Blasting more than two tonnes of Range Rover Sport along a gravel rally stage, thrashing it across twisty B-roads and plunging it into the muddy waters at Eastnor Castle, nothing has upset its composure.
In truth, nothing has even come close to challenging the newest, sportiest kid on the Range Rover block. It’s like one of those irritating kids at school who is brilliant in class, similarly gifted on the football pitch and a hit with the hottest girls. Except, you can’t hate this Sport – it just leaves you totally in awe of it.
Pitched between the Evoque and the L405 Range Rover, the new Sport deserves to banish the Chelsea WAG stereotype of the outgoing model (even though London’s glitziest streets will be teeming with them before you know it).
This is our first proper drive: in a production car, on UK roads.
ON ROAD – SUPERCHARGED
Our multi-terrain test starts on the outskirts of Cheltenham, with more than £80,000 worth of 503bhp 5.0 Supercharged Autobiography Dynamic fired up for a run through the Wye Valley and up over the Brecon Beacons into Powys. The fastest production Land Rover ever, it’s riding on 21-inch alloy wheels with 275/45 R21 Pirelli Scorpion Verde all-season rubber – all new Range Rover Sports come with mud-and-snow tyres as standard.
Continuously variable dampers are standard across the board too, but Dynamic trim means you get the top-spec twin-channel active roll control, and the Sport’s new gizmo: torque vectoring by braking. More on that in a mo.
The new lightweight aluminium monocoque L494 Sport was developed in parallel with the full-size L405 Range Rover, and inside you could be forgiven for thinking they’re identical. But in detail they’re not. The steering wheel has a 15mm smaller diameter and the seats are more aggressively contoured, while anyone familiar with the now ubiquitous rotary dial transmission control for the slick-shifting eight-speed automatic gearbox should prepare to be flummoxed by the Sport’s more conventional-looking lever. Although it’s designed to give a more sporting feel, and the option of manually overriding without using the steering wheel-mounted paddles, you have to press a fiddly ‘unlock’ button to engage drive or reverse – and park is a separate button on top of the lever, rather than a further push beyond.
Master that, though, and you’re in for a riot. The supercharged petrol V8 engine is a stonking lump that crackles and rasps manically like a Mad Max extra when you want it to, pulverising straights, or it’ll purr away imperceptibly when you’re not in the mood. It’s all too tempting to want to scurry around in second gear all day, just to hear the V8 in full voice – unless you’re paying the fuel bill.
What impresses most is the Sport’s fluid body control, especially over crests – it’s as if the tyres are pawing at the surface of the road to sense the rate of drop-off and cushion your fall. The ride is beautifully damped – just firm enough to communicate the nuances of the road surface without jarring your spine, even with Dynamic mode on the Terrain Response 2 dialled in.
Clamp the Brembo brake calipers around the 385/360mm front/rear vented discs and the Sport’s double-wishbone front/multi-link rear suspension resists pitching brilliantly.
The only thing that slightly underwhelms is the electric power-assisted steering. It’s nicely weighted, with quick responses, but lacks the same level of connectivity you feel with a regular power-assisted set-up.
ON GRAVEL – SUPERCHARGED
I haven’t mentioned grip or torque vectoring yet, have I? The time is now. The Sport’s high grip levels on tarmac are one thing, but its traction on gravel really is something else – as a high-speed blast through a forest rally section of the Sennybridge military training range illustrates.
Go too fast into a corner, whether on tarmac or gravel, and you expect the nose of a still fairly hefty vehicle like a 2.3-tonne Sport to push wide with understeer. But thanks to torque vectoring – an electronics system that works with the active locking rear differential and Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) system to sense understeer coming – torque is sent to the wheels with the most grip. You feel it tightening the line of travel and effectively helping steer the vehicle in the direction you want to go. Not only do you have a better chance of staying on the road, but you can corner quicker too, and there’s no snatching of brakes that you might expect. The faster you go, the more pronounced the sensation and the more alive the Sport feels.
ON-ROAD – SDV6
How does that translate into the lighter 2.1-tonne SDV6 – the engine that will account for most UK sales?
I find out on the run back towards Land Rover’s proving ground at Eastnor Castle. Another Autobiography Dynamic-spec vehicle, costing about £6500 less than the Supercharged (it starts at £74,995), it’s identical except for the 292bhp 3.0-litre twin-turbo SDV6 diesel, which gives about 15mpg more.
You have to sacrifice the Supercharged’s aural treats – the SDV6 is more coarse and gruff-sounding – but I have high hopes for the SDV6 Dynamic, having been blown away by how the same basic engine (a 254bhp version) transformed the feel of the L405 Range Rover over its V8 brethren. The SDV6 Sport gets the brilliant active roll control that L405 TDV6 buyers are denied.
As with the L405, you immediately notice the lack of mass at the front end, but in the Sport the nose of the V6 feels almost too light and floaty by comparison to the Supercharged.
It’s still stunningly rapid and well-mannered on a cross-country drive, but perhaps the mass of the V8 motor helps press the nose of the Supercharged into the ground. The damping is well up to the job of controlling the mass, that’s for sure.
Surprisingly, given the weight difference, the suspension set-ups are identical on both SDV6 and Supercharged Dynamic models. It’s a shame, but it feels like there’s a few per cent of bite lacking, which makes the SDV6 feel marginally less confidence-inspiring when you’re pushing on. Perhaps the 4.4-litre SDV8 due 2014 will offer the best of both worlds.
OFF-ROAD – SDV6
On to Eastnor, to find out how the Sport cuts it in the rough. This SDV6 has a two-speed transfer box, so you still get to play in low range. But lower-spec models can be had without the second ratio and a Torsen diff, making off-roading more challenging, though no less capable than the outgoing two-speed L320 Sport.
Starting off in muddy, rutted hill climbs into the woods, then pushing through moderately deep water, the Sport is completely unchallenged. It’s just under 1.8 metres wide (1780mm) and the door mirrors are huge, but it’s very agile and has reasonable approach and departure angles – 33º front/31º rear. And, it benefits from a tightness of turning circle that a Defender 110 can only dream of.
What the water sections do reveal is the new Wade Aid function on the info display. Cameras in the undersides of the mirrors calculate the depth of the water you’re driving through, up to a maximum speed of 6mph. The depth is represented by a blue bar rising up the side of the vehicle pictured, and the system emits a parking-sensor-like bleep to tell you when you’re approaching the 2ft 9in (850mm) maximum wading depth.
As with the rest of the 4x4i info (such as whether diffs are open or locked, and how the wheels are placed), Wade Aid is handy, but not something you can really focus on – mostly, you’ll be concentrating on looking ahead.
Climbing out of the woods on to the gentler pasture and farm tracks that criss-cross the highest point of the Eastnor estate, the Sport feels right at home. There’s just one sheer drop to go. The Sport’s Hill Descent Control (HDC) now gets its feed from the on-board gyroscope, so it knows when you’re on a hill – and operates only when you’re on one. And, as it’s tied to the Gradient Release Control, descending steep inclines is a smoother operation than before too.
The way 2.1 tonnes of metal can, at a constant speed, inch down a slope that would be too steep to walk down is awe-inspiring.
To compare the new Sport in any way with the outgoing model seems futile, really – the new model is such a huge step forward in every area. Not only is it lighter (420kg lighter like-for-like on the SDV6), it’s more spacious, more refined, faster, more agile and more economical. And with a seven-seat option now available, it’s become a more versatile car than ever before too. But best of all, it makes you feel like you can go anywhere and do anything. It’s heroic. It’s everything a modern Range Rover should be. It is the only car you’ll ever need.
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