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Expert Reviews 1 of 7
By Bill Jackson
August 15, 2008
Land Rover products are like NFL linemen: They're huge, they're powerful, they're surprisingly nimble and they wear tasteful suits when they're on the road. The Range Rover Sport is no exception. You don't merely travel on the road in this SUV, you power over it with a commanding presence, carrying a heft and weight that comes from, yes, a bit of flab, but mostly from muscle.
Overall, though, the Range Rover Sport is a bit of a mixed bag. For starters, like an NFL player it takes a lot of fuel, but unfortunately it's you paying that bill to keep the big beast fed and moving. Also, it's billed as a Sport version and has a nice chassis, but it's not going to blow you away with its acceleration. Finally, it's a luxury vehicle, and while there are luxurious touches inside, there is at least one major letdown when it comes to the interior trim.
The Range Rover Sport has been derided because it's not in fact a Sport version of Land Rover's venerable Range Rover — it's a different car, built on a separate platform. For the purposes of this review, though, I'll focus on the Range Rover Sport itself, not compare it to its older sibling. Exterior Um, well, I'll compare it a bit to its older sibling. It sits a lot lower, and that's the first thing that grabs you. Years ago, when I saw my first Range Rover Sport, I thought it was a regular Range Rover that had something wrong with its suspension. It looked like it had deflated and was riding too low. Nowadays, as Range Rover Sports are more common and more companies are coming out with low-slung SUVs, it's not as noticeable. It's also about 7 inches shorter in length, about an inch narrower and 3 inches shorter in height than a traditional Range Rover.
The Range Rover Sport has vents on its front fenders, like most of the Land Rover family, and the grille has the same pattern as a Range Rover (though our HSE test model had a plastic grille). It also has a nearly vertical windshield with big side windows. Seen from any angle, the Range Rover Sport has what auto critics call a big "greenhouse" (read, big windows, lots of glass), though it's still smaller than a Range Rover's. It looks comparatively chopped, and sleeker. Interior The big letdown is the plastic trim on the dashboard. Its use in the grille isn't my favorite, either, but at least I can let myself believe it was done to save weight and make the Sport more sporty. On the interior, it's just not done that well. Other automakers have shown you can use lightweight metal in performance cars, or at the very least disguise the plastic better than Land Rover did. You shouldn't pay this much and get something that looks cheap.
I think what makes it particularly bad is that there is some very nice wood trim and high-quality leather and carpeting inside, so when compared to other bits of trim the plastic sticks out badly.
The seats are some of the more comfortable ones in any SUV or car I've driven, with a nice range of adjustments, intuitive controls and a memory feature. I really put the seats to the test by making a three-hour drive home after a three-hour offroad bike ride — prime backache conditions — and hopped out of the Sport more comfortable than I usually do after such adventures. There's plenty of headroom, even with the moonroof, and that helps you sit more upright if that's your thing.
Speaking of carrying stuff, the Range Rover Sport's folding backseat is an older design, meaning you have to flop the seat bottoms forward then fold the seatbacks down. It's split 60/40 and works despite its old design; it carried a big offroad bike, a tent and two small duffels easily.
As I mentioned, there's a lot of glass in the Range Rover Sport — there's a moonroof, sure, but what you really notice are the large windows, windshield and rear glass. This isn't a small SUV, but the effect of all this glass is to make visibility good; it's one of the easier SUVs to parallel park or drive on the highway. I never felt like I was driving a big SUV. If the plastic trim is a letdown, this is a nice surprise. Going and Stopping Ah, but there is another letdown, and that's the Sport's, um, sportiness. Where some vehicles are named "Sport" because they're quicker, on this car it felt like "Sport" was a nickname. As in, "What's up, Sport?" (Or, if you prefer F. Scott Fitzgerald references, "Hello, old sport.")
Acceleration just isn't great. Where that's most noticeable is when passing at highway speeds. The transmission kicks down pretty quickly and the engine makes a lot of noise, but you don't surge forward like I think you should. Yes, there's a sport mode in the transmission that helps a bit, but it's still not fast.
Land Rover does make a supercharged version of the Sport that I've not tested, and that should provide better acceleration. However, if you're considering this car I implore you to include some highway time, with plenty of passing, in your test drive. You might find its performance acceptable, but you'll want to be sure — especially if you expect to drive in a hilly region and/or with a full load.
Mileage, as is to be expected with a large SUV, isn't so hot; the EPA estimates it at 12/18 mpg city/highway. I averaged pretty close to those numbers, and I think it's fair to say that if I averaged less it was because I was trying to see how fast I could accelerate. Still, at 12/18 mpg averages you won't get great numbers even if you try to hypermile the thing. Oh, and it requires premium gas. Don't buy this thing unless you can afford to drop around $85 at the pump every time you fill up.
