Since its debut in 2005, Land Rover’s seven-eighths-scale Range Rover has been the darling of the brand’s North American portfolio, topping sales charts from the moment it rolled into dealer showrooms. It is has been a hit in other markets as well, at last count holding steady in the global No 3 position behind the more accessible Evoque and Freelander (LR2) models.
For 2014, an entirely new Sport arrives in four trim levels – SE and HSE, powered by a 340-horsepower supercharged 3-litre V6 engine; and Supercharged and Autobiography, powered by a 510hp supercharged 5-litre V8. In the US, pricing begins at $63,495, though with liberal optioning, the sticker price will soar above $100,000.
Accommodations range from tasteful business class in the SE to jaw-slackening first class in the Autobiography, though all trim levels benefit from Land Rover’s typically fine material choices and assembly quality. A generously equipped Sport is a paradise of fine hides, highly polished trim pieces and artfully integrated techie bits, including gorgeous simulated gauges on a 12in high-definition display. Rear seats are more spacious than before, and the new Sport offers a clever feature, something a Land Rover spokesman called “secret seating”. Two small seats pop up out of the cargo-area floor to form a diminutive third row, bumping seating from five to, well, “5+2”.
Whereas the old Sport was based on the steel-bodied Discovery, the new model employs a modified version of the Range Rover’s all-aluminium structure. As such, the new Sport is a whopping 800 pounds lighter than the old one, a loss that improves everything from steering feel to fuel economy. That said, the 2014 edition is no featherweight; V6 and V8 models straddle the 5,000lb mark, and though both engines motivate the Sport with authority, the driver is unlikely to confuse this mighty Land Rover for a Lotus. There is a lot of hardware beneath you, and a vast expanse of hood before you.
As with the last model, the supercharged V8 is a merry brawler. Models so equipped will blast to 60mph in 5 seconds flat; a V6-powered Sport will make the trip in 6.9 seconds, still quite brisk for a sport-utility vehicle. Of course, the six redeems itself at the pump: EPA ratings for SE and HSE models are 17mpg city and 23mpg highway, whereas Supercharged and Autobiography models return a middling 14mpg in the city and 19mpg on the open road – with a light right foot, that is.
Maximum ground clearance is up by 2in over the previous Sport, with 7.3in between on-road and off-road body positions. There is very little the full-size Range Rover can conquer that the Range Rover Sport cannot, if anything at all. Admittedly, though, Land Rover’s flagship benefits from greater wheel travel, allowing it to handle the rough stuff with less drama – pitching, rolling and wheel lift.
Two hours in the redwood wilds of California’s Santa Cruz Mountains proved the Sport’s off-road mettle. As in the bigger Range Rover, the Sport’s secret weapon is Land Rover’s stellar Terrain Response 2 system. The old system, which was hardly archaic, required the driver to eyeball the terrain ahead and turn a knob on the centre console to the appropriate pictogram – snow and ice, rocks, sand, what have you. The new setup divines the terrain on its own, based on data like speed, steering input, wheel spin and wheel travel.
As the surface changes beneath the vehicle – soft sand becomes jagged rocks becomes loose gravel becomes wet leaves – the system constantly switches among modes, unobtrusively adjusting settings for the dampers, steering, throttle and transmission, as well as the traction- and stability-control systems. The car creeps up against a deep rut or a rock face, then pauses as the computer figures out what needs to be done to surmount the obstacle. A moment later, the dashboard display notes that a new setting has been selected and the wheels are turning again. Magic.
It is worth noting that for those who believe they know better than the computer, or for those who just need to feel marginally useful, full manual control, via the old Terrain Response knob, is still available.
In the end, after several hundred miles, on and off the pavement, the Range Rover Sport emerges as one of those rare vehicles for which hyperbolic ad-speak seems perfectly reasonable. This really is a hybrid of a different sort, a racer-like road car that also happens to be an all-conquering off-roader. And despite the temptation to use a superhero analogy, such comparisons don’t quite hold up here, because unlike Superman or the Hulk, the Range Rover Sport really has no mild-mannered alter-ego. On the road, particularly with the V8, it is hard-charging in a way that calls to mind a BMW M5; off the road, it is indefatigable in a way that recalls, well, a Range Rover.
Without a nine-minute blast around the Nurburgring and a nine-day crawl over the Continental Divide, the Range Rover Sport’s owner will surely never comprehend the breadth and depth of his vehicle’s abilities. And that, perhaps, is the magic of this car, and of all Land Rovers. Ownership is less about what you will do, than what you could.