1989 Land Rover Range Rover

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Los Angeles Times

This year's brochure for the Range Rover contains some absolutely ripping shots of this super off-roader amid the stiff upper hedges of stately homes of England.

They were taken by Lord Lichfield of Shugborough Hall. He is renowned for photographs of beautiful women, exotic cars, British royalty and his entree to aristocratic locales that guarantees clients gilding by association. . . .

A recent cover of Four Wheeler magazine names Range Rover its 1989 Four Wheeler of the Year and has this totally dynamite shot of the four-wheeler airborne and doing it in Dumont Dunes, dude.

It was taken by the magazine's features editor, Stuart Bourdon of Westchester. He likes surfing, off-road racing, Anchor Steam beer and a California-casual life style that's closer to Bakersfield than Buckingham Palace. . . .

Opposing cultures. Divergent worlds. Linking such social extremes has become a norm for Range Rover.

"We definitely bridge both," agreed Bob Baker, a spokesman for Range Rover of North America. "One (market) is the European high group tired of buying luxury sedans, such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz, and the other is the U.S. sport-utility field that takes about 20% of our UK (United Kingdom) production.

"In fact, if you could draw a circle to represent each (market) there would be this tremendous overlap . . . a segment that is our unique niche, something that other manufacturers would kill for."

Range Rovers are owned by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Pope John Paul, the Duke of Westminster and Sultan Qabus bin Said of Oman.

But Richard Mulligan uses two for his Los Angeles antique business.

Range Rovers are in the forts and stables of Philippines President Corazon Aquino and Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi.

And producer-writer Jerome Lew of Malibu uses his for ski trips to Mammoth.

At which point, the wise might be inclined to question such global success for the Range Rover, a leather-upholstered, two-ton tea caddy that costs almost $40,000, guzzles a gallon of gas every 12 miles and has been accused of being underpowered and underbraked.

Well, for one thing, Range Rover of Solihull, England, and Lanham, Md., has left no upper crusts unturned in search of clientele and the sophisticated image. Therefore the cars are perennially donated as the transportation for yacht races, clay pigeon shoots and equestrian events.

The organization never misses a moment to promote its prestige, an unprecedented four warrants to supply Range Rovers to Britain's Royal Family, and a more plebeian heritage reaching back to 1948 when the ancestral Land Rover was designed for farm and battlefields.

In addition, Baker said, Range Rover listens carefully to market feedback--particularly from U.S. customers following the vehicle's introduction here in March, 1987.

It was these higher rollers (average age 43.5 years, owner of two homes and collector of $200,000 a year) who were the first to complain that their European growlers were being throttled by federal anti-pollution plumbing.

Thanks to three catalytic converters, the Range Rover's 165 horsepower was trimmed to 150. Top speed dropped to about 98 m.p.h. Initial acceleration was slower than the show horses this 4WD was accustomed to trailering.

But enter the 1989 Range Rover--with a bigger engine, a new Borg-Warner gearbox and several dozen design changes that have successfully restored oomph previously lost to EPA regulations.

Visually, this year's Range Rover is no different. It retains the cleanliness of timeless design. Visualize a London taxi in a Savile Row suit and you will begin to understand the crisp elegance that made this the vehicle of choice of a young London social set known as the Sloane Rangers.

Only Two Options

The only two options remain Connelly leather upholstery and a sun roof. Range Rover comes with a four-speed automatic, and manual transmission is not available. The short-legged must climb up to enter the Range Rover, step down to exit and in between there is the distinct feel of a double-decker bus.

That boxiness, incidentally, is a firm design that hasn't budged beyond softening its corners with time since the Range Rover was first marketed in Europe in 1970. The engine is another old comer; a modified Buick V-8 that first growled in anger in 1961.

But it's a resilient antique, flexible enough to take yet another rebore that has squeezed 178 horsepower (last year it was 150 b.h.p.) from 3.9 liters (up from 3.5 liters) and a torque increase to 220 pound/feet from 195 pound/feet.

That translates, on the highway, to a Range Rover that is shamed by nothing in its performance class--including the Jeep Wagoneer, the Chevrolet Silverado and the V-6-powered Isuzu Trooper and Mitsubishi Montero.

And particularly for the driver willing to use the gearbox to keep engine revolutions in the 3,000 r.p.m. mid-ranges where the Range Rover stores its muscles.

Steering is a little on the numb side, requiring about as many turns lock-to-lock as a pulley laundry line. But it's easy turning at any speed, and despite the short wheelbase and high freeboard there is never an awareness of being top heavy.

Muffled Metallic Beast

Initial acceleration is still accompanied by that wheezing roar of the muffled metallic beast. But the Range Rover's 0-60 m.p.h. times are, would you believe, only a quick sniff off those of the Mazda Miata sports car.

And the best description of the vehicle's slick new transmission came from the Four Wheeler magazine evaluator who said: "It's the amazing invisible shifting. Is it running? Is it shifting?"

Off-road--but admittedly only over the mild playground of some county cricks and rocky back tracks--the Range Rover seemed to wear pillows beneath its wheels. Coil springs all around (Mercedes is the only other manufacturer to realize that for off-road work, leaf springs should have gone out with Conestoga wagons) have created what the Brits know as a green-roader of the first water well able to make molehills out of mountains.

There's enough low-gear torque to climb out of gulches like a Barbary ape, and in high gear, away from wilderness, the Range Rover makes flatlands of corkscrew streets climbing from Topanga and Mulholland.

Seating is high with the firm feel of an expensive wingback chair. There's leg and foot room for small giraffes with size-18 sneakers. The brakes are 11.5-inch discs on all four wheels and they add more than enough grab for a vehicle that actually weighs more than two Daihatsus.

There remains a feeling, however, that the engine is just sufficient. No matter the performance mode, it always seems to be working to the literal definition of full bore with nothing in re serve.

One is left to wonder what Ford's famed 5.0-liter engine would add. Range Rover allows such wondering to wither with the noncommittal: "We are pledged to do everything we can to meet demands of the marketplace and each year there will be improvements."

Room for Improvement

One area that could definitely stand some improvement is the cargo compartment. Here's a vehicle built to carry and haul peat and tack for the squire's hunter. Yet even with the rear seatbacks flattened forward, the space for freight and more than two Welsh corgis is considerably less than room offered by the competition.

Despite a constant public denial of the practice, especially in quasi-utility vehicles, Range Rover insists on warning lights instead of full gauges for engine functions.

The symbology of its switches--especially some climate controls that range from a British traffic roundabout sign to what looks like a rooster caught in concertinawi e--is almost incomprehensible.

Much has traditionally been made of Range Rover's interior trim in genuine walnut. But when that woodwork is restricted to one slender slat for each door, any announcement of luxury seems hugely misplaced.

And if there is one question that forms almost a constant carp about the Range Rover, it has to do with a price tag that to some seems to approach corporate avarice.

Value, of course, is whatever the worth of any product to a particular individual. Further, any price becomes much smaller when recognition and status is a significant portion of the offering.

Or look at it this way: There are many brands of excellent raincoat. But only one Burberry.

1989 Land Rover Range Rover

The Good Understated, Bond Street luxury. Tractor torque for superb off-road travels. Bigger engine. Transmission smoother than blancmange.

The Bad Cargo space too small for its britches. Minimal instrumentation with confusing symbols.

The Ugly The price.

Cost Base: $36,600. As tested: $39,650.

Engine V8, 3.9 liters developing 178 horsepower.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 10.8 seconds. Top speed, manufacturer's data, 109 m.p.h. Fuel economy, average city-highway, 12.7 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 4,372 pounds.

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