Land Rover is stately, elegant and sophisticated; and it's the Queen's favourite ride.
Her Majesty just bought three bullet-proof Land Rovers. While fit for royalty, the 2010 Land Rover Range Rover Sport is an off-roading machine capable of conquering anything in its path - from rivers to boulders to mountains of mud.
But I bet the Queen would be appalled at the sight of the Range Rover Sport after a day at Land Rover Experience driving school off-roading at Eastnor Castle, near Ledbury in Herefordshire, close to the Welsh border. The school is an international hit, with more than 100,000 students a year, including both Prince William and Princess Margaret.
But first, a briefing on our ride: the 2010 Land Rover Range Rover Sport SUV. Two new engines, co-developed with Jaguar, are available - a 5.0-litre naturally-aspirated V-8 with 375 hp and 375 lb-ft of torque and a more powerful 5.0-litre supercharged V-8 that pumps out 510 horsepower and 461 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed automatic is mated to both engines. And although both are big, luxury SUVs, officials say demand is still high.
"Sales in the U.S., the U.K. and the key markets remain strong. And there's rapid growth in Russia and China. Interestingly, although the luxury segment has suffered in line with the downturn in the market worldwide, Range Rover has actually gained share - up 2 per cent in the U.K. and the U.S. year-to-date," boasts Ryan Miller, Range Rover product manager, at the onset of our off-roading adventure in a Range Rover Sport Supercharged model.
The route is challenging; there's nothing artificial about our surroundings, which span more than 2,000 hectares. It's a stunning backdrop of wild wilderness surrounding a real castle.
Keyless entry and a push-button start makes entering and starting the SUV a cinch. The step-in is high, though, and a lack of running boards doesn't help. But once nestled in the sculpted front leather seats with adjustable side bolsters, you have an excellent view of the road or, in this case, the treacherous mud-covered trek ahead.
The seats are too light in colour - dirt flies into the cabin, penetrating the cream-coloured leather.
Over a walkie-talkie, an instructor tells us to set the Terrain Response system to "mud and ruts." The multi-mode system maximizes traction and control by letting you select the setting based on the ground surface by simply turning a dial. Instantly, it modifies the response of the engine, transmission, differentials, dynamic systems and air suspension. There's a new soft sand selection to tackle the beach, too, as well as a new dynamic program designed for sportier on-road driving.
The route twists and turns through dense woodland, deep water and steep slippery slopes. The hill descent control system kicks in, slowing the SUV to a crawl downhill. A 360-degree surround camera system with tow assist lets you see every angle of the Sport - it comes in handy for avoiding rocks and trees.
After more than two white-knuckling hours, we emerge unscathed; some others aren't as lucky, sporting blown tires and torn rear bumpers. Heavy clay-like mud covers every inch of the SUV and parts of my body.
On the road, the Range Rover Sport is an elegant, graceful ride. The Supercharged version is seriously heavy, weighing in at 2,677 kg. But it's fast, accelerating from 0 to 100 km/h in a mere 6.2 seconds. The S/C trim also gets paddle-shifters on the steering wheel for a more spirited ride.
Cutting-edge technology includes high-beam assist, which automatically switches the high beams from high to low as needed, a monitor to detect vehicles in your blind spot and adaptive cruise control, which automatically adjusts your speed to the vehicle ahead.
A dual-view, seven-inch touch screen is cool; it lets the driver see the navigation screen and directions clearly, while the front passenger can actually watch a DVD at the same time. The technology is incredible, but not available in North America.
Safety features are plentiful and include ABS, permanent four-wheel-drive, electronic brake force distribution, emergency brake assist, all-terrain dynamic stability control, cornering brake control, active roll mitigation, a collapsible steering column and six airbags.
From the exterior, the Range Rover Sport looks much like the previous Sport. Tweaks include new LED headlamps, a two-bar grille and a large air intake. At the rear, new light clusters and a revised bumper design mirror the front-end.
Inside, the changes are more significant - there are 50-per-cent fewer switches. But at times, it's still confusing to find functions.
The materials are high-quality, soft to the touch and nicely detailed. The digital speedometer and tachometer are easy to read, especially at night. A heated front windshield and washer jets, heated front and second-row seats and a heated steering wheel are standard features.
The 2010 Range Rover Sport Supercharged is a mighty off-roading machine. But it's expensive, starting at $87,400. The naturally-aspirated version is cheaper at $73,200. Even though it's not as powerful, it's still fit for a King or Queen.
Or you can go for a spin in a borrowed one at a Land Rover Experience centre. There are 31 schools worldwide, including one in Montebello, Que., and three in the United States.
2010 LAND ROVER RANGE ROVER SPORT HSE AND SUPERCHARGED (S/C)
Type: Five-passenger, premium SUV
Base Price: $73,200 (HSE); $87,400 (S/C)
Engine: 5.0-litre DOHC V-8/5.0-litre supercharged and inter-cooled V-8
375 hp/375 lb-ft (HSE)
510 hp/461 lb-ft (S/C)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Drive: Permanent four-wheel-drive
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): not available; premium gas
Alternatives: Porsche Cayenne GTS, BMW X5 M, Audi Q7, Mercedes-Benz ML55 AMG
- Ride and handling on- and off-road
- Innovative technology
- Upscale and elegant interior
- Busy console