Driving the Range Rover Supercharged SUV left me with a strange sense of déjà vu, as if I had encountered it before. This was impossible – the Supercharged was a brand-new 2014, and the last Rover vehicle I drove was a 1960s-vintage Series 2.
Then I remembered a defining childhood experience, when a wealthy friend sent his chauffeured Rolls-Royce to deliver me to his parent's estate. My friend and I played in a soaring hallway hung with tapestries that went back to the time of the Norman Conquest, and a butler brought us sandwiches on a sterling silver tray.
The Range Rover took me back to that encounter with the trappings of the English aristocracy. The Supercharged was a rolling Downton Abbey, a magisterial, uniquely British vehicle with an interior that reminded me of an Edwardian club, and an engine with enough power for the Queen Mary (and fuel consumption to match).
The super-luxury SUV is a unique byproduct of our current age, which has seen a vast rise in a class of car buyer with the means to buy a vehicle that serves as a mobile estate and status symbol. The super-luxury SUV is the preferred ride of the socialite, the pro athlete and the winning entrepreneur. Massage seats are expected, as are a plush ride and a stratospheric price tag. My Range Rover tester came in at just less than $126,000 before taxes.
Vehicle manufacturers love super-luxury SUVs because of their fat profit margins – why grind out proletarian subcompacts that may net a meagre $1,000 markup when you can push high-zoot barges that rake in 25 times that much? The market has spoken, and almost every high-end manufacturer now offers super-luxury SUVs – Mercedes, Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Porsche … the list goes on.
What you get for your money is a vehicle that transports you in business-class comfort, and signifies your elite financial status or your willingness to carry crushing debt. The Range Rover is unique among luxury SUVs, thanks to its unmistakable design, with slab sides and tall windows that give it the look of a royal transporter. (The Queen drives one, with a metal screen to keep her corgis in the back.)
As I mounted up the Supercharged for the first time, I began to understand its allure. The shift knob rose magically from the centre console, and the five-litre engine hummed smoothly beneath the long, polished hood. The rear tailgates opened and closed at the touch of a button, like a pair of drawbridges.
The luxury touches were tasteful and perfectly done – the Range Rover seemed to anticipate my every need, as if I were Lord Grantham, with a fully trained household staff. The steering wheel warmed in my hands, and sensors scanned for traffic, warning me of potential intruders. When I encountered snow and ice, warnings popped up on a screen and recommended an alternate gear.
I wondered if the Supercharged could bring me a brandy in the library after dinner, or polish my riding boots (not that I have any). Fantastic. Then I noticed the gas gauge, which seemed to move visibly before my eyes as I drove my wife through downtown Toronto. I flicked on the fuel economy display, which informed me that I was burning 33 litres/100 kilometres.
Out on the highway, I managed to get the consumption down to 15 or so, but it took a feather touch. Driving the Supercharged was like operating a mighty Victorian dreadnought – I imagined teams of stokers down in its lower decks, shovelling mountains of coal into its flaming boilers.
After three days of driving, I found myself at the gas pump, refilling the Supercharged with premium fuel. This was not an exercise for the faint of heart. The counter whizzed past $100 with no signs of slowing (it finally stopped somewhere around $125). Now I knew how Lord Grantham felt when the utility bills arrived at Downton Abbey.
Behind the wheel, I tried to put the fill-up out of my mind, and focused on the Range Rover's smooth ride and magnificent thrust – the supercharged, 510-horsepower motor made up for its significant bulk. The Range Rover was also amazing at plowing through deep snow, thanks to its advanced four-wheel-drive system and adjustable air suspension, which can raise and lower it like a camel.
The Range Rover would also be great at crawling through forest trails or clambering up rock walls like a Jeep. Beneath the Range Rover's elegant skin was a set of beefy mechanicals that could take it almost anywhere. But who would risk this beautiful, polished machine out in the wilderness?
I had a machine that could handle the Sahara desert or the Rubicon trail. But I'd never take it there. Instead, I spent my days on the paved road, burning fuel like a cruise ship and pondering the rise of the super-luxury SUV, a machine with a mission based on urban transport and making its owners feel like aristocrats. The Range Rover is an ancestral manse with a supercharger and a full staff of digital butlers, footmen and parlour maids. Heavy lies the crown.
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