Saturday, November 10, 2012
Range Rover: If you must buy a luxury SUV ..
By Dan Neil
The pearl-black Range Rover was up to its headlights in water, moving slowly, hippopotamine, pushing a bow wave that rippled the floating debris ahead. Jaguar Land Rover’s testing facilities near Gaydon, in Warwickshire, include several proper English moats where visitors can indulge in the Range Rover’s crazy fording depth. Thanks to some replumbing of the engine induction system, the 2013 Range Rover can now safely traverse water up to 35.4 inches deep, company execs tell me, almost over the wheel arches. I hope they’re right. It feels like I’ve taken a wrong turn down a boat ramp.
But as the Range Rover plied the cold, noisome waters—a Schwimmwagen limousine, an amphibian to put a giant salamander to shame—I thought: Really? When is this ever gonna happen?
Car makers call it “contingency anxiety,” the urge to buy a mechanically overqualified vehicle because maybe, once in a blue moon—or a hurricane on a high tide—the car buyer might need the extra functionality. The personal-use pickup market is a creature of contingency anxiety. After all, once a year, you need to bring home a Christmas tree.
I advise buyers not to be ruled by contingency anxiety. First off, it’s bad economics. Second, buyers often purchase vehicles to fit the life they’d wish to have, rather than the one they actually have. You do not want to be commuting in a Porsche 911 GT3, whose carbon-composite seats and leathery suspension will beat you like a Dickens headmaster, on the grounds that one day, maybe, you might join the Porsche club.
And yet, the events of the past two weeks in the New York area have made me reconsider the virtues of full-size SUVs, which when the occasion arises are also, as a class, amazingly able off-road and in extreme conditions. For most buyers, these big, thirsty, hard-to-park quadrupeds are a bad idea: Mercedes-Benz GL, Audi Q7, Lexus LX, BMW X5, Porsche Cayenne, Jeep Grand Cherokee. No question, they are all insanely pleasant to drive, with finely tailored two- and three-row saddlery, sophisticated electronics and luxurious cabin amenities. Each is large, prestigious, with a domineering presence in traffic, more likely to inspire awe than envy. Each of these vehicles is surprisingly fast, for bison.
And each offers buyers serious off-road hardware: fully automated all-wheel-drive systems with hill-descent control and smart braking; varieties of electro-hydraulically actuated front, rear and center differentials to maximize available traction; multiterrain stability logic; and adaptive suspension and ride height.
But let’s be reasonable. The only way somebody is going to take, say, a Mercedes GL63 AMG into the woods is if they fall asleep on the interstate. Also, as capable as they are, big SUVs are not invulnerable. Every year, after the first snow, the ditches are full of SUVs driven there by people who overestimated their vehicles’ grip and underestimated their weight. The Jeep Grand Cherokee can negotiate 20 inches of standing water, but Jeep makes no warranty regarding the downed power lines you might find in that water. Your fantasies of fording wheel-high floodwaters as you bug out from the Hamptons should remain just that.
So why deal with a big SUV’s weight, higher center of gravity, relative lack of sportiness and poor fuel economy in exchange for a capacity you will never use? And while I’m asking, why burden yourself with a vehicle that is beautiful to exactly no one? Have you seen an Infiniti QX56? Be warned: You can’t unsee it.
And then there’s Range Rover, which is both a brand—the luxury adjunct to Land Rover, owned with its sister company Jaguar by the Indian conglomerate Tata —and a model. The vast majority of buyers use Range Rovers exclusively as on-road transportation, as commuter cars, as family minivans and as other forms of livery servitude, including hotel and executive transportation. Consider that the biggest market for Range Rover in the U.S. is Beverly Hills, Calif.
It is Range Rover’s special burden to produce trucks with all the high-tech, leather-swaddled seduction and refinement of Audi, BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz while also offering mind-blowing, class-of-one off-road abilities. These qualities are almost always at odds, from an engineering perspective. And that brings me back round to Range Rover’s proving grounds, where I am driving an executive limousine through what appears to be the shallow end of an abandoned swimming pool.
