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Apr / May 2013
A Rover Mission

Writer: Nicolas Shammas

Now that the new Range Rover has been launched, you’ll be seeing billboard campaigns across every Middle Eastern city. Nothing unusual there of course. After all, this is an extremely important car for our region. What’s interesting, however, is the visual Land Rover is using: you have the new Range facing off against the first one from forty years ago. Granted, there was no such thing as a luxury SUV before the Range Rover came along but when you look back at that original model, it’s clear just how far Land Rover has pushed the envelope.

The story began in 1966 when Ford released the Bronco, itself a competitor to the seminal Jeep CJ (or Civilian Jeep). Here were two rugged off-roaders conceived to appeal to those with an interest in farming, ranching or even industry. Land Rover, itself no stranger to military go any-anywhere vehicles, saw these developments across the Atlantic and realised that it too was in a unique position to leverage its off-roading prowess. But unlike Ford and Jeep, it wanted to create a vehicle that would appeal to more than just farmers.

Four years later, the first Range Rover was born. To say it was a game-changer doesn’t do it justice. This was a car with a truly inspired mechanical design. It had an immensely strong chassis built to a box-section ladder-frame design, an extraordinary amount of ground clearance, a smooth V8 with formidable low-end torque and, best of all, an ingenious suspension design. The result was a well-appointed, easy to use, all-terrain vehicle, with outstanding traction and surprising comfort. So good was the final product that it managed to stay in production for twenty-six years.

Of course, tweaks were made along the way. For example, in 1981, a four-door version was launched. In 1986, a diesel engine was introduced. And as every model year came and went, some extra accoutrements were added, until by the time the second-generation model launched in 1994, Range Rover was a bona fide luxury brand. 

In the very same year, BMW acquired the company. The new car didn’t adequately impress the Germans though, so they kept the Mk1 production running alongside the Mk2 for a couple more years while they set in place ambitious new goals to be met by the third generation model. Unfortunately, BMW never got to enjoy the fruit of their labours because in 2000, just as the Mk3 was about to be launched, they sold Land Rover on to Ford.

The hard work had paid off though. When the third model finally came out in 2001, it was light years ahead of the competition. Not only was it more capable than ever, both on and off road, but the fit and finish was better, the exterior was sharper and the interior was so smart, it was often compared to that of a Rolls-Royce. Funnily enough, when BMW then bought Rolls-Royce and launched the Phantom, they used much of the same team that had designed the Range Rover Mk3.

All of which brings us to the latest car. Where’s the big leap of progress this time around? Weight-saving. By building what it describes as the world’s first SUV with an all-aluminium monocoque, Land Rover has cut more than 400 kilogrammes from its overall mass. When you consider the lengths other manufacturers go to save just a few kilogrammes, this really is a big deal.

As far as aesthetics go, the Mk4 Range Rover doesn’t present any quantum leaps. Of course, all the usual bits and bobs that we’ve come to expect from a Range Rover are there. But there are also some details at both the front and rear that are at odds with the car’s clean profile. For example, the front end has too many grills and openings, plus it’s trying to convey a sense of bling that’s totally unnecessary. Move to the rear and you’ll see how the rear end has been let down by the style and positioning of those Ford Explorer-style lights.

Sadly, the negative points are not over yet. Why the rear indicators are not LED beats me. Then, the fact that much of the ‘metal’ within the interior is actually plastic rather than aluminium doesn’t suit the image of the car. And then there’s the rotary gear-knob, which feels flimsy and brittle. Lastly, the LCD screen in the centre stack isn’t even half as high in terms of resolution, as the one in front of the driver.

I’m aware that many fans of the new car will see this as harsh criticism but when Range Rover is clearly gunning for the luxury world’s big boys, it had better be prepared for such analysis. What’s more frustrating is how close this Range Rover came to greatness, only to let be let down by simple mistakes. Now that’s all out of the way, let me get to the positives. And there are many.

My day of fun with the Range Rover took place at the regional press launch in Dubai. We managed to cruise motorways, cross a small stream, traverse rocky terrain and, as you’d expect, tackle the harsh desert landscape. The Mk4 did all of this without having to press a single switch. Genius! The car is constantly evaluating the terrain and will administer all the appropriate changes automatically. Not only that but the air suspension, adaptive dampers and ‘dynamic response’ active anti-roll bars keep the car tight, yet comfortable. Gone are the days of the Range Rover swaying through corners.

The brakes are also vastly superior to the old model. Of course, the weight saving helps but these new stoppers have the power to really give you the confidence to push the 503bhp 5.0-litre V8 supercharged unit. Then there’s the rear legroom - its vastly more spacious. The new car may be only marginally longer than the outgoing model but by lengthening the distance between the wheels, the engineers have revolutionised the Range Rover experience for backseat passengers. For those seeking even more space, there’ll also be an extended wheelbase model that will offer 12cm more legroom, plus the ability to have two separate and reclinable rear seats, which should make it the ultimate chauffeur-driven vehicle. 

The Range is an excellent car, no doubt about it. You sit in a unique command driving position, insulated, cosseted, in the lap of luxury, able to tackle almost any terrain. The seats are some of the most comfortable of any car on sale today – they even massage you. But more than all the performance figures, weight savings or efficiency gains, the new Range Rover has become even more of a statement. It’s the kind of vehicle that’ll make movie stars, despots, drug lords and footballers drool. Here’s the key to it all: the Range Rover can keep up with or even outdo, any dedicated off-roader and it can also do the same with any plutocratic saloon. This is the Range Rover USP. Is it perfect? No. But it is one of the most accomplished and desirable cars on the road today.

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