November 22 2012
Simon de Burton
It’s 8am on a Tuesday morning and the Moroccan sun is already nudging the mercury towards the 30ºC mark, but the temperature inside the cabin of our limousine is pretty much perfect and the water in the fridge is nicely chilled.
We’re heading for the Atlas mountains, looking forward to stopping for coffee at 3,000m above sea level at around 11am – but time’s a bit tight, so we decided to take a shortcut along an unmade road peppered with potholes 15cm deep and leading to a small gorge.
We had to slow down a bit there, because there were some quite large rocks and rather deep fissures that threatened to cause damage to the limo’s underside, but we made it and then it was just a matter of driving 7km through a fairly gently flowing river, before we could start climbing the donkey track that would lead us to the much-anticipated refreshments.
If you’re thinking this must have been some hell of a limousine to tackle a journey like that, you’d be right. It is, and it’s called the all-new Range Rover (from £71,295), the latest take on the original luxury off-roader that kickstarted the “sports utility vehicle” trend that the more Green-thinking would like to end, but which is only getting bigger: worldwide annual sales of SUVs are predicted to top 20 million within the next eight years.
The first Range Rover, designed by the late Charles Spencer King, was unveiled to the press in June 1970. The plan had been to hold an event in Morocco, but British Leyland’s requirement to get a new product onto the road sharpish after hold-ups with the development of the Triumph Stag sports car meant a hastier launch was organised – in a disused Cornish tin mine.
Perhaps there was also a lurking fear among the management that not many people would actually want a glorified Land Rover costing £1,998 but, 32 years and two model upgrades later, more than one million Range Rovers have been sold around the world.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that the pressure was on to get the new, fourth-generation version absolutely right. Gerry McGovern, Land Rover’s design director and chief creative officer, says the firm was so concerned that it locked 300 ultra-high-net-worth buyers inside a room and asked them to reveal their hopes and dreams for the replacement of the most admired vehicle in the luxury SUV sector. “Don’t change it – just make it better,” was the general, if rather cryptic, response.
They needn’t have worried. This design’s been in the pipeline for a good five years and has resulted in more than 300 prototypes, but if you park the “all-new” beside the previous model, the one before that and the original (as Range Rover’s marketing people were quick to do), there’s no denying the lineage. The transition from one to the next might not have been as seamless as, for example, that of the Porsche 911 – but no one could look at the first “Rangie” without seeing an obvious family resemblance to the latest, which has a lower roofline and longer wheelbase than its immediate predecessor.
I’ve owned and enjoyed three “original” Range Rovers (“Classics” as they’re now called), and, as tragic as it sounds, I felt quite emotional during the pre-launch briefing of the new one, when we were shown archive footage of 1970s examples ploughing through jungles and across deserts, with gung-ho adventurers like Major (now Colonel) John Blashford-Snell at the wheel. There’s something damned British about a Range Rover, whether it’s toting your gun-dogs across a field in Norfolk, whisking a prime minister to a conflab or – more usual – getting in the way during the school run.
You could say Range Rovers have “character”, a certain je ne sais quoi, that no other SUV has attained, which means that, among its opponents and imitators, the Range Rover doesn’t really have a direct rival.
And the gap between it and its closest pretenders has now got a whole lot wider. While journalists like me have a duty to be objective about these things, to pick fault and to highlight all the mistakes we think the designers and technicians have made, it’s difficult to find much not to like about this vehicle.
From an engineering point of view, it is noteworthy in being the first SUV to have a monocoque body made entirely from aluminium. This makes the car an amazing 39 per cent lighter than the 10-year-old outgoing model, resulting in obvious gains in performance, handling, fuel consumption and emissions. In the 1950s, the late, great racing-car designer Colin Chapman coined the phrase “adding lightness”. This Range Rover adds it in spades.
Chapman was also in favour of “simplifying”, but Range Rover’s designers can’t be accused of concurring with him there. It’s well and truly loaded with electronic gadgetry that makes it easier and smoother to drive in all conditions than its already capable predecessor.
One of the more significant advances can be seen in the latest version of Land Rover’s Terrain Response system, which selects the best engine, suspension and gearbox settings to cope with a wide range of surfaces. This can be done manually, but the new Range Rover also features an “automatic” mode, whereby it chooses the most suitable settings without input from the driver.
“What do we do here?” asked my travelling companion when we came face-to-face with a 5m, three-in-one rock climb at the exit to the aforementioned river. “Just keep going, I suppose,” was my best advice. Five seconds later, we were out with not a hint of a problem.
The previous model would have made it too, but not in such a remarkably unruffled manner – and that’s why the new Range Rover is so far ahead of its earlier incarnation. It really does blur the seemingly disparate lines between limousine and off-roader with an almost uncanny level of capability in both areas. Yes, it can be driven through a metre of water and up the side of a mountain, but it will also drag-race from a standstill to 60mph in 5.1 seconds, and surge on to a top speed of 155mph.
The design benchmarks for the car were nothing less than Bentley’s EXP9 concept SUV for luxury, BMW’s X7 and Audi’s Q7 for performance and economy, and the Bentley Flying Spur and Lexus LX for interior noise.
The car matches up in all areas, but is quite exceptional in the last one. “Eerie” perhaps describes the level of silence in the cabin, in which, at 100mph you can just about hear the merest hint of air flowing across the flush-fitting acoustic glass of the soft-close doors. Truly, it’s not far off being Rolls-Royce quiet.
The interior is also a decidedly pleasant place in terms of both comfort and aesthetics. A state-of-the-art, touchscreen “infotainment” system has halved the number of conventional switches for a cleaner-looking dashboard; there is an optional “executive-class” seating arrangement (two rear seats instead of three, complete with massage facility and power reclining); and a selection of sound systems that peaks with a 1,700W, 29-speaker effort from Meridian.
For those who want to personalise their Range Rover, there’s the Autobiography model (from £87,895), which offers 38 different paint colours, seven wheel designs, 16 interior‑trim possibilities and two contrasting roof colours in a potential 18,000 combinations.
There’s an interesting choice of engines, too. A 4.4‑litre, turbocharged, 339hp V8 diesel (from £94,695); a 5-litre, 375hp V8 petrol (not available in the UK); a 510hp supercharged version of the latter (from £98,395); and, for the first time in a Range Rover, the 3-litre, V6, turbocharged, 258hp diesel from the Land Rover Discovery (from £87,895). Driven with a featherlight foot, this latter option is claimed to offer fuel economy of up to 40.4mpg. And don’t forget, this is a car that boasts a towing capacity of 3,500kg.
But what sort of person would put a tow-hook on a limousine? The same sort who would drive one up a mountain, I guess.