THE BASICS Base price/as tested: $52,985/$56,475 Fuel economy: 15.2 miles per gallon in Globe testing Annual fuel cost: $2,915 (at $3.408 per gallon, premium, 13,000 miles per year)

THE EARLY LINE Replaces the Discovery, and does so with grace and power.

THE SPECIFICS Drivetrain: all-wheel drive Seating: seven occupants Horsepower: 300 Torque: 315 lb.-ft. Overall length: 190.9 inches Wheelbase: 113.6 inches Height: 74.5 inches Width: 75.4 inches Curb weight: 5,796 pounds

THE SKINNY Nice touch: Excellent automatic cooler, with Kelvinator look, tucked between front seats. Annoyance: The multi-layered/sculpted rear gate. Full of good intentions, kind of fussy. Watch for: What happens to SUVs that can carry seven and do real off-road work even though most people never use them for either purpose?

The phrase ``think outside the box" grew tired a long time ago. But here's something new: Try climbing into a box and then driving it.

That's the case with today's test car, the 2006 Land Rover LR3 HSE.

Although this replacement for the Discovery remains very much a box, it is a far better, sturdier and more elegantly sculpted box than the SUV it supplants.

With a unified body structure, the new LR3 has a substantial feel to it that the Discovery, built on a ladder frame, did not. This is good for everyday travel, though it also means the air suspension has to work a bit harder in corners to control pitch. There is always a trade-off for on-road comfort and off-road prowess.

But somehow, even in making this new model more than a foot longer than its predecessor, Land Rover has struck an incredible balance between the two.

When the LR3 first came out as a 2005 model, it had a V-8 engine and was a bit pricey. It is now available in three models, including a V-6 that starts at below $40,000 -- a nice price point for a truly fine auto. There are also and SE and HSE models ranging from around $45,000 to $55,000.

Each LR3 comes with loads of standard gear, including such key safety equipment as ABS, emergency brake assist, and -- depending on whether it has two or three rows of seats -- six or eight air bags front to rear. The third row is standard on the HSE.

The base V-6 has a six-speaker sound system with six-CD player. Add leather seating, upgraded stereo, and steering wheel controls and it costs another $3,000, taking it into the SE price range.

The HSE has a voice-activated navigation system, upgraded headlights, front fog lamps, rear seat climate controls (all extra in the lesser models), and an advanced telecommunications package.

On the road, you can forget it's a top-heavy SUV, except during hard cornering. Its adjustable suspension hunkers you low for control at speed. And it is whisper quiet, even when being pushed out for fast passing on the highway.

Seats are firm and supportive and would be just fine on a cross-country jaunt.

Hardly what you'd expect in a car that is also a world-class off-road pounder.

But that it is.

Indeed, cockpit settings allow you to choose height and drive controls for all that nature can muster -- snow, mud, rocks, water, greasy trails, and rocky climbs.

The 4.4-liter V-8 in the test car comes from Jaguar, via Ford, and delivers 300 horsepower to a subtle but throaty exhaust note. With 315 lb.-ft. of tugging torque, the V-8 is a capable trailer-hauler. The V-6 is a 216-horse power plant and would not be the recommended option for full-size horse trailers or for those who will be hauling a sailboat.

Plus, if you choose to use an SUV the way it should be used -- with seven people aboard, not on a solo commute to work -- you'll appreciate the extra tug of the V-8's torque.

Of course, there's a price to pay when it comes to fuel economy, especially at today's gas prices. I got only 15.2 miles per gallon, and the $70 fill-up was a constant shadow hovering over an otherwise sunny driving experience.

I don't know what is going to happen to the large SUV in the years ahead as crossovers fill most of their functions while offering more carlike rides and superior fuel efficiency.

Yet with proper and judicious use, big beasts such as the LR3 are likely to survive.

Besides, if you can afford $55,000 for a car and have no environmental qualms about burning lots of gasoline, what's another $2,000 a year for premium fuel?

Royal Ford can be reached at