Range Rover flaunts new-world excesses (heated steering wheel, electronic parking guide) but still retains old Europe allure. Let the others eat cake. ENGLAND. A small, wind-blown country off the coast of Europe. A land of inscrutable dentistry, inedible food and sports figures in tiny pants. Aside from Shakespeare, the Industrial Revolution and Radiohead, what has England ever done for you? Well, England invented the sport utility vehicle, which should be of at least some interest to about half of you - the half who, statistically speaking, own SUVs. I understand there are those who would argue that the SUV's provenance dates back to the 1960s-era International Harvester Scout, or Jeep Cherokee or Ford Bronco. Let them argue. The SUV as we currently know it is a luxury item, swaddled in leather upholstery and deep-pile carpeting and stocked with comfort engineering -- from audiophile stereos to adaptive suspensions, the more the better. And that particular arrow left the bow with the 1970 Range Rover. Land Rover began in 1947 with the brothers Spencer and Maurice Wilks, who - tired of being teased about their names - built a very butch four-wheel-drive prototype in an effort to drum up business for their employer, Rover. The prototype was an old army Jeep chassis caparisoned in crude aluminum body panels of the brothers Wilks' own design. As stylists, they were very talented mechanics. The British Empire had gone a bit wonky by that time and there was a good market for vehicles that could patrol its far-flung reaches in Africa and Asia, where trouble was brewing in the form of, well, democracy. The Land Rover business took off. Lightweight, simple, and tougher than wart hog jerky, production-version Land Rovers were all about function. Form went on holiday. They were boxy, upright and narrow, the better to navigate jungle trails; long-legged, with high ground clearance and big wheels for better articulation over obstacles; unadorned, with bare-metal interiors and bare minimum seats. The Series I Land Rovers came in a variety of wheelbase lengths. All of them were ugly. Its distinctive face -- with the radiator grille pushed in like a Pekingese's nose to make room for a front-mounted winch -- has starred in more wildlife documentaries than Marlon Perkins. Built in Solihull, near Birmingham, Land Rovers of the 1950s and 1960s were intensely agricultural in disposition, which was fine for game wardens and bush ambulance drivers. However, Britain's landed gentry were, in the words of Queen Victoria, not amused. And so Land Rover set about to build a four-wheel-drive estate wagon -- a comfortable and refined road car with serious off-road ability, a vehicle from which the ruling classes could survey their holdings. Enter the Range Rover (1970). Even the name sounds baronial. In the three decades since the first Range Rover appeared (the vehicle came to the U.S. in 1987), much has changed -- mostly ownership. Land Rover has been handed off more often than Winona Ryder. British Leyland, Rover Group, BMW and now Ford. What hasn't changed, surprisingly, is the brand's mystique. Land Rover is still clubby and ineffably British, with the slight reek of Empire; still a secret handshake among owners and enthusiasts. Land Rover still means something, as compared to the muddled mess of a brand like Lincoln, which means, what? The Great Emancipator? This mystique has kept the brand alive despite some truly horrific quality problems. I have tried, twice, to talk people out of buying a Land Rover Discovery, without success. Fact is, people don't care. They want a little piece of imperial hauteur for themselves. And, as ever, Range Rover is a cut above, retaining its stiff, lordly bearing in the face of competition that is itself stiff. There are three other vehicles in the Range Rover class: The Lexus LX47 , the Porsche Cayenne (S and Turbo) and the Mercedes-Benz G500 Gelandewagon. All of them are absurdly capable off-road -- although no one in their right minds would take them there. Each offers stupefying luxury like mink-lined glove compartments -- no, OK, I made that up, but stuff like that. And each deploys engineering that would make your mechanic swoon in his overalls. But it's the Range Rover HSE ($72,950 base price) that lights me up. I spent a week in one recently, and every time I got in it, I found myself getting misty with affection. Man, I love this car. First, it just looks so cool. The current generation is only the third full-on redesign since the 1970 Range Rover, and the genealogy is apparent, as if the 1970 model had mated with a Power Mac G4 Cube. The bluff, horizontal grate of a face, set off with the bi-xenon headlights like compound eyes; the blacked-out roof pillars, creating the illusory "floating roof"; the shark-gill louvers behind the huge front wheels; the front and rear fog lamps. The Range Rover has the massive and tensed look of Lennox Lewis' fist. As contrasted to the Porsche Cayenne Turbo's styling, which goes from zero to boring in a little over 5 seconds. The Range Rover, meanwhile, has the best seating positions in the business. The seats are set high in the tall cabin, so that the leg position is natural and comfortable relative to the floor. Also, the sill is low, so drivers can see close to the vehicle. Both ergonomic geometries date back to the original design, which helped drivers to better see the terrain they were negotiating. With its fragrant Blenheim leather and contrast piping, blond cherry wood, chrome brightwork and matte metal finishes, the Rover cabin is luxurious and properly "old Europe," in Rumsfeld's happy phrase. All the touchable surfaces -- the door handles, the switchgear, the steering wheel -- have a wonderful overbuilt quality to them, sturdy as blacksmithing. The Range Rover comes generously stocked with high-tech luxury: the 570-watt, 15-speaker Harmon Kardon stereo system (the CD changer is in the mink-lined glovebox), triple-zone climate control, object-sensing parking assist -- but, in my test car with the heated accessories package, the heated steering wheel was my favorite. The test model I drove had a previous-generation GPS navigation system that used a less clever and much slower CD data storage system. New models use a DVD-based system. For as British as it is, the Range Rover has a distinctly German accent. The vehicle was largely engineered during BMW's ownership. Under the hood is BMW's 4.4-liter, 282-hp V-8 buttoned to the five-speed automatic transmission. The power is shunted through a torque-sensing center differential that optimizes grip between the front and rear sets of wheels (50-50 torque split), and the four-wheel electronic traction control system limits wheel slippage on low traction surfaces. A dual-speed transfer case provides low-speed gear ratios at the touch of a button. In city and highway traffic, the Range Rover is utterly composed and wieldy to drive, with authoritative power on command. The brakes are powerful but not in any way edgy. The rack-and-pinion has good on-center feel and light and direct control as speeds increase. Much like the Cayenne, the Range Rover rests on an air suspension that puts a magic carpet over most highway surfaces; the suspension has four settings, including "kneel-down," for easy entry and exit, and "off-road," which raises the ground clearance to 11.1 inches. That's nosebleed altitude for a luxury SUV. The vast majority of these vehicles will spend their lives in suburbia, red in tooth and claw, and will never flex their off-road muscles. In terms of aristocratic excess, the Range Rover's engineering is rather like artwork bought at auction and never uncrated, or a vacation house never visited. The pleasure isn't in t e using, but the owning. There is something important here. For those trying to puzzle out America's complicated feelings toward these vehicles, it's helpful to remember that the SUV was first a creature of aristocratic privilege, a perch of landholding scrutiny. I would argue that the formless angst some people feel toward SUVs is fueled by deep and dim class resentment -- the serf's sullen glare. For me, I confess: I enjoyed my week of peerage. I was sorry to see it end. 2004 Range Rover HSE Wheelbase: 113.4 inches Length: 195 inches Curb weight: 5,666 pounds Powertrain: 4.4-liter V-8 with variable-valve timing, five-speed automatic transmission, full-time all-wheel drive Horsepower: 282 horsepower at 5,400 Torque: 325 pound-feet at 3,600 rpm Acceleration: 0 to 60 mph in 8.2 seconds EPA rating: 12 miles per gallon city, 16 mpg highway Price, base: $72,950 Price, as tested: $77,950 Competitor: Porsche Cayenne S, Mercedes G500
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