First Drive: 2003 Land Rover Range Rover HSE
Meet the best Range Rover ever built
When is a BMW not a BMW? When it surfaces in the form of Land Rover's ' 03 Range Rover. Land Rover conceived its plans for a new Range Rover in 1996 -- about the same time the company' s then-owner, BMW, started development of its X5 sport/utility. The goal was to spread engineering expenses across both platforms; this plan' s master was Dr. Wolfgang Reitzle, at the time BMW' s head of product development. Dr. Reitzle left BMW in 1999 to join Ford, where he became instrumental in Ford' s purchase of Land Rover in 2000 and got a second chance to finish up the Range Rover. Despite this slight interruption in parental involvement, Reitzle has fathered one superb, premium luxury sport/utility vehicle.
Compared to the current model, this new Range Rover is a radical departure, at least mechanically. Gone are the body-on-frame architecture, solid axles, and ancient OHV engines. The new chassis is welded to the body in the name of greatly enhanced structural rigidity. MacPherson struts up front and an independent rear suspension out back replace the aforementioned live-axle setups, the new hardware also featuring airbags rather than springs (similar to the BMW X5).
The result is dramatically improved ride and handling. Land Rover identified the BMW 5 Series as the Range Rover' s on-road driving dynamics bogey. Though it' s not quite that good -- understandable given its equally important mission as a serious off-roader -- it' s 85-90 percent as capable as the decidedly sporty X5. Whereas the current vehicle leans and doesn' t feel especially pinned down while cornering, the new one tackles curves as well as it does mud.
Off-road, the new version at least equals the present Range Rover -- and that' s a compliment. Like the current model, ride height is adjustable, offering low, medium, and high settings for entry/exit, highway, and off-road driving. The IRS' rear differential is tucked up high, creating more ground clearance (new 11.0 in. versus old 8.4). Land Rover' s renowned Hill Decent Control (HDC) makes off-roading safer by limiting vehicle speed when descending steep terrain. The electronically-shifted 4x4 system can be activated on the fly.
One of today' s Range Rover' s major weaknesses is its outdated 4.6L V-8 engine. BMW fixed this by providing the X5' s smooth and powerful DOHC 4.4L V-8 and five-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode. Yes, a Ford-owned brand powered by a BMW engine -- no bad thing. Despite being 485 lb heavier than the current version, the ' 03 should run 0-60 mph in 8.0 sec, or 1.5 sec faster than the ' 02.
While former owner BMW provided much engineering support, and new owner Ford contributed manufacturing expertise, veteran Land Rover designer Don Wyatt penned this bold, modern interpretation of the classic Range Rover theme. This elegantly imposing luxo-ute is 9.3 in. longer, 2.6 wider, and 1.8 taller than its predecessor, on a wheelbase of 113.4 in. (a 5.3-in. increase).
While the exterior is evolutionary, the interior is revolutionary. Even though Land Rover claims few parts are shared between the Range Rover and X5, much of the Rover' s switchgear is clearly BMW-sourced. No matter: It all makes for one of the most well-detailed, finely finished sport/utility cockpits ever. Its combination of leathers and woods is superb. The HDC and 4x4 levers mounted just aft of the shifter rate special mention for their ease of use. Interior room has increased, especially in the formerly tight back-seat area. Standard safety equipment includes dual front, front side, and front/rear head airbags, ABS and Dynamic Stability Control.
The first Range Rover was introduced in 1970; the second-generation came along in 1994. Both were benchmarks of their time, but this newest Range Rover goes far beyond. Where the previous models lacked sophisticated engine technology and on-road driving dynamics, this fabulous Land Rover/BMW/Ford hybrid has it all and will be a sure hit among its affluent buyership. The ongoing challenge for Land Rover will be to produce future vehicles that are as well-engineered and as refined as this one, now that Ford has taken over and the access to BMW and its considerable engineering prowess is gone.