The Range Rover SVR is a leather-lined bullet train – with a 550-horsepower V-8, steamroller tires and giant brakes, it commands the highway. But it also provided some unexpected lessons on engineering, sociology and consumer dynamics.
On a surface level, the SVR was simple to understand: the interior is a sumptuous cocoon, the body a taut aluminum masterpiece, the sound system concert-hall worthy. But the truly interesting part was the incongruous performance numbers. Although it weighed more than 2.5 tons, the SVR sprinted to 100 km/h in less than 4.5 seconds.
Then there was the fuel economy – cruising at highway speed with five people and a full load of luggage aboard, I was burning just more than 11 litres/100 km – a figure that would have been respectable for a Detroit compact car in the 1970s.
All things considered, the SVR is a veritable paragon of efficiency. This is what happens when smart engineers spend thousands of hours tweaking fuel injection algorithms, paring away grams from suspension arms, and crafting zero-slip transmissions. All good, right?
Not really. The more important story is one of missed opportunity, and the tragedy of what could have been. Aimed at a different target, the engineering brilliance that goes into machines such as the Range Rover SVR could produce a car that could go from Toronto to Vancouver on just a few tanks of fuel and cut your annual gas bill by two-thirds.
But that's not what we asked for. Automotive engineers have handed us an incredible efficiency dividend – and we have squandered it on luxury and size. We have opted for the super-sized SUV, the 600-horsepower sports car and the massager seat with 18 motors and built-in heating and air conditioning.
Our story could have been different. Instead, we will go down in history as Oil Hog Nation.
"You can't tell people what car to buy," an automotive engineer once told me. "You have to give them what they want. Even if it's wrong."
As you probably know, the SUV has conquered the car market. Porsche may be famous for its compact 911 sports car, but the company's Cayenne SUV is what most customers actually buy.
In the meantime, the United Nations climate change conference is wrapping up in Paris, and there is still no definitive answer to oil dependency. My extended test drive in the Range Rover SVR provided me with some insights on why the problem won't be going away any time soon.
Heading to Muskoka, Ont., in the SVR was a great experience. It cut through traffic like a ground-hugging private jet. It was quiet and powerful, and it was amazing to see how low the fuel consumption was for such a big, powerful machine. But this was still no Prius or Tesla Model S. Yes, I was an oil hog.
As history has shown, a country's per-capita energy consumption rises in lockstep with its economic fortunes – the richer a country becomes, the more energy each citizen consumes. In the 20th century, fossil fuel use increased by 2,000 per cent, and the majority of that guzzling was committed by North Americans – although we comprise less than 5 per cent of the world's population, we use more than 25 per cent of its energy.
The reasons for this trend have to do with comfort, consumer aspiration and the rise of what economist and sociologist Thorsten Veblen referred to as "the leisure class." Veblen, noted for his witty criticism of capitalism, said that nouveau riche business people liked to buy things and engage in activities that symbolized their wealth and showed that they were free from the day-to-day grind of making a living. Although Veblen died in 1929, his theories provide a good explanation for the rise of luxury cars such as the SVR.
The only obstacles that have stood in the way of the SUV's quest for global domination are fuel prices and government legislation. In 1975, the U.S. government mandated fuel economy standards designed to lessen the dependence on foreign oil reduced carbon emissions. These Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules have had a dramatic impact. In 1973, the average fuel economy of cars in North America was 13.4 mpg. By 2013, it had risen to 23.4, even though cars had grown in size.
The Range Rover wasn't the first car with surprisingly unexpected efficiency. On a long trip in the new Corvette Stingray C7, which has 460-horsepower V-8, I saw highway fuel consumption figures as low as 8.8 litres/100 km. Once upon a time, the Corvette was a crude machine, with a carburetted V-8 that drank gas like a freighter ship. But the new C7 is a technical masterpiece, with engineering details that include direct inject, variable valve timing, and a cylinder deactivation system that turns the V-8 into a V-4 when power requirements allow.
The Range Rover SVR's efficiency was even more impressive, considering its size and frontal area. The SVR's bag of engineering tricks included low-friction engine components, high-pressure fuel injection and an eight-speed automatic transmission with a locking clutch.
The consumer preference for ever-larger vehicles is driven by psychology and enabled by clever engineering that lets them drive a vehicle such as the SVR while burning the same amount of fuel that a mid-size car did in the 1990s. "They use the fuel savings to get more car," says industry analyst Dennis DesRosiers. "That's how it works."
It all makes perfect sense – at least until you start thinking about climate change, the Paris conference, and whether we can meet the tough final targets mandated by CAFE. Will gas prices climb and kill the market for large vehicles? Will the electric car make the breakthrough it needs to gain mass acceptance? No one knows. And so, at least for now, Oil Hog Nation rolls on.
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