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Expert Reviews 1 of 4
By Joe Wiesenfelder
September 8, 2008
I made it through the 2008 Summer Olympics without any analogies, but coming at the end of the SUV craze, the seven-seat Land Rover LR3 is a lot like an Olympic athlete after the closing ceremonies: It sure better have some other skills because its athleticism and specialization won't translate to survival in the real world.
While an Olympic curler would be a natural for the custodial field, the LR3 is more like a weightlifter — it can do the kind of heavy lifting most vehicles can't, but that makes it pretty big and heavy itself, and that comes at a price. It eats. A lot. The Land Rover LR3 gets 12/17 mpg city/highway.
This puts it behind almost every SUV rated by the EPA (which the Hummer H2 isn't), including Land Rover's other models and every full-size SUV. The only 2008 models that consume more gas are the Porsche Cayenne GTS (11/17 mpg) — which at least is quick — and the Saab 9-7X and V-8-powered Chevrolet TrailBlazer (12/16 mpg), which have no excuse. The LR3 is also outconsumed by U.S. gold medalist Michael Phelps, who isn't a weightlifter or an SUV, but is reputed to eat 12,000 of each, daily. Born Off-Road The LR3 comes by its inefficiency honestly, as one of the most capable offroad models sold. Its reinforced construction combines aspects of unibody and body-on-frameplatforms for exceptional strength and the mass that comes with it — a curb weight of nearly 5,800 pounds. Short bumper overhangs provide steep approach and departure angles for scaling inclines, aided by standard air springs and the innovative Terrain Response system. TR made its debut in the LR3 and, though it has since spread to other Land Rovers, it remains exclusive to the brand. A complex system with a simple interface, TR is basically a knob that allows drivers to select a mode to match the conditions in which they're driving, not unlike the program modes on a camera (sports, portrait, backlighting, etc.). Where other offroad 4x4s require the driver to understand when to activate low gear, raise the vehicle's ride height, lock various differentials and activate features like Hill Descent Control, TR adjusts many automatically and prompts the driver to activate others when it's called for.
To use the system, simply turn the knob on the center console to whatever pictogram matches what you see outside your windshield. The modes are Normal; Grass; Gravel and Snow; Mud and Ruts; Sand; and Rock Crawl. What you see is what you select. There's no icon of a Buick going 40 mph in the fast lane or a cell-phone user cutting you off at an intersection, but I'm holding out hope for the next generation.
I've driven the LR3 offroad, and it's definitely world-class — a worthy representative for Great Britain in international competition. But when the off-roading ends, what does it have to recommend it? For one thing, it can pull a trailer. With a towing capacity of 7,716 pounds, it can out-tow similarly priced luxury SUVs by as much as a few hundred pounds (Mercedes M-Class) to a couple thousand pounds (Audi Q7). Granted, the incidence of trailer-towing in the U.S. is greater than that of serious offroad driving, but the LR3 remains most capable at tasks most people don't need. For What it Is, a Nice Drive In addition to the fuel economy, the car's mass and shape take a toll on acceleration. With a zero to 60 mph time of 8 to 9 seconds, it's by no means slow, but it's not as quick as you might expect from a 4.4-liter V-8 with 300 horsepower and 315 pounds-feet of torque, mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. The six-speed is nice and smooth, and it offers both a regular Drive mode — optimized for gas mileage, such as it is — and an automatic Sport mode that holds onto low gears for more responsiveness. You can also shift manually by tapping the gear selector forward and back.
For what it is, the LR3's ride quality is actually quite pleasant, a change from the model that preceded it, the Discovery, which I deemed the poster vehicle for everything that was wrong with the SUV craze. Unlike that truck's non-independent front and rear suspension, the LR3 has four-wheel-independent running gear, which really pays off in on-road driving. The handling isn't what you'd call sporty, but the LR3 feels stable, with an appropriate level of body roll. It also has a remarkably tight 37.6-foot turning diameter, which puts some small cars to shame. The Inside As is the case with most offroad models, the LR3's interior space isn't what you might expect from its exterior bulk, but I found it quite roomy and comfortable regardless. Large windows make for good visibility, though the LR3 still pays a price for its ride height, in that cars can be lost below window level when looking to the rear. Where the Discovery had a giant spare tire creating a right-rear blind spot in which you could lose Rhode Island, the LR3 has a rear window that dips down — a big improvement, but one that's negated if the third-row seats are raised.
