best suited to an off-road mandate. Now the Sport has an aluminum unibody that saves 800 pounds compared with the old Sport, the company says. The V-6 model weighs 4,727 pounds, and the V-8 is 5,093 pounds.
The air suspension, also shared with the Range Rover, was tuned for better handling, dialed back a bit from the comfort-focused calibration of the larger model.
The package — the combination of lighter weight and an improved suspension — works remarkably well on mountain roads. Turning effort of the electric power-assisted steering is consistent and predictable, providing the confidence needed for brisk driving, though road feel is lacking.
For a relatively tall, hefty SUV, the Sport is gratifyingly quick to dig into a curve. Body lean is nicely controlled, and on rough surfaces, the ride remains reasonably comfortable, though far from cushy. The aluminum body is solid and quiver-free; Range Rover says it is 25 percent stiffer than the previous model’s.
Acceleration with the supercharged V-6 is strong because of its torque — the 332 pound-feet peaks at 3,500 rpm — and a beautifully programmed, quick-responding transmission. Land Rover says the V-6 will go from zero to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds; if you spend the extra money for the V-8, you can do it in 5.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimate for the V-6 is 17 mpg in town and 23 mpg on the highway. That is a huge increase (4 mpg city and 5 mpg highway) over the old model with the 375-horsepower V-8. The new V-8 is rated at 14 mpg city and 19 highway. Premium fuel is recommended with either engine.
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The all-wheel-drive system is on-duty full-time, but during a modest snowstorm with temperatures just below freezing, it was badly compromised by the 20-inch Michelin Latitude Sport tires. Forward traction was adequate, even when climbing a steep hill with a nasty, off-camber turn in the middle. But when braking — even from low speed in a straight line — the tires would quickly lose grip.
This is alarming for fussy drivers who think that turning and stopping are as important as forward traction.
Michelin describes the Latitude Sport as a summer tire. However, spokesmen for Land Rover and Michelin said the rubber compound and tread were reworked for the Range Rover Sport to provide all-season capability. I beg to differ on including winter in those seasons.
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Land Rover says it is hard to know how many owners venture off-road, or even how they define off-road. But the Sport has the capability, aided by a terrain response system that lets the driver alter how the powertrain responds to driving conditions by turning a knob.
The ground clearance can also be raised to 10.9 inches in the off-road mode, from 8.4 inches in the standard setting. For those who are more serious, there is an optional transfer gearbox that adds a low range, useful for creeping across rough terrain.
When the 2014 model was introduced, a Land Rover executive declared in a news release: “The all-new Range Rover Sport is a vehicle that has been designed and engineered without compromise.”
Oh, please. Of course there were compromises, the primary one being the balancing act between improving handling on-pavement while still maintaining some off-road performance.
But the compromises were intelligently chosen and result in a vehicle that, while not perfect, manages to be quite alluring.