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Range Rover stands tall-and lonely-atop the SUV pinnacle

By Marc K. Stengel

MARCH 13, 2000:  In a dynamic market for a given category of product, what are the costs exacted by the determination of a given manufacturer to remain above the fray? To be more specific, what is the risk to BMW's Land Rover division--in terms of both sales and image--of insisting that its vaunted Range Rover 4.6 HSE sport/utility vehicle resist all compromises, either to its technological superiority or its luxurious refinement? Where the heck, in other words, do those Brits get off chargin' over $70-grand for a box-on-wheels, sod-kickin' trail-buster?

In a total vacuum, it is pretty easy to conclude that if the Range Rover is not the most capable SUV presently available, certainly there are no rivals that are more capable over a complete spectrum of activities, ranging from civilized highway touring to barbaric backroad trudging--through uncharted terrain, if need be. (The Range Rover, by the way, is also available as a 4.0 SE version with a smaller V8 powerplant and 16-inch instead of the HSE's 18-inch wheels.)

Say what you will about the all-aluminum V8 in the Range Rover (and many critics do say that its untrendy pushrod design represents state-of-the-art 1970s technology in the form of the Buick motor from which it's ultimately derived). But for a vehicle intended to cruise highways, to tow playthings, and to tread trails at slower-than-walking speeds, Range Rover's "Thor" V8 is precisely the torque god that's called for. The high-end 4.6-liter version makes 222 decent horsepower, but those 300 mighty ft.-lbs. of broad low-end torque (at 2,600 rpm) are what off-roaders in the know are looking for. (The 4.0's stats are 188 HP and 250 ft.-lbs.) It's not that Range Rover can't play quite nicely in traffic. But off-roading is a pulling game, sometimes measured in inches per minute. Think about it: When was the last time you ever saw a high-torque Caterpillar tractor in need of a tow truck?

For 2000, the Thor V8s now rate 50-state emissions certification, having met California's rigorous Low Emission Vehicle status. Still, ol' Thor empties the mead cup at the rate of 12 miles-per-gallon/city, 15/highway. For a rich swell in a Range Rover, that's just a percentage thing though, really.

As for the drive train, the Range Rover's trademark three-differential, viscous-coupled, traction-controlled permanent four-wheel-drive system is an off-roading benchmark. Integral to it is a four-speed automatic transmission that features dual highway modes and two more modes for off-roading. There is also a mind-bending, mostly automatic air-suspension system that calibrates ride height to both speed and terrain. Off-road, for example, you can win a bit more ground clearance; on the Interstate, you can hunker down out of the wind. What with the extremely savvy design of front and rear vehicle overhangs to optimize what are known as "angles of approach and departure," a Range Rover in the right hands can tiptoe into realms that might truly be more difficult to reach on foot.

Range Rover's off-road tech is sophisticated enough virtually to require workshop instruction for exploiting it fully; and Land Rover division, of course, thoughtfully obliges with a variety of driving school programs. Of course, for a rich swell in a Range Rover, the time and expense of going to "trail school" is just a percentage thing. So too, I guess, is a virtual guarantee that any vehicle headed for the inhospitable nether regions is going to earn a breast full of honor badges of the dent, scrape, and ding variety.

I've heard whiners complain that while the interior of a Range Rover is full of all this fussy, creamy, soft leather smelling like dairy butter and all this polished walnut burl looking like Queen Victoria's smoking loge, they can't find the seat controllers or mirror adjusters or cruise control switch. Since all of these conveniences (and almost too many more, including J.A.M.E.S., the GPS navigation system) are there somewhere, I'm confused as to whether this means Range Rover's expression of interior luxury is manqu because you may have to figure it out or whether Brits just can't be luxurious by American standards.

At which point Range Rover's evaluation in a vacuum begins to dissipate. All else being equal, it is at least defensible to say that a Range Rover 4.6 HSE has no equal. But the SUV market is presently infested with all manner of unequal rivals touting more chrome, more overupholstered American-style luxury, more horsepower, and better fuel efficiency--at significantly lesser prices. So what if only a Range Rover can make its way to Olduvai Gorge and back without a map? If Mommy can make it to the pickup line at Country Day School, that's about as far off the main road as she ever plans to be.

Land Rover division likes to boast that they "invented" the luxury sport/utility segment with the Range Rover's debut in 1987. Actually, it's more accurate to say they invented the "epitome" segment--to which they can still reliably assert their sole, purebred claim while a pack of lesser mongrels robs them blind of customers. Land Rover advertising wants to suggest that you can feel like a millionaire in a Range Rover "unless, of course, you're worth more." Being British, they're driving on the wrong side of the road, connotation-wise. It's only the folks who are "worth more" who'll never notice they've just spent $60- or $70-grand on the ultimate SUV. For the rest of us whose net-worth percentages cut a bit closer to the bone, mightn't we settle for less and still get more?

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