The brakes were nice, though, and that's always a plus in a big, comfy SUV that weighs 5,468 pounds. The brake pedal didn't offer a lot of resistance — meaning it didn't have the rock-like feel some folks like in a performance car — but I didn't find it so light as to be annoying. Ride and Handling Just like the brakes, the steering requires a light touch; in my book, the Land Rovers I've driven (including this one and a supercharged Range Rover) have the perfect steering setup for luxury SUVs. It's very, very light when moving around a parking lot and during other low-speed maneuvers, but there's not a lot of play. The effect is that you can put the Sport in any parking space with pinpoint accuracy, and you don't have to muscle the steering wheel to do so.
The steering seemed fine at highway speeds, too, and that's the real test for me. Anybody can overboost the power steering to make it feel good at slow speeds, but that usually results in twitchiness or a disconnected feeling at highway speeds, and the Range Rover Sport did not have that. Land Rovers do lack the effort and feedback of, say, a BMW, but I think Land Rover buyers are OK with that.
The suspension was also a high point, but I always feel like this is the most subjective of tests. If you want a super-smooth ride where you see but don't feel joints in the highway, this isn't quite the SUV for you. It's a Sport version, so you'll feel the bumps, but what you'll also get is a tighter SUV that lets you accelerate on highway onramps and offramps with confidence.
The Sport doesn't hit a bump midway through a turn and wallow for a second like some other SUVs do, though there is enough body roll to remind you that you're driving an SUV and you don't want to get too carried away. What's interesting is that while you'll feel the bumps at higher speeds, while driving around the rough streets of Chicago I noticed fewer bumps and less suspension articulation than normal. In other words, the Range Rover Sport hides potholes at lower speeds, just not at higher speeds.
I think the best way to sum all this up is to say that when you drive a Range Rover Sport, you don't feel like you're driving a slow, wallowing, pig of a truck. You just feel like you're driving a big, tight car — and I mean that as a compliment. Features Because our Range Rover Sport was the HSE version, it had fewer standard features than the Supercharged version. Heated rear seats, cornering lights and adaptive headlights that swivel as you turn are among the things that are optional on the HSE but standard on the Supercharged model.
There are some features that are common to both and are worth bearing in mind: First, the rear hatch is split so you can lift just the glass or the entire hatch, but you should know that when you lift the entire hatch, it's quite heavy — or at least heavier than you'd expect for a fancy luxury SUV. (There is no power liftgate option.) There is a power-assisted latch that snugs the hatch tightly shut once you close it.
Another odd thing was the placement of the auxiliary jack for MP3 players and other devices. It was on the back of the center console on our model, which made it impossible to reach when the rear seats were folded to carry the bike. That's odd, but not infuriating.
There is also Land Rover's Terrain Response system, which lets you tell the Range Rover Sport you're going to drive across mud, sand, asphalt or other surfaces. It basically adjusts everything — from the suspension, brakes, throttle and more — so the SUV does what it should on those surfaces. It's also always on, so if you back out of your driveway into an unexpected blizzard, the system is "smart" enough to recognize snow and adjust everything accordingly. Unfortunately, I had the Range Rover Sport during a lovely warm, dry spell, so I never really got to play with this system.
The final feature I'll touch on is something that serves a purpose, but which I really couldn't stand: The side mirrors tilt downward whenever you put the transmission in Reverse. Land Rover says that's so you can see where your wheels are when trying to hook up a boat, navigate out of a tight spot or avoid sharp rocks when off-roading. Thankfully, the feature can be disabled, and that's a good thing because I did exactly none of those things when I had the Range Rover Sport. I did, however, have to use Reverse in the city, where it's kinda nice to see what's coming down the street at you. Like I say, though, it can be disabled, and I think you'd want it off in most cases.
Fortunately, our HSE model had a navigation system, plus front and rear parking sensors that were easy, intuitive and helped calm me down after the annoyance the mirrors provided. Range Rover Sport in the Market The market right now is much, much tougher than it used to be for the Range Rover Sport. It's not just that gas prices are high, but that the field is much more crowded, with the Porsche Cayenne, BMW X5, Audi Q7 and Mercedes-Benz ML-Class, not to mention the Supercharged version of the Range Rover. I've driven many of those cars, and I can't say that the Range Rover Sport blew me away as the hands-down winner in this segment.
At more than $55,000, you're looking at a price that's higher than the X5's or Q7's, somewhere in the middle of the Porsche Cayenne's price range, but below the ML63 AMG. When it comes to reliability, the Range Rover Sport received a "much worse than average" prediction for the 2007 model, according to Consumer Reports, so it's clearly not a slam-dunk winner there, either. That really sums up the Range Rover Sport in my book: It's not that it's bad, but I'm not sure the HSE version is fast or luxurious enough to back up its $57,725 price, especially when you compare it with its competition.