BBC Autos

Review

2013 Land Rover Range Rover, rich and rugged

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It would seem Range Rover owners are fans of the long-running play I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.

Those persnickety owners should be thrilled, because “the same, but better” is exactly what Land Rover engineers have delivered in the 2013 Range Rover. Whereas we mortals might cave under regimens of relentless self-improvement, the Range Rover’s task was particularly arduous because of the seemingly contradictory demands placed on it by owners.

Building a cushy off-roader sounds about as rational as fried ice cream or salted caramel, but we know that these things can be done remarkably well. The challenge in building the new Range Rover was to push back the existing limits, making the 2013 model smoother on the road and rougher off of it. Getting a supremely capable off-road machine to ride and handle adroitly requires engineering that sidesteps the laws of physics.

Other stakeholders in the design of the new Range Rover are the world’s governments, which have decreed that passenger cars be less thirsty. It so happens that development of a new, all-aluminium design serves the causes of responsive driving and improved efficiency, while freeing the new model of 700 pounds of girth. The aluminium is partly comprised of recycled metal, and product manager Simon Turner says the company aims to increase the total amount of recycled aluminium in the Rover’s production to 75%.

Two more gears in the automatic transmission – there are eight now, where there once were six – contribute to improved efficiency, as does a refined silhouette that cuts through the wind with less disturbance.

That is not to say Land Rover has built a fuel-miser.

In base configuration, with a 5-litre V8 engine producing 375-horsepower and 375 pound-feet of torque, the SUV is certified at a still-thirsty 14mpg in city and 20mpg in highway driving. The Supercharged model, with 510 horsepower and  461 pound-feet of torque, achieves 13mpg and 19mpg, respectively. Still, these figures represent roughly a 15% improvement in fuel economy over the outgoing model.

Even with the functional improvements, the Rover’s silhouette remains clearly recognisable. From a curbside vantage, the elongated wheelbase, stretched hood and sloped windshield contribute to an impression that the cabin is now in tow behind a four-horse hitch up front. The profile, then, marks a return to the original, long-hood look of the first-generation Range Rover of the 1970s – not particularly pretty, but eminently rugged.

Land Rover’s objective was cleanliness of line and proportion, according to Richard Woolley, the company’s design studio director. “There are no fussy, contrived, superficial elements,” he said.

And he is mostly correct. The 2013 Range Rover lamentably welcomes faux gill vents stamped into its doors – vestiges of the functional vents in the previous model’s fenders, which directed cooling air toward the engine. These door-mounted vents merely lip-sync. They also contribute to the impression that the front end is stretched farther than it actually is.

With 700 fewer pounds to manage, the computer-controlled Terrain Response air suspension system better responds to surface conditions. For the owner who might have found twisting the console-mounted suspension-selector knob a baleful task, there is reason to rejoice. A driver can merely press the knob down into the console and the vehicle will automatically determine, in just a minute or so of driving, what the conditions are and how the suspension should respond to them.

For this test, Land Rover sought out one of the most remote spots in the continental United States: the Grand Staircase escarpment in southern Utah. The Range Rover would be challenged with the Hog Canyon trail, which the US Bureau of Land Management officer on hand to prevent any hooliganism promised was impassible in these showroom-fresh Rangies. He was wrong.

In automatic mode, the Range Rover could quickly divine whether its fool of a driver was attempting foolhardy things and take appropriate corrective action, shifting traction where it was most needed. The prowess of the adjustable suspension was most clear in the loose gravel/snow setting, which allowed the wheels to churn a bit. Maintaining a slow, steady forward pace, obeying the directions of Land Rover’s assembled spotters and gripping the steering wheel loosely to better allow the Rover to find its own way, the machine felt unstoppable.

Do foolish things such as hammer erratically on the throttle, jerk the wheel or jump off the gas in panic just when a smidgen of momentum is needed, however, and the wheels burrow into the earth.

Interestingly, over terrain that in many places seemed to call for the rock setting, the Range Rover still performed better in loose gravel mode. The rock calibration was truly best suited to bare rock faces, whereas the Hog Canyon rocks were coated with dirt and grit that demanded a touch of wheelspin.

The Range Rover’s terrain-taming prowess is such to give a driver an inflated sense of the SUV’s capabilities. It is critical to remember, though, that a prudent, steady pace is the best defence against the overconfidence generated by driving such a capable $100,000 machine.

On the highway, the Rover delivers the smooth ride and responsive steering that drivers have wanted, but have not received in the past. These vehicles were better known for steering that was at times leaden, and at others  overboosted and numb. When it was said that a Range Rover drove well on the road, it was qualified with, "for an off-road vehicle". The 2013 Range Rover effectively erases that asterisk.

The light, rigid aluminium structure lets the Range Rover do things no SUV with its level of capability ever could before. That translates to on-road comfort and handling on par with the Mercedes-Benz GL, with off-road capacity like that of the almost military-grade Mercedes G-Class. Getting one machine to embody the capabilities of each verges on the miraculous.

The cabin, per tradition, is wrapped in fine stitched leather and wood veneers. Models equipped with the enormous optional panoramic sunroof feel particularly bright and open. In the front seats, owners of the outgoing model will feel right at home, with similar seats and LCD virtual instruments. But half the buttons are gone from the dashboard, replaced by virtual buttons on the central display screen.

The back seat has received a thorough  stretch, yielding nearly five more inches of much-needed rear legroom. There is also a new rear climate-control system and, in a nod to the chauffeur-centric Chinese luxury market, where the brand recently established a joint venture, a new executive option that swaps in a pair of power-operated reclining bucket seats in lieu of the usual three-abreast bench.

Each of these changes conspires to make the 2013 Range Rover better than its predecessor, while retaining the essential elements that owners loved. Of course, this will only embolden drivers to ask for more; managing customer expectations is the toughest of all tests. Fortunately, this SUV seems perfectly suited to this terrain.

A prudent, steady pace is the best defence against the overconfidence generated by driving such a capable $100,000 machine.