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Expert Reviews 1 of 3
By Bill Jackson
December 1, 2008
When I first reviewed the Range Rover Sport, I said it had a nice chassis but wouldn't blow you away with its acceleration. Since then, I've driven the 2009 Range Rover Sport with a supercharged engine, and the difference is notable.
Now, if your idea of mind-blowing acceleration is, say, a Top Fuel dragster or some other car with ferocious, scary performance, the Range Rover Sport will still come up short, but for people who aren't trying to kill themselves and just want to get where they're going very quickly, the Range Rover Sport has good real-world power.
Put another way, most folks I know don't live on drag strips, but they do have to merge and pass on the highway, and that's where this car shines. What's interesting is that it also shines in the day-to-day duties most of us put our cars through, like going to the grocery store, the occasional bike race and long highway trips.
As I noted before, 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.
Like most of the Land Rover family, the Range Rover Sport has vents on its front fenders. The grille has the same pattern as a Range Rover, and it 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.
Around back, there's a big badge that indicates this Sport is supercharged, but there's another way to tell: The Land Rover badges are black for supercharged models, green for non-supercharged. It's a little thing that I know shouldn't matter, but I have to admit, I don't look at green-badged Land Rover products the same way I do the black ones. Black badges are beautiful. Interior The big letdown in our earlier Range Rover Sport was the plastic trim on the dashboard, at least with the ebony interior of our test model. The Supercharged model's ivory interior somehow made the trim look better — as if the lessened contrast between the gray of the trim and the ivory of the rest made it less jarring. I felt that if I were to buy this car, I'd be getting my money's worth this time around.
There is some very nice wood trim and high-quality leather and carpeting inside, and our model came with a rear DVD entertainment system with screens mounted in the driver and front passenger headrests.
Speaking of the seats, they remain 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. Just as I tested the other Range Rover Sport in prime backache conditions (after a three-hour offroad bike ride), the supercharged model carried me to and from a weekend of cyclocross racing. Once again, I 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.
The Range Rover Sport's 60/40-split folding backseat is an older design, meaning you have to flop the seat bottoms forward then fold the seatbacks down. It carried my big cyclocross bike 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. Going & Stopping With the supercharger, the Range Rover Sport makes nearly 400 horsepower, but it's not the number that's important, it's how the power feels. In short, it's not a sports car, but when you need the power, it's there.
Passing and merging power was really good, especially when you consider the Sport weighs more than 5,600 pounds. If you're in a really big hurry, select the transmission's "Sport" mode. If you do so while driving down the highway, the first thing you notice is the transmission downshifts and the revs go up. When it comes time to pass, it happens faster because you don't have to wait for the transmission to kick down to a lower gear, as you would in standard mode.
It is worth mentioning, though, that the Sport's not going to slam you into your seatback when you floor the gas pedal. It comes only with an automatic transmission.
It is an excellent highway car, cruising at speeds more than 70 mph in a most unflappable manner. There's no drama, no fuss — it just goes. Even wind noise, which is a common problem in big, blocky vehicles, wasn't an issue. Maybe that's owed to excellent sound insulation rather than aerodynamics, but I really don't care. I liked it.
When pressing to go faster, the Sport's size, weight and supercharger sound make you feel like you're commanding the fastest, baddest ship in the British navy. It takes restraint to not yell, "Helmsman, full speed ahead!" Or, ahem, it does for some of us.
It's also true, however, that when you don't need the power, say in city driving, it isn't annoying. You can cruise from stoplight to stoplight easily, without telegraphing to every pedestrian, policeman or fellow commuter that you're driving a fast car.
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 a good bit of cash every time you fill up.
The brakes were nice, and that's always a plus in a heavy SUV. 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. In short, I just felt very secure in the brakes' ability to stop the Sport as quickly as I ever needed them to. Ride & 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, and there's not a lot of play in the steering. The effect is that you can put the Sport in any parking space with pinpoint accuracy, and you don't need muscle 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 you'll also get 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 although 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 There are more standard features for the Supercharged model, and they include heated rear seats and adaptive headlights that swivel as you turn. None would be enough by themselves to make me upgrade to the Supercharged model, but then again, I never had to ride in the rear seat on any of the cold, snowy days when I tested this car.
There are some features common to both that are worth noting: 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 pulls the hatch tightly shut once you close it.
There's 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 — 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 some parameters accordingly.
The car's air suspension also provides another benefit: You can activate "Access" mode, which lowers the body for easier entry and loading. You can also lock this lower height for traveling at slow speeds. If you don't have to park in urban garages, please skip ahead. If you do park in a new garage that resembles a mail slot, let me tell you, I loved this feature. This feature is only for low-speed travel, but I found the speeds it permitted to be fine. If you're driving faster than the allowed speeds in a parking garage, get your head examined.
Our Supercharged model had a navigation system, plus front and rear parking sensors that were easy, intuitive and helped tremendously as I navigated through the narrow parking spaces and sea of inconsiderate, or incompetent, parkers that live in our city. Range Rover Sport in the Market As with the non-supercharged model, our test car stumbles in the market.
The market right now is much, much tougher than it used to be for the Range Rover Sport. The field it plays in is more crowded, with the Porsche Cayenne, BMW X5, Audi Q7 and Mercedes-Benz ML-Class — not to mention the Supercharged version of the regular Range Rover.
Our Sport stickered for more than $70,000, and that's a lot. 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 and less than 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 here.
If you set aside the reliability concerns (and I wouldn't), I'd say there is a lot to like here. In many ways, it represents the best you could expect from any compromise: It doesn't hit the extreme point of any spectrum. It lacks the harsh ride and burly steering of a sports car, but still offers power, poise and good handling. It's not a soft-riding, overly padded marshmallow of a luxury car, but it is lined with enough leather and wood that you feel you're in a properly luxurious environment.
So why does it stumble? Some people are going to want the extreme. Plus, the fuel economy, reliability and price have to factor into any purchase. And, trust me, you'll want the supercharger. It's not a bad car without it, but it's so much more enjoyable with it. Unfortunately, it also adds more than $13,000 to the price.