Long live the king Range Rover

PETER MCKAY
Last updated 07:10 22/12/2012
2013 Range Rover
Leafier suburbs: Where we'll probably see Range Rovers most often.

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An all-new Range Rover from Land Rover is always a big deal.

It is 42 years since the original luxury off-roader drove into our consciousness, forever changing off-road vehicles. Taking the original concept of utilitarian four-wheel-drives it added comfort, refinement and luxury and, in quick time, the badge grew to be both aspirational and admired.

And the new Range Rover is only the fourth generation. It's 10 years since the last one, which incidentally, has been selling strongly in the twilight of its life.

Over the years, the Range Rover evolved as a rival to the extravagance and refinement of big saloons such as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, but always with the added ability - an unquestioned gift to go off the beaten track.

To mess up the new Range Rover would be an absolute disaster. Feedback from loyal, sometimes fanatical owners produced an unambiguous directive: Don't change it; just make it better.

They've changed it, of course. But only where they could improve it.

Superficially, it can be nothing but a Range Rover; though with more arresting styling and with proportions that surpass its predecessors, though it's barely bigger externally. The detailing outside and the ever-grander interior presentation and trim materials combine to seduce like never before, and that's before the driving begins.

Beautifully-stitched leather all around the cabin, including the roof, gives the impression of class. The working area has been cleaned up with 50 per cent fewer switches. There's a top-of-the-range 29-speaker Meridian audio system. Soft-close doors are included.

Welcome, too, is the expanded rear passenger compartment where occupants will find more generous knee room. The additional 40mm in wheelbase has been donated to those in the comfortable back seats, who now have 120mm more legroom. The seats now recline. The rear isn't spacious like any of the big Germans. But acknowledging those who like being chauffeured shows Range Rover is now more serious about stealing customers away from the likes of the Mercedes-Benz E and S-Class, Audi A6 and A8, and BMW 5 and 7-Series. Like those cars it's strictly a five-seater, but more comfortable with only two in the rear.

These may not seem to be natural rivals, but many owners see the Range Rover as a high-riding saloon. They enjoy viewing the world from up high, insulated from engine and road noise by a level of pure refinement not reached previously.

Land Rover has done a stunning job of isolating the cabin from extraneous noise. All three engines are hard to identify aurally when at idle and their sounds never really intrude when accelerating hard. Gear shifts, up and down, are barely perceptible.

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Most significantly, the new Range Rover has shed up to 420 kilograms (depending on the model) by switching to an aluminium body. The diet has brought a more agile and stronger device with improved fuel economy and swifter acceleration.

Land Rover conducted some suspension tuning at the old Nurburgring track, although its engineers are quick to say they don't give a fig about lap times. Peerless handling was not an absolute priority. Though the latest Range Rover is better than ever on-road and with dynamics far superior to those rollicking first two generation models.

With less weight to toss about when cornering vigorously on the open road, it is more composed and precise. Sure, you know you're sitting high in the saddle. But it's stable, easily shrugging off crosswinds but not quite matching the on-road poise of a sportier BMW S5 or a Porsche Cayenne. Nothing in the luxury segment, though, will equal its astonishing capacity off-road, as we experienced so graphically during our two-day appraisal in challenging conditions in Morocco. Low-range gearing was a salvation in the brutal conditions.

We also got to use and appreciate the revised Terrain Response system, which analyses the driving conditions and automatically selects the most suitable vehicle settings, instantly configuring torque delivery, anti-lock brakes, traction, throttle, transmission and suspension electronics to suit. The driver may also choose from a list of five - including rock and sand crawling, mud, gravel and snow.

Approach angle (34.5 degrees) and departure angle (29.5 degrees) are improved, though the breakover angle has shrunk marginally to 28.3 degrees. The underfloor is smooth so it doesn't snag on rocks. Ground clearance is up another 13mm to 246mm and the self-levelling (and height adjustable) air suspension has more travel. A press of a button will raise the ride height for off-road work. Or lower it for easier access or egress.

Racing over Moroccan sand dune climbs and descents (with standard tyres and recommended pressures) and sloppy clay, was a cinch. The degree of difficulty then rose alarmingly as we bounced along a jarring and slippery boulder-strewn river bed near Marrakech - with the muddy water belting along at a fair rate. Jolting over the unfriendly terrain with water rolling up over the big square bonnet didn't faze the Range Rover; after all it has a wading potential of up to 900mm.

The damage: a couple of punctured tyres, jagged on rocks and a few front number plates torn free by the rush of water.

The exercise, though worrying at times (especially when one vehicle got into a dodgy sideways lean angle), was an irrefutable demonstration of the Range Rover's go-almost-anywhere capability.

A realigned line-up of three stonking alloy engines starts with an impressive and efficient twin-turbo diesel 3.0-litre V6 with 190kW/600Nm - more than sufficient for any chore asked off it, be it eating up the highway, trundling across farmland or towing (3500kg trailer capacity). The effortless torque is available just when needed, due in part to the eight-speed auto gearbox, with paddle shifts and a Sport mode.

The weight reduction has helped the V6 diesel to a thrifty urban/rural fuel consumption claim of 7.5 litres/100km.

Land Rover Australia anticipates the V6 diesel will prove the most popular of the three engine specifications. We agree.

Any buyer needing more than 600Nm of torque for towing, or cruising or even going off road is just plain greedy.

Still, the 4.4-litre turbodiesel and 5.0-litre supercharged petrol V8s will have their adherents, even at $200,000 plus. Why? Because they can, maybe.

The supercharged petrol V8 continues as the alpha male of the species, with effortless acceleration from the 375kW/625Nm engine.

In all three versions, selecting the Sport mode using the pop-up rotary gear selector we know from other Land Rovers and Jaguars, enlivens proceedings no end, sharpening the steering, firming the variable dampers, and changing transmission parameters to hold gears. Driving in this mode will probably please sporty drivers. But they're more likely to wait for the new lighter, hotter-performing Range Rover Sport model due next year.

Active anti-roll bars front and rear (optional on the V6, but standard on both V8s) interact with the stability control system to assist other dynamic elements to minimise body roll and, as a result, aid cornering poise. After all, even though it has been on a magical diet, the Range Rover still tips the scales at 2160-2330kg, depending on engine and equipment. Traditionalists love the versatile split rear tailgate. This time it's power operated, opens remotely and closes with a tap on a button. A full-sized spare is standard.

Better that the new vehicle is - way better - it isn't quite perfect. The electro-mechanical steering is a step up from the last model and drivers will appreciate the excellent accuracy, especially near the straight-ahead position. Still, a little more road connectivity and reduced turns lock-to-lock would be welcomed. Rear passengers miss out on grab handles, a necessity when off-road or punting along on a highway. And Drive believes the door handles and power window lifters could be better located. Owners no doubt will live with these slight quibbles.

The serene new Range Rover is arguably the world's best luxury SUV. It's a shame some owners will never discover its brilliant capabilities off road

- Stuff

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