I learned to drive in a Land Rover. It was an ex-Australian Army Series II short wheelbase, probably built around 1960, with several tours of duty on the odometer. It was a shabby dark green with a khaki canvas roof that flapped like a MASH tent in a Force 10 gale when you went over 30mph. There was no synchromesh on first or second gears, so double declutch shifts were mandatory (and to this day, I still dip the clutch pedal twice on downshifts, heeling-and-toeing to match revs, on every manual transmission car I drive). It was slow, yet lug tires, grabby brakes, and heavy steering made every corner an adventure.
I loved that Land Rover. It was indestructible and unstoppable; totally functional and utterly authentic, right down to the last rivet. Land Rovers had conquered continents: it's been claimed it was the first car seen by 60 percent of the developing world's population. Royalty drove them: Land Rover at one point had four Royal Warrants (a mark of recognition to companies or individuals that have supplied goods or services to senior members of the British royal family); the best Rolls-Royce ever managed was three (until the 1950s, the British royals actually preferred Daimlers).
The Range Rover Sport Supercharged I picked up in London last month was about as far removed from that old Series II Landy as could be imagined. It looked every inch the black label Land Rover the new badging proclaimed it to be (for 2010 model year, all Range Rovers have black and silver badges, instead of Land Rover's traditional green and gold). Glossy black paint. Shiny 20-in. alloy wheels wrapped in low profile tires. Inside, tasteful black leather seats with contrasting white stitching, plus carpets, climate control air conditioning, and satellite navigation. Under the hood, a 510-hp supercharged V-8. That's twice as many cylinders, and about seven times the power the old Series II had.
But is it seven times the fun? I'm not so sure. Of course the Sport Supercharged is an impressively fast and civilized tool with which to navigate the wilds of London's leafier suburbs. It does pretty much everything today's generation of luxury performance SUVs -- Porsche Cayenne Turbo, Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG, BMW X6 M -- are expected to do on the road, and is still way better than any of them off it. It's cheaper than a regular Range Rover, and racier than a Land Rover LR4, which perhaps explains why I saw so many of them in London (though most, admittedly, were powered by the economical 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6).