It's easy to underestimate the Land Rover LR4, but not in the way you might think. After all, the LR3 was Motor Trend's overwhelming choice for Sport/Utility of the Year for 2005, and all that basic goodness--the impressive on-road refinement, the preternatural off-road ability, the remarkably efficient packaging--is still there. It's just that, well, the LR4 looks so much like its predecessor you can't help but wonder whether the new moniker has more to do with hype than hardware. It doesn't.

The LR4 is new, in a very Land Rover sort of way. Like the Series I Land Rover's gradual evolution through Series II, Series III, and into Defender over the past 60-odd years, sheetmetal changes have played second fiddle to significant mechanical and electronic upgrades. The LR4 has a new 5.0-liter V-8 under that familiar hood that boasts 25 percent more power and 19 percent more torque. Changes to the suspension knuckles have lowered the roll center, and there's a stiffer anti-roll bar up front and larger front disc brakes. Improvements to the acclaimed Terrain Response System include a new Sand mode launch control, more responsive traction control and anti-lock braking in Rock Crawl mode, and something called Gradient Release Control that releases the brakes more gradually as the vehicle starts down a steep grade.

And you notice the changes the moment you wheel the new LR4 into traffic. The 375-horsepower V-8's mid-range punch, combined with a more aggressive torque converter lockup protocol that also helps the LR4 maintain the same 12 city/17 highway-mpg EPA numbers as the LR3, helps deliver much crisper rolling acceleration response in surge-and-stop urban traffic. The big Landie feels more alive in the cut and thrust of fast-moving freeway traffic, with just a caress of your right foot needed to keep it running with the pack. The test gear confirms those first impressions: The LR4 accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds, a healthy 1.8 faster than our quickest run in the LR3, and runs the quarter mile in 15.3 seconds at 91.2 mph, compared with the LR3's 16.4 at 84.0.

On winding blacktop, the LR4 steers noticeably better too, and feels less tippy-toe on rapid changes of direction than does the LR3. Whereas the original LR3's electronic nannies intervened at the merest hint of shenanigans, contributing to a meager 0.50g average on Motor Trend's figure-eight test, the LR4's more controlled and composed chassis--and more sophisticated stability control tuning--raised that number to 0.60 g. Ride quality is first rate; subjectively it's the best in the business, rivaling that of the LR4's more upscale Range Rover sibling. The suspension's ability to deal with the road acne that normally excites juddery feedback from the heavy wheels and tires of many SUVs is outstanding, while body control over larger heaves and hollows is remarkable. Engine, wind, and road noise levels are commendably low, regardless of surface.