This is it. The object of envy and desire. The reason every automaker except, perhaps, Hyundai and the folks at Matchbox are entertaining plans to introduce a $40,000 to $50,000-plus sport-utility vehicle in the next few years.This is the $54,000 Range Rover, the luxury sport-utility leader, though the truth be told you can count the contestants on your thumbs. Still, finishing No. 1 in a race brings the trophy even if only two are running. In browsing through the monthly sales reports over the last couple of years, the automakers found that folks are buying sport-utility vehicles-Explorer, Blazer and Grand Cherokee-by the bushelful. They looked a bit closer at those figures and found that some folks traded in Cadillacs, Lincolns, BMWs and Mercedes for their SUVs, as they've come to be known. Rather than a $40,000 to $60,000 sedan, people with income levels approaching that of pro athletes and politicians are buying $25,000 to $35,000 SUVs. SUVs have become fashionable. Like brie and sushi, some people will try anything if it's de rigueur. So the industry decided that if $25,000 to $35,000 SUVs are the rage, luxury $40,000 to $50,000 SUVs promise to generate even more profits. So why not join the club and spit a few off the assembly line? After all, tiny Range Rover is the luxury SUV leader and its only competition is the Toyota Land Cruiser that lists for about $16,000 less. Though Range Rover is the luxury SUV king, let's put this market into perspective. Land Rover, the parent company, sold 12,000 vehicles in 1994 (4,000 of them Range Rovers), and expects to sell 18,000 to 20,000 in 1995 (6,000 of them the high-priced Range Rover). Land Rover also sells the Defender 90, starting at $28,650; the Discovery, at $29,950; and the Country Classic, at $45,000. So, you might ask, if Range Rover is the champ and it sells only 6,000 units a year here, why is the rest of the industry getting all excited? We thought the same thing, so we grabbed a 1995 model Range Rover 4.0 SE to determine what the fascination might be. What we found was a very nice machine loaded with a host of unusual features, such as a suspension system that, at the touch of a button, raises the vehicle body so it can tiptoe over a mud puddle, or lowers the body so it doesn't conk its head on overhanging tree branches. Lowering the body automatically also allows for easier entry/exit without the need for running boards or a ladder. There's also a button to push so that when you reach a prescribed speed-say 65 miles per hour in a 60 m.p.h. zone-you get a warning beep to let you know that you are in danger of being ticketed for speeding. Rather than hassle with keys to open the tailgate, you only push a button and the glass top releases. Push again and the tailgate releases. Couldn't be easier. The 4.0 SE uses full-time four-wheel-drive, but there may be an occasion when you find yourself stuck in hip-deep snow or mired axle-deep in a swamp or parked at the bottom of a steep grass-and-shale-filled hill when you need even more pulling power. You can engage four-wheel "low" with the regular gearshift lever without fumbling with a transfer case lever. Couldn't be simpler. Or, say it's the middle of winter and you left your $54,000 machine parked outside overnight and the windshield is caked with ice. You could reach for the scraper, like commoners do, or for a button that turns on the windshield de-icer. Tiny heater filaments imbedded in the glass promise to melt the ice many times quicker and more thoroughly than the traditional air-blown defrosters. Couldn't be more accommodating. And with those filaments you needn't fiddle with a scraper and soil your leather gloves. Those hairline filaments are so small you can't see them unless you press your nose to the glass, butb warned that if you do press your nose to the glass, the Ranger Rover has no button to push that erases the smudge. Even at $54,000, it can't do everything. Or, perhaps one day you take the members of the club for an early morning ride and each feels the need for a caffeinated pick-me-up. Reach for the Thermos and pour four cups of hot coffee that you can safely store by lifting the top of the center console armrest, flipping it over and exposing four holders tabletop fashion. Couldn't be more de rigueur. Many of the wannabes plan to gain entry into the luxury SUV market by tossing leather hides on the seats of their low-cost SUVs and adding $10,000 to the sticker. Those pretenders need to spend some time on creature features like this British sport-utility vehicle maker did. The rivals need to develop items, like Land Rover, that contribute to the emotional feeling that you've made the right decision by purchasing a $40,000 to $50,000 SUV because it offers such unique advantages-such as a suspension that dips for tree limbs, a keyless tailgate, a self-cleaning windshield and a tabletop field for regular or decaf. The 4.0 SE is new for 1995, a remake of the old Range Rover that functions under the name Country Classic ($45,000) for 1995 and will be dropped for 1996. The 4-liter, V-8 is a remake of the 4.2-liter, V-8 that powered the old Rover. The 4.0 SE offers pleasant ride and adequate handling, considering it is a rather large and hefty (5,000-pound curb weight) machine. And you'll be pleased with its quiet operation. But there are drawbacks. The 4.0-liter, 190-horsepower, V-8 doesn't display that much muscle unless you punch the performance-mode button before kicking the accelerator pedal for more responsive shift points. And when it comes to fuel economy, the 4.0 SE is de ridiculous at 12 m.p.g. city/16 m.p.g. highway, which seems generous based on the frequency of trips we made to the pump in just a week. When you team a V-8 with automatic transmission and add all-wheel-drive in a 5,000-pound vehicle you can't expect the Range Rover to rub shoulders with a 4-cylinder, 5-speed Geo Metro. But the Range Rover doesn't just consume gasoline, it seems as if it is absorbing every molecule of fuel into its pores. The Range Rover 4.0 SE has a case of consumption. No doubt automakers planning to field a luxury SUV will focus on fuel economy to help point out the Range Rover's shortcoming-unless, of course, they end up with the same problem. Those who spend $54,000 on a vehicle aren't all that concerned if fuel is $1.25 or $1.50 a gallon as they are the number of times they are going to be bothered pulling into the station to refuel. One other note: The vehicle we tested came with a black exterior finish, a $300 extra-cost item. After driving it in a week of extreme heat, we would strongly consider another color-one that reflects the sun's rays rather than absorbs them. You could use the $300 to purchase gas for a week. >> 1995 Range Rover 4.0 SE Wheelbase: 108.1 inches Length: 185.6 inches Engine: 4-liter, 190-h.p., V-8 Transmission: 4-speed automatic EPA mileage: 12 m.p.g. city/16 m.p.g. highway. Base price: $54,000 Price as tested: $54,300. Add $300 for black exterior paint finish. Freight runs $925. Pluses: Host of goodies standard, such as electronic air suspension so vehicle lowers on its own for entry/exit or to slip into low garage or raises on its own for off-roading. Push-button rear window/liftgate release. Full-time four-wheel-drive that can be shifted into the low setting for heavy snow using regular automatic transmission gear lever. Filament built into windshield to quicken deicing. Four cupholders that flip out and ove from center console top-plus dual bags and ABS. Minuses: Look again at the mileage rating-and the base price. >>
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