In order for Range Rover to extend the vehicle’s already amazing off-road chops, it had to do something about the truck’s biggest dynamic liability: weight. Previously, these things have felt like they were built for the merchant marine. For 2013, Range Rover has gone to the considerable trouble of building the vehicle on an aluminum chassis—the world’s first alloy SUV chassis, the company says. While the truck is 1.2 inches longer overall, on a 1.6-inch-longer wheelbase (115 inches), it weighs 700 pounds less than before, a remarkably svelte 4,850 pounds.
Taking 13% off the curb weight has many salutary effects, both on-road and off. On the proving grounds’ high-speed circuit, as one might expect, the new Range Rover felt distinctly less ponderous and quite a bit more spirited and direct in handling. The air suspension—a system that asymmetrically pressurizes the suspension to counteract body roll while cornering—has an easier time trimming out the vehicle, so much so that its workings are almost imperceptible. Now this locomotive has the rails to go with it. The two engines available for the U.S. market are carry-overs—the 5-liter V8, either naturally aspirated (375 horsepower) or supercharged (510 hp)—but they are now paired with an eight-speed ZF automatic transmission. The reduced weight and additional gear ratios helps drop zero-to-60 acceleration time for the naturally aspirated V8 to 6.5 seconds, down from 7.2 seconds. Fuel economy is also up a tick or two. If you have a proper run at it, as I had, the Range Rover can lean into the wind at speeds in excess of 130 mph.
Across the facility’s muddy tracks and bloody bog—what the Jaguar Land Rover guys call the “Developing World” section—the light-weighted Range Rover feels likewise transformed, easily surging up steep hills and effortlessly carrying its own momentum across fields of wheel-sucking muck. I admit, I was nervous and, once in a while, even alarmed. If you have ever had to retrieve one of these things with a winch, you know, you’d really rather not.
The 2013 model also features the next-gen Terrain Response system, which now includes a fully automated, idiot-proof terrain-sensing mode. In other words, no more fiddling with the Rock, Snow and other terrain settings, if you don’t want to. The new Range Rover’s autopilot will sort all that out faster than you can, anyway.
With its longer wheelbase, the Range Rover redesign makes rear-cabin ingress easier, with pronounced stadium seating allowing midrow-seat occupants to look over the shoulders of front occupants (bear in mind, though, it’s still a goodly step up, even if the adaptive suspension is lowered to “access” mode). Range Rover will also offer optional executive seating, with two business-class seats in the place of the midrow bench. Range Rover has moved the needle to yet richer and more exclusive materials and design, even as it has simplified the cabin and cockpit environment. Instead of the previous eight rotary dials in the wide center console, controlling audio, climate and the terrain-response system, the new cockpit has only five: three fixed rotary dials for the climate control; the capstan-style gear selector that rises out of the walnut console; and the Terrain Response selector. The top-grain leather, the contrasting welting on the seats, the selection of figured hardwood veneers, the long-as-your-arm list of electronic driver assists and amenities: all wonderful.
The single demerit to the redesign is the exterior styling, which has lost some of its visual authority, I think. In the interest of improved aerodynamics and noise reduction, the front of the vehicle has been rounded and softened, ineffably feminized compared with the previous model’s teeth-baring front end. And something about the axle-dash ratio doesn’t seem to quite line up. Still, it would take some serious trainspotting to tell the difference.
The Range Rover starts at $83,500 and extends all the way to the seductive, Rolls-ish Autobiography edition, at $130,950.
Will you ever need to negotiate a standing yard of water? I hope not, and I would advise against trying, even in a Range Rover. But I must say there is something deeply empowering about a vehicle that can handle such conditions and still deliver the best that British luxury can offer.
Range Rover: Buy it for the fear. Keep it for the joy.