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Expert Reviews 1 of 9
By Mike Hanley
June 9, 2006
Are fuel-chugging SUVs like Land Rover's new Range Rover Sport at risk during these times of high gas prices? Let's be serious: Most Land Rover customers couldn't care less about gas costs. If they did, why would they ever purchase a vehicle with fuel economy estimates in the mid-teens? Land Rovers aren't about sipping gas; they're luxurious mobile living rooms that can also ford streams.
And they splash through streams pretty well. Land Rover's venerable Range Rover can tackle tough offroad terrain that would foil less-capable SUVs, yet still has the cachet to warrant a front-and-center parking space at upscale hotels. Fortunately, much of the Range Rover's style has carried over to the less expensive Range Rover Sport, as well as some of its offroad-ready hardware. To be clear, the Range Rover is unrelated to the Range Rover Sport, which shares its platform with the LR3. Exterior & Styling While many of today's SUVs have abandoned the boxy styling that typified the segment's heyday in the '90s, Land Rover has remained true to its roots with its current lineup. Like the flagship Range Rover, the Range Rover Sport features an upright mesh grille that's flanked by standardhigh-intensity-discharge headlights. It's a stylish look, especially when compared to the rear, which comes across as cluttered and unnecessarily busy with its full-width Range Rover name at the bottom of the liftgate.
The Range Rover Sport is distinguished by aggressively raked D-pillars, but this type of design tends to diminish interior cargo room. Other design features include a downward-sloping roofline, side vents in the front fenders, rocker panel moldings and standard 19-inch alloy wheels with low-profile tires (20-inch wheels are optional on the base HSE trim and standard on Supercharged models).
Getting settled in the Range Rover Sport requires a bit of a step up, but the standard air suspension is height adjustable and includes an "access" mode that lowers the vehicle for easier entry and exit. But even with it dropped to the ground like a '65 Chevrolet Impala lowrider, it's still difficult to get in the backseat because the rear wheels intrude on already small rear door openings. Ride & Handling This SUV has a stable, confident highway ride, and its large windows and high seating position give the driver a commanding view of the road. The large C-pillars, however, limit visibility. There's minimal wind noise at highway speeds.
The four-wheel independent air suspension delivers ride quality that's on the firm side; bumps and holes are felt and heard. Land Rover says the optional Dynamic Response antiroll system works to control body roll, and it did so handily when driving the Range Rover Sport on twisty roads — especially when you consider its near 6-foot height and 5,500-pound curb weight. The rack-and-pinion steering system manages to cancel out pavement imperfections before they reach the driver's hands, but it doesn't provide much feedback. Going & Stopping Two engines are offered. HSE models use a 300-horsepower, 4.4-liter V-8 that makes 315 pounds-feet of torque, and Supercharged versions, as the name suggests, have a 390-hp, supercharged 4.2-liter V-8 that develops an impressive 410 pounds-feet of torque. Both engines drive a six-speed automatic transmission with a clutchless-manual mode that sends power to each wheel through a permanent four-wheel-drive system.
The HSE's acceleration can only be described as adequate, and the engine works hard to propel this portly SUV. Opting for the more powerful Supercharged model drops the zero-to-60-mph run by one full second to a claimed 7.2 seconds. There's relatively little gas mileage penalty with the Supercharged version, as both models require premium unleaded gas and their city and highway fuel economy estimates are only 1 mpg apart — EPA estimates are 14/19 mpg (city/highway) for the HSE and 13/18 for the Supercharged.
The six-speed automatic shifts smoothly, but when accelerating from a standstill the transmission had an annoying tendency to upshift quickly to keep engine rpm low, a measure meant to save fuel. The transmission's Sport mode allows the engine to spin faster before shifting. Transmission kickdowns were prefaced by a slight delay.
All models have four-wheel ventilated disc brakes, though the Supercharged model's 14.2-inch front discs are about an inch larger in diameter than the HSE's (both models' rear discs measure 13.8 inches in diameter). The brakes do an admirable job shedding vehicle speed, but the lack of pedal feel leaves the driver feeling less connected to the vehicle. The Inside Even though it's not as luxurious as the flagship Range Rover, the Range Rover Sport's five-person interior is still elegantly finished and includes some sensible features. The optional premium leather front seats are especially comfortable for long-distance cruising, and the adjustable inboard armrests lend them the feel of high-end furniture. Taller drivers may find themselves wishing the power front seats moved back farther.
