The original Range Rover was like nothing else before it. With coil springs offering a supple ride, a V8 engine providing generous muscle and unrivalled off-road performance, the Range Rover quickly became a must-have status symbol.
It was – and remains – classless beyond fashion but new blood was needed after 24 years in production. Enter, in September 1994, Project 38a. Many of the old car’s familiar traits – castellated bonnet edges, slab sides, the famous split tailgate – remained, but the styling was new and the interior a completely different story.
The two generations appear similar, but while the original basks in a warm glow of affection, the P38’s BMW-derived running gear and reputation for unpredictable bad behaviour instantly made it the Phil Collins to the Classic’s Peter Gabriel.
Replacing a legend was never going to be easy, but Land Rover’s decision to keep the Classic in production until 1996 – two years after the P38’s launch – did the new car no favours at all. The question is, should you follow the crowd with a sensible Classic, or take a chance on the more modern – but potentially more unruly – P38? We believe we have the answer.
On and Off The Road
If the Range Rover Classic is a little vague at the tiller – and capable of instigating motion sickness when pushed to prolonged, tyre-squealing lengths – the P38’s anti-roll bars and air springs allow for more control and a dollop of positive feedback. High-speed handling was never the Range Rover’s point, but the P38 offers a silken touch in the corners where the Classic wallows.
The V8 petrol engines – described as 4.0-litre in the P38, and 3.9-litre in the Classic – offer near-identical economy, although 20mpg at best is probably enough to make even the most ardent of enthusiasts reach for the smelling salts.
Each delivers smooth, brisk performance however, and their exhaust notes are incredibly moreish, though the P38’s extra weight can occasionally leave its V8 feeling a little breathless. Yet its 190bhp V8 (8bhp more than the Classic) means it can hit 60mph in a little more than 10 seconds – a full 1.5 seconds faster than the Classic – thanks to improved intake and exhaust system and revised and strengthened internals.
Each can waft its way north of 100mph, though the Classic hits the buffers at 105mph, while the P38 keeps going all the way to 112mph.
Open either car’s door and you’re greeted with an appealing blend of luxury and purpose, the Classic’s low-range regulator and chunky controls in particular reminding you that it can go where other Chelsea Tractors fear to tread.
Each offers plenty of legroom but taller individuals will prefer the later car’s improved headroom. It’s the same story in the boot – the P38’s huge, uncluttered load space can easily swallow fridges and washing machines whole, but the Classic’s boot-mounted spare wheel compromises its ultimate load-lugging abilities.
The P38 lacks a little of the Classic’s retro charm, but there’s more logic to the way its switchgear is positioned and the previous – and frankly rather scary-looking – set of gear levers and warning stickers are replaced in the newer car with a slick H-pattern gear shifter set-up.
Both cars afford a splendid, all-encompassing view of the road ahead though, so the driving experience in each is as addictive as it is hugely enjoyable. You really do feel head and shoulders above everything else around. Because you are.
Each has its foibles out on the road – the Classic is let down by wind noise and cabin creaks and the P38 can sound stressed under heavy bursts of acceleration, but both astound off it on the right tyres.
Differences emerge as the going gets tough – the older car doesn’t feel quite as stable over major obstacles as the more planted and confi dence-inspiring P38 – but each will scramble over just about anything you throw at it.
Central to this ability is the Range Rover’s legendary axle articulation and suspension travel. Purists maintain that the P38’s approach and departure angles are inferior to the Classic’s thanks to its longer wheelbase and more pronounced rear overhang, but it fights back with air suspension which can be raised for improved ground clearance and wading, or lowered to facilitate easy detaching of a horsebox or trailer, or to allow Her Majesty a graceful exit from the rear seats.
Both cars have torque to spare, the better to claw up steep inclines, but the P38’s four-wheel drive system is less intimidating; instead of battling with levers, simply slide the gearlever into low range and off you go.
The Classic is still king of the Range Rover market. Good early examples can fetch upwards of £40k at auction, with later ‘Soft Dash’ specimens changing hands for anywhere between £1500 for a project and £20k for a minter. Values have continued to skyrocket in recent years, as the Classic still holds wide appeal. And this desirability seems set only to grow, as the daddy of ‘em all.
The P38 isn’t quite so expensive – reliability problems and a general perception that it’s not yet a truly classic vehicle continue to keep values low. You can buy a complete wreck for £800, but a pristine and well cared for example will set you back between £5k and £10k. It’s a lot of car for the money, and as a cult following appears to be growing as time goes on, it won’t be long before the P38 becomes a rare and collectable piece of Land Rover history.
Diesels, although woefully underpowered, retain their value well as they are more DIY and user-friendly. If you have the budget, why not have both?
And The Verdict...
With prices for late Classics and early P38s now about on a par, which should you go for if you have £4000 to spend? The P38 is the better vehicle of the two in just about every respect but it’s let down by a colossal elephant in the room – reliability.
Too many of its electronics can deteriorate with age, so buying an underprivileged example could leave you saddled with a money pit. However, it’s much tougher than the doom-mongers would have you believe – a good one is certainly more robust than a Classic.
The Classic isn’t quite as polished an all-rounder, but then its' design is nearly a quarter of a century older. It’s the better looking of the two, though, and certainly more DIY-friendly. It’s practically unstoppable in the right hands, too.
But while the Range Rover Classic is hugely appealing, the P38, with its superior on- and off -road abilities, now-retro looks, greater room, more refinement and improved luxury, is the one to seek in this price range.
Find and cherish a good P38 and you’ll never look back. As unloved examples continue to fall by the wayside, we’ll soon be left fighting over the good ones, thereby inflating prices.
Best start hunting down a prime example now…
You can find plenty of Range Rover P38s and Range Rover Classics for sale in the LRO Classifieds.