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Range Rover 2001 Impressions

The Range Rover's Return - James May, Country Life, 31 January 2002

On a philosophical level, the Range Rover never made any sense whatsoever. When I eventually compile my book of the world's greatest oxymorons, "luxury off-roader" is going to be right at the front, ahead, even of "fun fair" and "economy class."

History, however, proves that the idea has worked well, although even then perhaps not entirely as expected. Legend has it that the concept was inspired by complaints from the British farming community--they wanted a vehicle that would prevail over agricultural terrain in the way only a Land Rover could, yet was plush enough for taking Mrs. Farmer into town for a night out. For once, someone listened to farmers, and the Land Rover Range Rover, one of the most iconic and significant cars in the history of the British motor industry, was born. That was 1970.

Curiously, something similar happened in Australia, but there the outcome was the "coop ute"--the coupe utility, a sort of pick-up truck with a posh cab. Not really as good.

It did not take long for the Range Rover to break free of its intended remit, becoming, as is well documented, the favoured transport of Hollywood moguls and "Chelsea farmers." For transcending the yawning chasm between essential rural kit and indulgent urban chic, the Range Rover soon rivalled the wellington boot. Few people actually used their Range Rovers in the countryside, either.

For the new model, only the third in 32 years, Land Rover has taken the opportunity to effect a complete reversal of the Range Rover priorities. What was once an unashamed off-road workhorse paying token fealty to comfort is now an out-and-out luxury express in which all-terrain capability is presented as a bonus. One wonders why these people won't simply admit defeat and build a limousine. Then again, that would not be a true Land Rover. Off-road capability can be regarded in the way the driver's airbag is; that is, one hopes never to have to use it, but it is nice to know that it will work. Furthermore, there is a hard-core pith-helmet-and-comedy-shorts contingent at Land Rover, but I shall come on to that lot in a moment.

Starting from the inside, the new Range Rover makes a startling contrast with the original. The 1970 model seems painfully austere by modern standards, but it must be remembered that it was unveiled at a time when a traditional Land Rover would have been considered fully specified if it actually had a roof. The cabin--inspired, apparently, by the Riva motor launch and the wheelhouses of luxury yachts--features hide, wood and modern textured plastics. It is a curious mixture of boat, country house and Swedish hi-fi, and surprisingly successful. In an age when so many car interiors seem to have been hewn from a single piece of burnt toast, it is pleasing to find a proper "assembled" facia. The seats are superb and the view commanding.

 From without, the Range Rover still looks like one, and established styling features such as large glass area, the rear pillars, the clamshell bonnet and the general impression that it was drawn with a ruler and pencil have been retained, even though the body (of unitary construction rather than with a separate chassis) is entirely new.

It looks the way it does for good reason. It begins with the seating position, which must be high to allow a view over hedges and into ditches; the glasshouse is upright and the flanks flat so that driver might look straight down at the boulders he is trying to avoid; the lower edges of the nose and tail taper sharply upwards so they can clear sharp inclines; and the bonnet is square-cut so the car's extremes can be easily judged.

Beneath that vast bonnet beats one of two excellent BMW engines. The presence of either the 4.4-litre V8 petrol engine or the 3.0-litre six-cylinder diesel from Munich is the legacy of BMW's brief custody of the Solihull factory. The Range Rover was conceived internally, developed under BMW ownership, and completed with Land Rover as part of the Ford empire. It is a combination of British design flair and German engineering excellence. Still, it could have been worse. It could have been the other way round.

The new vehicle (Land Rover refuses to use the word "car") was launched at Skibo Castle in Scotland, a truly pukka country seat whose credentials can be established with the mere fact that the lavatory paper is not formed into a point. Unfortunately, it is right out in the cuds, which meant the Land Rover old guard alluded to earlier could not resist subjecting us to two hours of rigorous off-road driving, some of it at night. I arrived at the end, as usual, badly shaken, although not so badly as I would have been in the previous model. Various valves maintaining true independence of the all-round air-sprung independent suspension saw to that.

The Range Rover is something of a doddle to drive in the rough, since electronics take care of traction control and Land Rover's Hill Descent System, the low-range gearbox can be selected on the roll with a fingertip movement (useful when towing horseboxes, apparently), and the automatic gearbox can be controlled manually. The hardest part of the course was trying to imagine why anyone who paid up to 60,000 pounds for a luxury car would want to subject it to such treatment. So that's enough off-roading then.

On proper Tarmac the Range Rover is a revelation. The ride is exemplary; not just be the standards of off-roaders (which would not be much of an accolade) but in comparison with real saloon cars. The steering, too, is much more preceise than it has been in any Range Rover to date.

And it is truly comfy and magnificently equipped, to the extent that the air-suspended body can be made to squat when coming to a halt for an elegant dismount, in the way that other cornerstone of all-terrain travel, the camel, can. But the Range Rover, by dint of its leather-lined cabin, smells much better.

Through bends the Range Rover still has some difficulty in disguising its bulk--it weighs 2.5 tons and from the window one may readily stub out cigars on the roofs of passing Volvo estates. The V8 engine especially is deceptively powerful and the BMW gearbox shifts with silky alacrity, but the Range Rover is still best driven in chauffeur mode; guided, not hustled along. This could be considered a safety feature, as it encourages restraint.

My criticisms would be that it has become almost too massive and that it seems to like a drink. I could not better 16 mpg in the V8 petrol and even the supposedly frugal diesel lingered in the low 20s.

That apart, on winding A- and B-roads the new Range Rover felt, incongruously enough, like an accomplished grand touring car. See what I mean? It makes no sense. This may be what makes its so British. It is definitely what makes it so appealing.

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