THE RANGE ROVER first appeared in 1970, combining the ruggedness and practicality of a 4×4 with the ease of driving and quotidian usability of an ordinary car. It eventually spawned entire families of imitators and in the process unwittingly helped create a new category of automobile – namely the sport utility vehicle (SUV).
The arrival of the Range Rover Sport in 2005 brought the process more or less full circle. For the Sport represented Land Rover’s belated entry into an offshoot of the SUV category that came into being with the launch of BMW’s X5 in the late ’90s and the Porsche Cayenne five years later, and which we might conveniently refer to as sports luxury crossover.
Yet even though it resembled one, albeit in somewhat truncated form, the original Sport wasn’t really a proper Range Rover at all, being based on the steel body shell and hefty (and heavy) underpinnings of the Land Rover Discovery 3. That didn’t make it a bad car – on the contrary, with its supercharged, 4.2-litre V8 engine it was brutally fast for an SUV, and its independent air suspension smoothed out the bumps so effectively that it offered almost limo-like comfort – but it was frighteningly thirsty and hardly the sharpest tool in the box when pointed down twisting back roads.
Its replacement, on the other hand, which was announced in 2013, is entirely the real thing. The new car’s all-aluminium monocoque – just like the flagship Range Rover’s – not only helps shave more than 350kg compared with its more corpulent predecessor, but also places it in a class of its own among sporting 4x4s, which are otherwise built from steel. The supercharged 3-litre V6 engine may be less powerful than the big V8 (which is still available in some markets), but with more than 330bhp and 450 Newtons it offers brisk performance and decent fuel economy. An eightspeed automatic transmission with paddles is standard on all models. And though lesser versions of the Sport lack the trick – and heavier – add-ons of the Dynamic package, which comes as standard with the V8 engine, they still boast a pukka permanent four-wheeldrive chassis with central Torsen differential, multi-link air suspension, variable ride height and terrain response (it “reads” the lie of the land and instructs the car to respond accordingly), and electronic power steering.
It looks considerably more lithe and sporting than the old car, too, with a longer wheelbase and sleeker, lower lines that draw on the design language introduced on the smaller Evoque, such as the high beltline and side windows that taper towards the rear of the car. Xenon headlamps with LEDs sharpen up the frontal aspect, while the 20-inch alloys are especially eye-catching against the test vehicle’s shiny black paintwork.
Inside, it’s almost a dead ringer for the bigger Rangie, too, luxuriously finished and with a raked fascia that somehow contrives to make front-seat passengers feel even more involved in the action than they already are. The view out over the bonnet is commandingly panoramic, partly due to the acreage of glass in front and partly to the high driving position – and, thanks to the twin sheets of glass in the roof that compensate for the narrow rear windows, the cabin is flooded with light.
In fact, few SUVs have such an upmarket ambience as this: the big comfy chairs are wrapped in perforated leather and smartly finished with contrasting piping; both are 14-way adjustable, so it’s virtually impossible not to find a position that suits your size and preferences. The small steering wheel befits the car’s sporting aspirations and, like much of the dash, is also clad in smooth hide, while the high central console houses the gear selector – in this case a stick shifter rather than the rotary device found on most JLR automobiles. Above that is the touch–screen display that serves as sat-nav as well as monitoring climate-control, infotainment and Bluetooth phone functions, and appears to work well and intuitively. Instrumentation on HSE models is displayed on a TFT screen rather than conventional dials, a high-tech route JLR has already perfected on the XJ limousine. Admittedly the cabin is smaller than a standard Range Rover’s, but it still feels more than spacious.
While European buyers are likely to plump for one or the other of a pair of turbodiesel V6s rather than that gas-guzzling – if lusty – supercharged V8, the default engine on Range Rover Sports destined for Asian markets is likely to be the blown petrol V6 mentioned earlier. Although less torquey than the oildriven unit, it produces broadly similar performance, which means a 0-100km/h standing start in a little more than seven seconds and a top speed of around 210km/h – both plenty fast enough for a car that will doubtless spend much of its life ferrying family and a pair of retrievers around town.
Assuming the above passengers are not on board, the Sport can deliver considerable entertainment. It handles and steers precisely, and rides beautifully – even on its low-profile rubber. Whereas its predecessor could hardly be called agile, the current car can be whisked very quickly through corners, its steering well balanced and accurate, and the body roll limited, while the grip is way more tenacious than can reasonably be expected for a car whose roof is almost 1.8 metres above the road.
If outright speed is the priority and money’s no object, the V8 is probably the engine for you, as you need to make the V6 work hard to extract the maximum performance. The latter motor, however, represents the better compromise for everyday driving; indeed, the Sport’s chassis is so capable that the car really can be hustled along, making up for any shortfalls in absolute torque or power.
And this being a bona fide Land Rover (check the grille and the tailgate and you’ll find the greenlozenge logo) it will, of course, ford rivers and scale sand dunes and mud hills on the way to school or the supermarket, should your route so require it. I didn’t get to experience that during my test drive, but having taken the lesser Evoque over similar terrain I’ve no doubt it can dispose of such rough stuff with even greater aplomb – not that the majority of owners will ever need to do this themselves. Add that to the car’s comprehensive list of capabilities and you begin to realise that the Range Rover Sport is so talented that there’s virtually nothing you’d want from a car that it can’t do or be, whether you’re looking for a sturdy workhorse, a luxurious limousine or even a finely honed sports saloon.
I’ll admit I’m no great fan of SUVs, as readers who regularly turn to these pages will know, but for this brilliant contender from Britain I’d readily make an exception. And I really can’t come up with higher praise than that.