Is this a yuppie SUV? No way. Regardless of its West Coast image, the Range Rover model line of the 50-year-old Land Rover parent company has been producing exceptional off-road vehicles without compromise for more than 10 years; and this year, little has changed. That's why the only substantive additions are driver/passenger side airbags, new Bosch engine management system (the same as BMW 7 Series sedans), new intake manifold, and dual exhaust pipes. The last three refinements boost the engine's torque output a much-needed 15 percent over the '98 models' to a maximum of 300 pound-feet, good enough to tow up to 7700 pounds. That's a lot of brie and crackers.
The Range Rover certainly works well, both on- and off-road. Granted, the 4.6 HSE is not as athletic on the highway as others in this test, turning in modest, though not embarrassing, performance numbers-0-60 mph takes 9.5 seconds. Unfortunately, the only way a Range Rover is going to become noticeably quicker is if it abandons its venerable designed-by-GM 4.6-liter/222-horse aluminum OHV V-8 in favor of something more modern and muscular, say, like a DOHC V-8 engine transplant from the company that owns Land Rover, BMW. (Now there's an idea: a BMW sport/ute. Oh, wait-never mind.)
The ride is soft and compliant, a bit tall in the saddle, but not uncomfortably so. It runs the slalom course at a confident 59.5 mph and gets around a skidpad undramatically with 0.72 g of grip. Excuse the oxymoron, but the Range Rover really shines when it gets dirty, and it's as brilliant as its heritage promised. Its supple (height-adjustable) air-spring suspension soaked up rocky and rutted off-road trails that relentlessly threatened to shake the others' dashboards loose. Approach and departure angles of 34 degrees each and two widely articulating live axles afford the Range Rover consummate rock-crawling abilities. A long-travel throttle linkage, normally annoying on the highway, proved valuable in touchy off-road situations requiring precise pedal control. Plus, the overall talents of its Pirelli Scorpion ST 255/55HR18 radials make this a great all-weather performer. It seemed as if each mile traveled off-road in the Range Rover was a lesson in the art of subtle refinement-to the point where we'd occasionally forget how rough the trail was until someone's voice would interrupt our CD musical selection by saying, "D-d-does anyone else n-need a kidney belt?"
Its list of comfort, audio, safety, convenience, security, trim, and color selections reads like that of a custom home. And these features aren't frivolous things, but clever refinements built into a vehicle that someone actually drove for more than an afternoon. Which makes one of my criticisms of the Range Rover all the more ludicrous and nitpicky: I just can't get my head around the illogical actuation procedure of the power window controls that are between the two front seats.
All things considered, yes, it's relatively expensive, but it works, really well. It's better than pleasant around town and so loaded with amenities it will make you feel oh-so special. But if you dare take it off-road, you'll be surprised at where it can go and how comfortably it will get you there. Without compromise? Well, at its as-tested tally of $66,625 it might compromise your account balance, but that's about all-and those enigmatic power window controls do need getting used to.
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