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The Land Rover reimagined

With its shapely curves and powerful four-wheel drive, the Range Rover Sport quickly adjusts to just about any terrain -- with or without input from you

February 10, 2006; Posted: 2:51 p.m. EST (1951 GMT)

By John Tayman, Business 2.0


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(Business 2.0) - To say that Land Rover vehicles are boxy is a cliche, though that doesn't make it less true. The boxiest of the boxy is a chunkster known as the LR3, which looks something like this: |_|.

I piloted one around town a few months ago, and it was a perfectly fine experience, at least until the moment a wall of wind slammed the box sidelong, which resulted in something like this: \_\.

Despite such scaerodynamics, that particular Rover had much to recommend it, including a nifty dial-it-in suspension system and a kick-ass engine. If Land Rover recast this thing in sleeker form, I recall telling a neighbor at the time, it would sell like crazy. Well, go figure -- they did just that. I await my commission.

Dashing through the snow

The result of this deboxification, a Giverny-green Range Rover Sport, was delivered unto me on the eve of a holiday weekend, amid a forecast of heavy snow. And indeed the vehicle was magically transformed. Company sculptors had hacked and sanded the stolid Range Rover profile, chopping the floating roofline, polishing away protuberances, and generally making the thing as aggressively modern as possible. (Land Rover intends the Sport to do battle with zippy vehicles such as the Porsche Cayenne and the BMW X5.)

The $56,750 Sport still harkens to the company's venerable flagship, but the newbie has been smooshed -- it's 4 inches lower than the LR3, and 8 inches shorter -- into something quicker, cooler, and much meaner. I loaded the dog into the back, tapped a destination into the GPS, and started speeding northward.

The snow began to fall outside Manhattan. As the road slickened and froze, I thumbed a flush-mounted dial on the center console -- the large gauge controls something Land Rover calls Terrain Response, which is one of the better features imported from our old friend the LR3.

The system allows drivers to choose among various road conditions: general, grass/gravel/snow, mud and ruts, sand, even rock crawl. Leave the dial untouched and the Sport will nick along happily in everyday mode, but the instant you dial in a specific terrain, a high-speed network of electronics tickles the throttle settings to match torque to the conditions, tunes the six-speed tranny's gear change points, adjusts the stability and traction controls, and finesses the antilock brakes to nix any slip-sliding.

But wait, there's more! The program also fires up the air suspension (heightening the ride if you are off-roading, lowering it if you're highway cruising), tweaks the differentials on the full-time four-wheel drive, engages hill descent control (should you suddenly elect to take the Sport bouldering), and twiddles the antiroll control, keeping a cornering Sport flat until it hits 0.4g, then allowing a bit of body roll (because keeping it fully horizontal felt too creepy).

If all this sounds hopelessly complex, rest assured that it is -- but not for the driver. A series of line drawings (rocks, a lone pine tree, etc.) indicate the various settings. Just point the dial to the appropriate cartoon and off you go. I chose the snowflake.

Creature comforts

With our safety safely dialed in, the dog and I took a moment to investigate the creature comforts of the Sport. My favorite touch: a teeny fridge tucked in the center armrest, which can quickly cool a warm soda while keeping sandwiches secure from four-legged passengers. Overall, the cabin rivals the Ritz: twin DVD screens embedded in the leather headrests, 550-watt Harman Kardon stereo, satellite radio, cherry wood, leather, brushed aluminum, more leather.

Land Rover offers the vehicle in two versions: a 300-horsepower V-8 and a 390-hp supercharged model. (Both engines come courtesy of corporate sibling Jaguar, while big brother Aston Martin supplied the Sport's transmission.) My loaner had the nongoosed engine, which was still swift enough to go from nothing to 60 in eight seconds, on road or off, snow or no snow, dog aboard or not.

Within two and a half hours, we were 200 miles from Manhattan. By the time we hit Massachusetts, the conditions had turned brutal, and commuters in lesser vehicles shuffled along in the right lane, tap-tap-tapping their brakes. I had the Sport, sentient as ever, set on cruise control; thus a battery of sensors on the front bumper continuously timed the distance between us and any vehicles complicating our path. If a gap opened, the Sport closed fast, racing forward or falling back with my foot touching nary a pedal. Although a bit unnerving, the system never seemed out of control -- it reeled in or deployed speed as if determined by a human. We remained on autopilot until we neared our destination, the old mill town of North Adams.

The road into town threads alongside a river that cuts west through a shallow valley, shadowing the mills in which, for almost 200 years, workers produced the same materials now spread so liberally within the Sport's cabin: leather, aluminum, wool, and fine textiles. But by 1958 the last grand textile mill was shuttered. Forty grim years elapsed. Then in 1999 the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art reimagined the cavernous mills as a sleek arts center, and the surrounding brick buildings now hold luxury apartments and fine restaurants.

Call it another successful deboxification. (In my first 10 minutes there, I counted four other Land Rovers.) Oh, and that last mill? It was Berkshire Hathaway, three years before a young man named Warren Buffett began buying its stock as a prelude to a takeover. He paid about $12 a share. A single share will now get you a loaded Range Rover Sport, with traveling money left over.

Not a bad deal.


Created for: Rapid transit between Greenwich and Stowe; traversing extreme terrain in any weather.

What it's got: The base model has a 4.4-liter, 300-hp V-8. Another 13 grand gets you a 4.2-liter, 390-hp supercharged V-8.

What it gets: About 350 miles between fill-ups -- but that's mostly due to the 23-gallon tank. The base model guzzles to the tune of 14 mpg city/19 highway.

Behind the wheel: Just set it and forget it. Cruise control maintains a sensible distance between you and the car ahead. (It's unsettling, but you'll arrive in one piece.)

Coolest feature: A little fridge hidden in the center console.

How much? $56,750 as tested, $69,750 with supercharger.

Details and photos: 2006 Land Rover Ranger Rover Sport

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