Land Rover Range Rover Sport — Luxury on or off the road

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Land Rover in 2006 added a stylish high-performance model to take on competitors such as the BMW X5, Mercedes M-Class, Porsche Cayenne and Volkswagen Touareg.

The goal with the Range Rover Sport, now entering its sixth model year, was to plug a hole in the British brand that has been known for decades as offering an unsurpassed combination of ultimate luxury and off-road toughness.

Land Rover, now owned by Tata Motors of India, had an initial goal of 15,000 Sports a year. It surpassed expectations in both 2006 and 2007 with 18,757 and 16,989 sales respectively. Sales have slowed to around 11,000 a year, but the Sport still makes up about 40 percent of the Land Rover mix. It continues a very important vehicle for the company.

The Sport, which features a combination of horsepower and handling while retaining the company’s vaunted off-road characteristics, looks much like the flagship Range Rover, but in a slightly smaller package and for about 20 grand less.

Sport is aptly named. It offers a luxury environment on a modern, high-tech scale and appears sporty and aggressive with a shorter wheelbase, raked windshield and rear hatch, well-placed brightwork, a roofline that extends over the tailgate and great-looking 19-inch wheels
The sporty nature continues inside with a wide sloping center stack housing a hard-drive-based DVD navigation system and a 480-watt LOGIC7 audio system with satellite radio. The traditional lavish use of Range Rover wood is limited to the edges of the console, and the remainder of the wood has been replaced with more sports-car-like polished metal accents. High-quality black leather fills the cockpit.

There are things here that you may never have considered a necessity until you have them. One such is a cooler box housed in the center console. Take an extra Pepsi with you on your three-hour journey and it will still be cool when you reach the half-way point.

Another is a $2,500 rear-entertainment system that is one step above the standard rear DVD players found in most of the minivans and crossovers sold in America these days. This one features screens in the back of both the front-seat headrests.  And a six-disc DVD changer allows back-seat passengers to watch different movies at the same time.

The real muscle in the Sport comes from new engine choices, which have enhanced horsepower over the previous version. The base engine is now a 5.0 liter 375-horsepower V-8, a considerable improvement over the previous 4.4-liter 300-horsepower engine.

The extra horses are welcome because the V-8 is tasked to pull 5,500 pounds. The optional engine is a 510-horsepower supercharged 5.0-liter V-8, a boost of 120 ponies over the previous iteration of the engine. It indeed puts true performance into the Range Rover and Sport equation.

We found the new standard V-8 to be very effective in all types of on-road driving. In everyday stop light to stop light slogging, the Sport can be commanded to leap off the line. The standard 0-to-60 measuring device finds the standard Sport HSE capable of about 7 seconds and the supercharged version in the upper ranges of 5 seconds. The Sport, indeed, is a 180-degree departure from the plodding big off-roader.

The downside to both engines is poor fuel mileage that could deplete even a well-heeled pocketbook. EPA ratings are an anemic 13 mpg city, 18 mpg highway for the standard engine and 12/17 for the supercharged version. Both engines are mated to a revised six-speed transmission and give the Sport the kind of power needed to effectively compete in the ranks of $60,000 sport utilities.

If you ask what does impressive times have to do with traversing the great wilds of the world we answer not much. But the Range Rover Sport has to exude the luxury of performance and handling because most Land Rover models sold in North America reside in driveways and ply the hard pavement, never seeing so much as a muddy pothole.

We found the Sport’s road-holding ability extraordinary considering the usual tippy feeling we get from Land Rover products with their high center of gravity. This is due in part to the Dynamic Response system which stiffens the roll bars to hold the vehicle flat in hard cornering. The system only intervenes when necessary, helping the Sport retain the very compliant on-road ride derived from an air suspension system that keeps the jarring effects of rough-road surfaces outside the passenger compartment. The Sport also has an automatic load-leveling system.

Off-roaders have the best stuff in the business at their disposal. Equipment includes a full-time four-wheel drive system with electronic transfer case and an electronic locking center differential. But the most high-tech feature is Land Rover’s Terrain Response System, which can be set in five positions — on-road driving, grass/gravel/snow, sand, mud/ruts and rock crawl. This feature aids driving in all conditions by adjusting everything from throttle response, traction control and electronic stability control to varying off-road conditions.

Safety features abound. They include four-wheel antilock brakes, side-impact and head-curtain airbags, traction and stability control and front and rear park distance control. Equipment that has become standard fare on a number of sport utilities these days such as hill decent control is offered on the Sport as well.

Inside, the Sport offers a high-riding experience, something desired by most folks who opt for a sport utility. The atmosphere is indeed that of luxury and the Range Rover’s high-quality materials and fit and finish should please most people.

One of our few complaints is with the audio system, which must be accessed through the center navigation screen. It is cumbersome to use and had to be prompted to display some satellite radio information. The engineers who design some of the modern audio systems obviously don’t use them on a daily basis.

The Range Rover Sport starts at $60,495 including destination charge. But options can quickly send the Sport toward 70 grand. Our 2011 test vehicle carried a bottom line of $68,395. The most expensive option on our test vehicle was the $4,700 luxury interior package that included premium heated front and rear seats and 20-inch alloy wheels.

The supercharged edition begins at $74,195.

If you can afford the Range Rover Sport HSE or Supercharged you can rest assured you will be driving one of the best luxury sport utilities on the planet.

Base price: $60,495; as driven, $68,395
Engine: 5.0-liter V-8
Horsepower: 375 @ 6,500 rpm
Torque: 375 foot-pounds @ 3,500 rpm
Drive: four-wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 108 inches
Length: 188.3 inches
Curb weight: 5,540 pounds
Towing capacity: 7,716 pounds
Cargo capacity: 71 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 23.3 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 18 mpg highway, 13 mpg city
0-60: 7.2 seconds (manufacturer)
Also consider: Porsche Cayenne, Toyota Land Cruiser, BMW X5

The Good:
• Powerful V-8 engine
• Luxury cabin
• Iconic Range Rover styling
• Off-road capable

The Bad:
• Cumbersome audio system controls

The Ugly:
• Hefty curb weight equals anemic mileage