Rockin’ Range Rovers: The New Line, Now Muddier

Green Machine: Land Rover LR4 in dirt-beating action

Green Machine: Land Rover LR4 in dirt-beating action

Nov. 5 (Bloomberg) — That’s not a road, that’s a stream running down a steep ravine.

Make no mistake, this is Vermont, that is a road, and I’m slogging up it in a Land Rover LR4, leading a flotilla of sports utility vehicles as water burbles down sodden logs and over big, rounded boulders. Each truck has an off-road instructor aboard, which is a good thing as this is no country for amateurs.

Tata Motors Ltd. bought Land Rover from Ford Motor Co. early last year, and the company recently completed overhauls on its three U.S. models. Over several days in three states, I test the LR4, Range Rover Sport and Range Rover on-asphalt and off.

It’s a rare SUV owner who purposefully dips a tire into a muddy pothole, but Land Rover scrupulously maintains its products’ hardcore 4X4 capabilities. We’re talking fording African rivers and scaling Outback boulders here.

Lean-to: Sliding down the hill in a Range Rover

Lean-to: Sliding down the hill in a Range Rover

That Swiss-army-knife prowess comes at a price — added weight, poorer gas mileage and stickers that can run to more than $100,000, whether you’re riding the Rubicon Trail or just rolling along Rodeo Drive.

All three models crack the scale at some 5,800 pounds, so the differences among them lie in amenities and price. The “baby” of the bunch is the $48,000 LR4, which started life as the Discovery model and then the LR3. For 2010, it becomes the LR4, with extensive exterior and interior design changes and a more powerful, direct-injected, 5.0-liter V-8.

Backwoods Crawler

Land Rover LR4: On the hunt

Land Rover LR4: On the hunt

The LR4 is also the most versatile of the lineup, with room for seven passengers and rear seats that fold neatly into the floor. You could use it as a work vehicle, family hauler or backwoods crawler.

The previous model looked tough and blocky, and some perceived it as less than luxurious. The grill and sides have been reworked and the effect is softer, shinier, cuddlier. I liked the old look.

But even muddy isolationists would appreciate the new interior, which gets a spiffy center column and is comfortable and tactile in a way the previous version wasn’t.

Even with 375 horsepower and 375 pound-feet of torque, the LR4 is slow. You simply can’t mitigate all that weight. Also, an issue across all models is Land Rover’s rather lazy six-speed automatic transmission, which feels a generation behind other luxury carmakers.

Surface Switch

RangeRover3

The big truck gives a super comfortable ride, and the automatic air suspension does a remarkable job of multitasking between smooth asphalt, jostling gravel and bumpalicious trails.

Off road, the beast truly comes alive. Like its big brothers, the LR4 comes with a driver-selected terrain response system, allowing you to counteract conditions like snow and mud, ruts and sand.

On that so-called “road” in Vermont, longtime Land Rover instructor Bob Burns gets out and directs me through the terrain. I barely crawl along, taking cues to balance a front wheel atop a boulder, to skirt a tree stump or romp through a deep mud pit.

Only when I get out on foot and fall into the mud do I realize just how steep and slick the track really is.

Which brings us to the midrange Sport and the top-of-the- rock Range Rover models. Both received gentle exterior and interior facelifts, updated electronics and a choice of two more-efficient engines.

Happy Trails: The Range Sport taking me places

Happy Trails: The Range Sport taking me places

As looks go, the Sport is my favorite. With oversized tires and aggressive front air intakes, it’s like a kid’s Big Wheel toy come to life. Meanwhile the Range Rover’s proportions, with flat roof, big windows and long rear overhang, are as recognizable from afar as those of the Porsche 911. It gets further refined with new headlamps and taillights and a massaged grill.

Supercharged Option

The major upgrade is the two new choices of engine: a naturally aspirated V-8, or a supercharged version. The lesser has 375 hp, while the supercharger bumps it to a prodigious 510. There’s a matching price difference too; a base of $60,495 or $74,195 in the Sport; and $79,275 to $95,125 for the Range Rover.

After driving all four varieties back to back, there’s little question (okay, no question), that the supercharged engine is a lot more fun. And the gas mileage of 12 city and 18 highway doesn’t get any poorer with the supercharger. That said, I doubt Earth First! members will thank you for that fact.

The Sport handles its girth the most capably, with less body roll and able braking. (The supercharged version gets six- piston brakes versus four.) The company says the Sport will do everything off-road that the LR4 can, though the low-profile tires are more prone to punctures in the sidewalls.

Aging Linebacker

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The Range Rover is the plushest of the three, and broadcasts a shoulder-rolling confidence like an aging linebacker wearing Burberry. It’s also the most difficult to corral in tight corners. It’s a big ol’ boy and it needs lots of room.

Still, I’ve seen its extraordinary chops off-road and it will manage the hills of Moab, Utah, as easily as those of Beverly.

Just promise to dip those tires in a muddy pothole once in a while.

The 2010 Land Rover LR4, Range Rover Sport

and Range Rover at a Glance

Engines: 5.0-liter V-8 with 375 hp or in supercharged form with 510 hp.

Transmission: Six-speed automatic transmissions.

Gas mileage per gallon: 12 city; 17 city (LR4 and Sport); 12; 18 (Range Rover).

Prices as tested: LR4, $61,000; Sport Supercharged, $83,345; Range Rover Supercharged, $106,000.

Best feature: You can’t believe the places these big trucks can take you.

Worst features: Awfully heavy, poor gas mileage.

Target buyer: The driver who wants a Swiss-army-knife type of vehicle.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com.

Last Updated: November 5, 2009 00:01 EST