Range Rover Sport – for anywhere you want to go – in style, too

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Land Rover has added a stylish high-performance model to take on competitors such as the BMW X5, Mercedes M-Class, Porsche Cayenne and Volkswagen Touareg. And it takes them on well.

The goal with the new 2006 Range Rover Sport is 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, but somehow lacked that sporty, free spirited feeling on the upper end of the brand that it was able to foster in Discovery and Defender at the lower end. To that end, mission accomplished.

Land Rover, part of Ford’s Premier Auto Group, hopes to add 15,000 sales a year with a vehicle that features a combination of horsepower and handling unique to the Sport while retaining the Range Rover’s vaunted off-road characteristics.

More good news, the Sport looks much like the flagship Range Rover, but in a smaller package and for about 20 grand less; and the Range Rover Sport is aptly named as well. It appears sporty and aggressive with a shorter wheelbase than any other Rover; a raked windshield and rear hatch and well-placed bright work gives it a swoopy look; and a roofline that extends over the tailgate and great-looking 19-inch wheels define its sporty position in the Land Rover family.

The sporty nature continues inside with a wide sloping center stack housing a DVD navigation system and a 14-speaker, 550-watt Harman Kardon audio system with a six-disc CD changer.

The traditional lavish use of Range Rover wood is limited to the edges of the console. The interior is a luxury environment on a modern, high-tech scale. The wood has been replaced with more sports-car-like polished metal accents. High-quality black leather seats fill the compartment.

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

A $2,500 rear-entertainment system isn’t the standard-issue rear DVD player found in half the minivans 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.

What puts the teeth in the ‘Sport’ moniker comes from the engine options and the suspension setup. The standard Sport comes with a 300-horsepower twin-cam 4.4-liter V-8 mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with manual shift capability. The up-level Sport gets a supercharged edition of the impressive Jaguar developed V-8 good for 390 horsepower.

The engines are asked to pull about 5,500 pounds. And they acquit themselves quite well with 0-to-60 times measured at 8.2 seconds for the 300-horsepower edition and 7.2 seconds for the supercharged edition.

We found our 300-horsepower Sport HSE test vehicle quick off the line and responsive in merging and passing situations. It has a wonderfully satisfying although not heart stopping performance.

The downside is fuel mileage. Our test vehicle had an EPA rating of 14-mpg city and 19-mpg highway; the supercharged version has an EPA rating of 13-mpg city and 18-mpg highway. The reality is that at $2.00 or even $3.00 per gallon if you afford a Range Rover Sport you can probably afford the premium fuel in requires.

We found the Range Rover Sport’s road-holding ability extraordinary considering the usual tippy feeling we’ve gotten from Land Rover products with their high center of gravity. This was due in part to the optional Dynamic Response system which stiffens the antiroll 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 a four corner 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 an 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.

Equipment that has become standard fare on high-end sport utilities these days such as hill decent control is to be found as well.

Safety features abound. They include four-wheel antilock brakes, side-impact and head-curtain airbags, traction and stability controls and front and rear park distance control.

Interestingly, the Range Rover Sport is not built on the Range Rover platform, but on a shortened version of the LR3, introduced to rave reviews last year as the long-anticipated replacement for the Land Rover Discovery.

While we found the Range Rover Sport a very compelling vehicle for several reasons, not the least of which is its looks, practically speaking it doesn’t offer much more than the LR3. And the LR3 comes in at a more attractive price for basically the same performance and amenities when outfitted with the 300-horsepower engine. But the Sport does say Range Rover on the hood and it feels like a Range Rover on the inside, so that must count for something.

The Range Rover Sport starts at $57,415 including destination charge. But options will quickly send the sport into $60,000 range. Our test vehicle with luxury package and rear seat entertainment package as well as a handful of other options carried a bottom line of $65,565.

The supercharged edition starts at $69,750 and can easily climb into the mid-70s, which is the starting point for the Range Rover.

But regardless of price, both the LR3 and the Sport offer the personification of style, luxury, performance and off-road capability. Pick your truck and you can’t miss.

The LR3 was named Motor Trend’s Sport Utility of the Year for 2005. And the new Sport has already won 4X4 Magazine’s “4X4 of the Year 2006” against 42 other trucks.