For parking ease, Park Distance Control sonar proximity sensors in the rear bumper are standard in the LR3 SE. Front sensors are standard on the HSE and available on the SE in an option package with bi-xenon headlights. Missing in action is a backup camera, which many SUVs now include in a navigation system option. My LR3 had nav but no camera.
Lacking step rails, the LR3 isn't the easiest SUV to get into, but it's definitely not the worst either. There are grab handles above each door and flanking the third-row seats, and a pair of grips bookend each of the front seats' head restraints. This location proves to be very useful, though definitely annoying to any occupant whose backrest gets yanked on. You can make life easier by exploiting the air springs' access-height setting, which makes the LR3 squat down closer to the ground. Five Rear Seats The second-row seat is split into three segments, the center of which is uncommonly usable; it's a real seat, not just a raised bump. The legroom is good, and headroom throughout the cabin is above-average. The ability to use one, two or three of the seats for passengers and fold the others — in any configuration — is nice to have. The outboard seats flip forward to grant access to the third row. The two wayback seats also surprised me with their workability for adults. The floor is high, which isn't the most comfortable position, but I didn't otherwise feel overly crowded. The head restraints must be flipped up 180 degrees for passengers to sit down, and they'll likely leave them raised. The rear-view penalty is severe. Interior Quality Land Rover made some upgrades for 2008, including some new finishes on the center console and bezels surrounding the stereo speakers and air-conditioning vents. Leather is standard and the front passenger seat has standard eight-way power. An early adopter of multiple moonroofs/skylights, Land Rover now includes three as standard equipment in the LR3 — one over each row of seats. Even with all the glass and hard angles, the cabin is admirably quiet. With the proviso that my test trim level was the higher of the two available, HSE, I was impressed with its interior materials and craftsmanship. One glaring exception was the sound of the door handles — not the release handles, but the grab handles. Grab one of those to close or open the door, and it makes an awful creaking plastic sound that would make me livid if I found it in an econobox. In a luxobox like this one? Shameful. Cargo As the table reflects, different models distribute their available interior volume differently.
Exterior length (in.)
Cargo Volume (behind third row/behind second row/all seats folded, cu. ft.)
Audi Q7 (7 seats)
10.9 / 42.0 / 72.5
BMW X5 (7 seats)
7.1 / 21.9 / 61.8
Buick Enclave (8 seats)
18.9 / 66.0 / 115.1
Land Rover LR3 (7 seats)
9.9 / 44.5 / 90.3
Mercedes-Benz ML350 (5 seats)
— / 29.4 / 72.4
For its overall length, the LR3's maximum cargo volume isn't bad. The square shape characteristically pays off with lots of usable interior space compared to the sleeker X5, though not much cargo space is usable when the third-row seats are raised. The Buick Enclave shows how a car-based crossover vehicle designed strictly for onroad use gives disproportionately more cargo volume.
The folding seats are very well-executed, though the third row's release buttons and cushions are a little hard to reach without climbing partway in. The second row backrests fold flat in a single step, and then you have the choice of leaving them there, resting a few inches taller than the cargo floor, or pulling a strap and collapsing them down to the same height for a continuous floor. They can also be tumbled forward, as described above. LR3 in the Market I enjoyed the LR3 more than I expected to. It does a pretty good job in normal circumstances, and it makes fewer sacrifices than I've seen in some truck-based SUVs. Unfortunately, the one sacrifice it does make is a huge one: It's a gas-guzzler, and that's enough to drive many buyers to models that do the basics equally well or better but with lower operating costs.
For vehicles that are mainly off-roaders, the games are over. People who only want to look like off-roaders have more livable options now. Large, premium-priced gas-guzzlers aren't selling anymore, while small, efficient models are growing in popularity, and the most exclusive luxury models have greater immunity in a soft economy. Applied to Land Rover, that gives the compact LR2 and flagship Range Rover a solid chance. Barring an inconceivable drop in gas prices or an unprecedented boom in off-roading as a hobby, I don't know what the middle-model LR3's prospects are in the American market. I just can't envision it promoting ChapStick on TV.