The dearth of lions and tigers not withstanding, driving a Range Rover 4.6 HSE or a Range Rover 4.0 SE throughout the wilds of Indiana can be a trip.

As sport-utility vehicles of the British Rover Group, these upstream 1997 sport utes put extra emphasis on the sport and utility aspects of the SUV market, combining life on the trail with life in the luxury lane.

Represented locally by Tom Wood Range Rover, the 4.6 HSE and 4.0 SE models are designated by the displacement of their V-8 engines.

In keeping with the luxury theme, the vehicles have a car-like ride to go with their utility capabilities. In Indiana, their use falls more to a daily commute rather than tracking the wild beasts. Occupants are coddled amidst the trapping of leather, burled walnut trim and a plethora of comfort and convenience accessories.

Both the 4.0 and the performance-oriented 4.6 have no trouble qualifying for a luxury category. The MSRP (manufacturer's suggested retail price) for the 4.0 is $55,500. For the 4.6, it's $63,000. Add to those figures $625 for freight.

In return, you get a lot of vehicle.

It's about as strong as a bridge and features a fully boxed and welded frame with an internal "Z" reinforcement that provides a rigid base. A Class III tow-hitch receiver is integrated with the frame. Ten tuned body mounts isolate noise and vibration from the passenger compartment.

Front and rear axles for the four-wheel drive system are full-floating live (solid housing) axles for maximum strength. This is the basic axle structure of a truck, but the car-like ride is achieved via an electronic air suspension system with air springs, tuned shock absorbers and height sensors at each wheel.

The air suspension provides 5.2 inches of travel over five height modes. There is an access mode for ease of entrance and exit, a low profile for highway cruising, standard ride height, high profile for the trail and an extended profile when the vehicle automatically senses the need for high centering.

Obviously, if you drive the sport utes across a gully, it's not going to ride as if it's going down North Meridian Street - on second thought, there isn't be too much difference - but the air system is designed to smooth out the bumps and vibrations of normal travel.

Power is by state-of-the-art aluminum alloy V-8s that utilize a push rod/rocker arm valve train. Horsepower and torque figures follow known parameters, with the larger 4.6-liter engine putting out more power than the 4.0-liter motor.

The 4.6 possesses 278-cubic inches of displacement and produces a healthy 235-horsepower and 280 foot-pounds of torque. The 241-cubic inch 4.0 comes in at 190-horsepower and 236 foot-pounds of torque.

Both engines are real stump pullers, being rated at 7,700 pounds of towing capacity in the low range, 6,500 pounds in the high range.

The only transmission offered is a ZF four-speed automatic, with its electronically controlled high/low gear ratio range selected by a single tr ansmission lever.

An interesting design feature is a transfer case for the four-wheel drive system has an emergency/parking brake drum mounted on its side. In this location, the drum will not fill with mud and debris as wheel mounted drums do.

Despite the differences in engine size, there is a miniscule difference in fuel consumption. The bigger engine takes more, of course, but only by 1 mile per gallon.

The 4.0 is rated at 13 mpg city/17 highway. For the 4.6, its 12/16.

Admittedly, the 4.6 is a high buck proposition, but in addition to a bigger engine, it rides on bigger wheels that sharpen the off-road response.

The wheels are 18-inch "Mondial" design alloys that have a rim width of 8 inches, compared to a 16-inch wheel for the 4.0 SE. These 18-inchers can churn up a monstrous amount mud whether goings through bottom lands or up the side of the mountain.

I guess you could say the Range Rover 4.6 HSE and Range Rover SE are quintessential sport-utilityvehicles that o ffer image as well as utilitarian practicality. They also provide a new philosophy to the sport ute market.