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Today's Range Rover reminds us of an old New Yorker cartoon, in which a small group of clearly British hunters are enjoying a fine meal in the African veldt. Despite their wild location, they sport formal dinner attire and enjoy fine china, crystal, and silver. At a separate, somewhat rickety table, a single, forlorn hunter dines alone in his shirtsleeves. "Pity about Carruthers," comments one of the better-dressed men, "losing his dinner jacket like that."
Range Rover is all about bringing civility to unlikely places. Few, if any, vehicles can match its combination of rock-climbing ability, refined British luxury and on-road performance. In a Range Rover, you can traverse a boulder field more easily than in most SUVs, all the while pampered by a sybaritic interior that would shame many high-end touring sedans.
The 4.6-liter engine starts instantly, and sings when you rev it to its 5500-rpm redline. Nonetheless, the Range Rover engine is tuned for low-rpm torque for off-road driving. Land Rover shares the sophisticated engine management system from BMW's 7 Series flagship sedans, boosting power and efficiency.
The steering feels light, over-assisted, and slow to respond, but there's a reason for it: When driving off-road on greasy, slippery surfaces, quick steering motions can cause a loss of traction. So the steering is deliberately slow. This also facilitates minute steering corrections when climbing a boulder field.
Similarly, the throttle pedal travels a long distance before the big power comes on, so a tap on the gas doesn't spin the wheels. This means you can finesse the Range Rover over obstacles more easily than other sport-utilities. But this wide range of control calls for extra motion to maneuver the Range Rover. You need to turn the steering wheel more, mash the throttle down farther.
Still, the Range Rover provides the driver with lots of feedback. On fast dirt roads, it will drift with its tail swinging wide, more so than any other luxury sport-utility. It doesn't drift far enough to swap ends, and ultimately gives the skilled driver more control.
Air springs raise and lower the body. The system is programmed for five different positions over a range of 5.3 inches. Around town, the Range Rover moves along at its standard height. Above 50 mph, the body automatically lowers one inch for better stability in crosswinds. Stop and put the transmission into park, and you can manually select an access mode, dropping the body 2.6 inches. This makes a real difference in getting in or out if you or any passengers have physical or height challenges. Head off road and shift into low range, and the system raises the ride height for more ground clearance. An extended mode raises it higher still if you've high-centered on an obstruction, allowing you to drive off of it. As a bonus, the air springs tend to isolate the body from high-frequency bumps and vibrations.
Off-road, the anti-lock brakes are remarkable. Braking is the last thing you should do when you're sliding down a steep, muddy hill on the fringes of control. But all human instincts tell you to brake. Range Rover's anti-lock braking system senses conditions of instability and compensates, keeping you from making braking mistakes. When you stomp on the brake pedal on a muddy hill, you feel as if the brakes are not doing their job. But you can trust the Range Rover in these situations: Its computers are applying all the braking force that the tires can use.
The ZF electronically controlled automatic transmission monitors engine rpm, vehicle speed and throttle position, to select appropriate gears. The unique H-gate shifter combines control of the main gearbox and transfer gearbox, providing convenient shifting between high and low ranges.
Land Rover's permanent four-wheel-drive system makes use of any available traction, even if only one wheel has the tiniest amount of grip. Range Rovers use an electronically controlled two-speed transfer case with a viscous limited-slip center differential. The viscous coupling allows only a limited difference of speed difference between the front and rear output shafts. This provides excellent traction in slippery conditions. Electronic traction control, also standard, works with the ABS to automatically slow a spinning wheel by applying braking force.
The latest Range Rover is smooth on the highway, and offers a unique driving experience, one that's far removed from any of the other 35 sport-utilities on the market. It is quiet and luxurious. It tells you it's a truck in every task it does, yet you feel as comfortable and pampered as you would in a top-level luxury car.
In its combination of comfort and off-road capability, only the Lexus LX 470 can compete with the Range Rover. The Lexus is left behind in the style department, however. And it doesn't have quite the cache of the Range Rover. If you want the best in off-roading combined with maximum snob appeal, then head to the nearest Land Rover Centre and pick up a Range Rover. While there, you can pick up a pair of khakis, a couple of shirts and a few pairs of socks.
But don't forget your dinner jacket, either.
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