The interior is trimmed with simulated metal pieces, but real cherry wood trim is optional. Thoughtful touches include upper and lower glove boxes and an optional cooled compartment in the center console. Most controls fall to hand easily, and the steering wheel is thicker than most. However, reaching the power window switches, which are far forward on the windowsills, requires a stretch; they're about even with the side mirrors.
Only the driver's window has a one-touch down/up feature, and the tilt/telescope steering wheel is manually adjustable, as opposed to powered. These are relatively small points, but for a vehicle in this price class, they matter. For the most part, dashboard buttons and switches are intuitively labeled, though I can't understand why Land Rover (and some other manufacturers, including BMW) places the power door lock switches in the middle of the dash as opposed to the front door armrests — an act of the bean counters to reduce costs at the expense of user friendliness, possibly? If you think you know why, send me an email. (Editor's note: Reader David Peck writes that this is a safety measure designed to make it more difficult for carjackers to reach through an open window and unlock all of the doors.)
The rear bench seat is somewhat cramped for adult passengers — with the front seats adjusted for a 6-foot-1-inch driver, there's little legroom for a similarly sized rear passenger, though foot room under the front seat is good. Though its 38.4 inches of rear seat headroom is comparable with the competition, tall passengers could use more.
Two-stage heated rear seats covered in premium leather are available as part of the optional Luxury Interior Package. Though the high-end upholstery increases the ambiance in back, the folding action of the three-place, 65/35-split rear bench seat uses an outdated design:
It can't recline or slide fore/aft to increase cargo space/legroom.
It requires that the seat cushion be flipped forward before the backrest can fold down.
If tall front occupants have positioned the seats too far back, they'll have to move them forward or adjust the backrest angle so the rear seat's backrest can fold flat.
How is it possible that there are this many seat-folding issues in an all-new vehicle when solutions are present in much less expensive SUVs? At least the extended load floor is flat when the rear seats are folded.
Safety Standard features include antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags, an electronic stability system with rollover mitigation technology, and front and rear parking sensors. The rear seats have LATCH child-safety seat anchors for the outboard seating positions and top tethers for each position. Adaptive headlights that swivel to better illuminate turns are optional, and Supercharged models can be equipped with adaptive cruise control that maintains a preset distance between the Range Rover Sport and a vehicle in front of it.
As of publication, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety — our preferred source for crash-test ratings — had not conducted any tests on the Range Rover Sport. Cargo & Towing The liftgate features an independently opening rear window that provides access to the cargo area. Though the window is surrounded by flimsy plastic and the liftgate requires a good deal of effort to close, the opening that's revealed when the liftgate swings up and away is quite large for easy loading of bulky items.
Interior cargo room measures 33.8 cubic feet but can be more than doubled to 71 cubic feet by folding the second-row seats. The Range Rover Sport's cargo area lacks such niceties as grocery-bag hooks, but it is illuminated, has a cargo cover and includes four beefy tie-downs for securing cargo.
Both HSE and Supercharged versions can tow up to a respectable 7,716 pounds when properly equipped, and the Range Rover Sport's roof rack can carry up to 165 pounds. Features A full rundown of the Range Rover Sport's available comfort and convenience features is available on the Standard Equipment & Specs page. An amusing detail: The computerized voice of the standard touch-screen navigation system has a British accent, but don't expect it to tell you to take the motorway to your destination — its vocabulary is plain-old American English.
Offroad features include Hill Descent Control, a locking center differential (a locking rear differential is optional), up to 8.9 inches of ground clearance, and Land Rover's Terrain Response system. Terrain Response features five terrain modes — general, grass/gravel/snow, mud/ruts, sand and rock crawl — that are selected via a center console dial. The system adjusts drivetrain, suspension and electronic stability and traction systems based on which mode is selected.
Entertainment and communication options include Sirius Satellite Radio, Bluetooth-based cell phone connectivity and a rear-seat DVD system. The system features 6.5-inch screens in each front-seat head restraint, a six-DVD changer, wireless headphones and a remote control. Front-seat occupants can control the entertainment system through the navigation system's touch-screen display, but the six-DVD changer is located in the cargo area, which isn't convenient for on-the-move disc swaps. Range Rover Sport in the Market The Range Rover Sport has managed to establish itself as Land Rover's best-selling model. It has the panache luxury SUV buyers demand and the offroad features many appreciate but seldom use. This apparently is enough to overcome its shortcomings, the most glaring of which is its small rear seat. Its depressing gas mileage would be another shortcoming in most segments, but not here. Land Rover's sales figures reflect the sentiment — year to date, they're up 32 percent. How high will gas prices have to go before Land Rover's affluent buyers take heed? I'd bet on $5 per gallon.