Cat's out of the bag as we drive new Range Rover Velar
What would Charles Spencer King (1925-2010), father of the original 1970 Range Rover, think of the new Velar - arguably the most style-led and road-oriented vehicle in the maker's current range?
It's a fair question: the "Velar" name is borrowed from the prototype versions of CSK's late-1960s creation. King himself was no great fan of the urbanisation of the SUV, telling the Scottish Daily Record in 2004 that his groundbreaking creation was "never intended as a status symbol" and that driving such a vehicle in town was "completely stupid".
Well, he'd probably be glad we rose above Velar's on-road aspirations. Part of Land Rover's media launch for the new model in Norway was a very steep climb up a rutted and rocky access road to the top of the Roaldshornet ski field, a spectacular 1.2km above the fjords below.
Velar made light work of it. There's a lot of technology available for the rough stuff, including Terrain Response, air suspension, All Terrain Progress Control (ATPC) - a kind of cruise-control for off-roading that works from 3.6kmh to 30kmh - and a locking rear differential.
So yes, even a softer Range Rover can still take on harder stuff than most SUVs.
What's a Velar? It fits in between the Evoque and Range Rover Sport, but it's not just a larger Evoque and it's not just a smaller Sport. It really is its own thing. So it's also a bit confusing.
For NZ, Velar will come with a choice of two 3.0-litre six-cylinder engines: 221kW/700Nm turbo-diesel (0-100kmh 6.5sec, 6.4 litres per 100km) and a 280kW/450Nm supercharged-petrol (5.7sec, 9.4 litres). It's spread across five different specification levels: S, SE, HSE, R-Dynamic and R-Dynamic HSE, from $134,900 to $157,850.
Velar is certainly not a small car: just 50mm shorter than a Range Rover Sport, with a generous 673-litre boot. Nor is it really that much cheaper.
When the new model arrives in NZ later this year, buyers with $135k-$160k to spend on a six-cylinder SUV will have a bewildering choice without leaving a Land Rover showroom.
That budget will get you any of the Velar variants, a choice of three different Range Rover Sport HSE models or any kind of Land Rover Discovery you like (it tops out at $136,900, about where Velar starts).
Not to mention the Jaguar F-Pace, which is $115,000-$130,000 in six-cylinder form. No, the F-Pace is not a Land Rover. But it is relevant because the Velar is pure F-Pace underneath: same double-wishbone front and Integral Link rear suspension, same long 2874mm wheelbase and five-seat cabin configuration, same single-range transmission and "on-demand" 4WD system that puts 100 per cent of power to the rear wheels in normal driving conditions.
Velar has torque vectoring by braking and a Jaguar technology called Intelligent Driveline Dynamics (IDD, first seen on the F-Type sports car) that's networked with the electronic driver-assistance systems to proactively apply torque to the front when required - in as little as 100 milliseconds.
Velar is calibrated to be softer and more comfortable than an F-Pace, and of course more off-road-capable: it has Terrain Response as standard, greater wading depth (650mm), better ground clearance (up to 251mm) and superior wheel articulation - although it can't come close to the axle-gymnastics of larger Range Rover models.
It's worth mentioning that some of the off-roady stuff is still optional even on top-line Velars. An On/Off-Road Pack ($1400) gives the car Configurable Dynamics, ATPC and the more sophisticated Terrain Response 2 system (with an Auto setting), while an active locking rear differential is $2000. It's also extra to add wading-sensors to the surround-camera system ($1900 for both).
Makes sense, because while Velar can arguably do more of the slippery stuff than most buyers will ever dare to undertake, its real home is on the tarmac.
On-road, it feels different to any other Range Rover. It feels different to an F-Pace, too: almost as agile and definitely still with a rear-drive attitude, but noticeably more compliant without tipping over into the leaning-tower character of a full-size Rangie.
It's natural to talk about big SUVs being sporty these days and the Velar is definitely that. It has a really tenacious feel on the blacktop.
But it's also about the look, with slivers of LED lights, an aerodynamic shape including flush doorhandles that present themselves when required, and a design ethos of "reductionism" that transfers into the interior. There are three virtual screens (a pair in the console form the Touch Pro Duo setup), not a single physical dial and only four moving controls: volume for the audio system, a pair of rotary dials that change function depending on the Touch Pro screens and the transmission selector.
It's a stunning interior, albeit one that seems designed to look its best when everything's off and all displays are black. When you're driving, there's a lot going on across the screens - depending on what's showing on the Touch Pro Duo system. The choices are many.
When you have to change the screen menu to adjust the climate control, you can't help thinking that sometimes the old ways are easier. But then Velar is as much about creating an experience and making an impression as it is about sheer function.
Like it or not, SUVs are now status symbols and it is completely normal to drive them in urban areas. Like the smaller Evoque, Velar aligns the Range Rover brand more closely to modern trends and in that context it's a beautifully executed machine.
Think of it as an alternative to a Range Rover Sport that puts a little less emphasis on rock-hopping in return for a little more fashion-forward image and on-road pleasure.
No, CSK probably wouldn't approve. It's easy to understand why some might see Velar as eroding the off-road character and heritage of the Range Rover brand.
But then breaking a rules to create something desirable often involves challenging a few expectations. That's what happened with the original Range Rover nearly 50 years ago.