New Range Rover Sport: Equally at home on highways and offroad

By Lee Pang Seng
THE launch of the Range Rover in the late 70s laid the groundwork for comfortable offroad driving although the trend didn’t really take off till much later. Today, Range Rover has many rivals vying for a share of that pie. When the latest Range Rover Sport was introduced in early 2013 in the Big Apple, with ‘Agent 007’ Daniel Craig taking the stage no less, it appeared that Land Rover was going back to basics.

It had to impress on its customers and the world at large that the Range Rover still conformed to its pioneering status as the premium permanent four-wheel drive that is equally at home barrelling along the open highway as it is covering offroad terrain of the most challenging Mother Nature had to offer. That was the impression we came away with after two ‘gruelling’ days of driving the new Range Rover Sport in the UK.

Apart from more than 400km of tarmac roadways, winding through the hilly Wales countryside and highways, we were let ‘loose’ at Eastnor, the revered testing ground for Land Rover all these years, as well as enjoyed a dynamic drive session on an active airfield that included driving in and out of a decommissioned Boeing 747.

Although one of our boys suffered a right rear puncture while tackling the demanding terrain at Eastnor, we certainly couldn’t fault the new Range Rover Sport for its ability to keep us comfortable while being taken to the extremes both on and off road. This experience clearly reminded us of Land Rover’s original intent in introducing the Range Rover more than 40 years ago.

Before we delve further into the UK drive experience, an understanding of all the changes that were incurred in the latest model should throw light on efforts to maintain and shore up the Range Rover’s tough yet premium character. There are three models in the Range Rover stable, this being the Range Rover for ‘normal’ folks, the Range Rover Sport for the more spirited types, and the Range Rover Evoque for the outgoing enthusiasts.

If you assume that all three models share a high commonality in parts being mere extended versions of the main model, you couldn’t be further from the truth. They may look similar for the sake of a family image but each model is unique and built according to the purpose intended. The Range Rover Sport, viewed probably as the ‘middle ground’ between the Range Rover and Evoque, has more than 70 per cent of parts unique to its make-up. Land Rover obviously saw no benefit in sharing components except for the chassis and part of the body frame.

Compared against the previous model, the new Range Rover Sport is 62mm longer at 4850mm yet Land Rover sees this extended profile as more compact and manageable against seven-seater rivals. This is all the more commendable as the new model sits on a longer wheelbase of 2823mm (+178mm) but has shorter overhangs front and rear. Compared to the Range Rover, the Sport is 149mm shorter and 55mm lower, and gains by being 45kg lighter.

The advantages come in its better manoeuvrability and ease of parking, while providing a more spacious interior for higher passenger comfort and accommodation. This is helped further by the fact that the new Range Rover Sport is also slightly wider against the old model at 1983mm (+55mm) for marginally better elbow room.

To boost its Sport orientation against the Range Rover, ‘quicker’ aesthetics are employed to carry the effect: sharper and ‘faster’ windscreen angle, a more streamlined profile and rounder edges, as well as a lower roofline that slopes a wee bit more. Against the previous model, it is eight per cent more aerodynamic in overall profile with a Cd (aerodynamic co-efficient) value of 0.34.

Although the new Range Rover Sport tips the scales from 2115kg to almost 2400kg, depending on model, its relative lightweight standing is made possible with higher use of aluminium for its body panels and suspension components. The latest model is lauded as the first vehicle in its segment to feature an advanced all-aluminium body structure that maintains good driving dynamics while enhancing sustainability.

Land Rover says the new lightweight aluminium body ‘employs a combination of pressed panels, plus cast, extruded and rolled aluminium alloy parts, so the strength is concentrated precisely where the loads are greatest’. This has led to a vehicle platform that is 39 per cent lighter than that used in the previous model. In kerb weight, the new Sport is up 420kg lighter.

The Range Rover Sport is fully independent with an aluminium suspension system, featuring double wishbones in front and an ‘advanced’ multi-link design at the rear. A key player here is the air suspension system, which is in fifth generation. The maximum ground clearance is raised by 51mm to 278mm, while the air suspension provides up to 115mm of regular movement from the lowest to the standard offroad height. The former is now 10mm lower at 50mm to provide easier entry and exit.

There is also the added feature of an automatic extension, which is triggered by sensors and being manually selected, that raises the Sport by 35mm to boost total range movement to 185mm. With this new setting, Land Rover says the Sport can cover off-road terrain at a higher speed of 80km/h (previous model 50km/h).

The whims of change saw the Range Rover Sport being fitted with a ‘more direct’ electric power steering. It is available with two permanent four-wheel drive systems. The first one comes with a two-speed transfer case with low-range option, 50/50 front rear default torque split and 100 per cent locking capability. The second system, which is 18kg lighter, has a single-speed transfer case with Torsen differential that automatically distributes torque to the axle with the most grip, working with the traction control systems to provide good foothold under all situations. The default front-end torque split is 42/58 to provide a rear wheel bias that Land Rover believes provide optimum driving dynamics.

There are five engine options, three diesel and two petrol, some of which would be available next year. The power units provided now are the supercharged 5.0-litre V8 and 3.0-litre V6, both petrol, and the high-boost turbocharged 3.0-litre V6. They are mostly long stroke undersquare engines except for the 5.0-litre V8, which is squarely configured with similar bore and stroke.

With the 5.0-litre engine producing 375kW (510PS) and 625Nm, it accelerates to 100km/h in 5.3 seconds to give some super fast cars a run for the money. Its top speed is put at 226km/h although an optional chip for a higher top end is available, raising the highway charge to more than 250km/h.

The turbodiesel 3.0-litre V6 diesel is rated at 215kW (292PS) and 600Nm, and the supercharged 3.0-litre V6 petrol 250kW (340PS) and 450Nm. Their top speed is similar at 210km/h; likewise the 0-100km/h sprints at 7.2 seconds. Transmissions for all three models were also similar being the ZF 8HP70 automatic units with eight gears.

The UK Drive
The international media drive was organised in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, about 100km north of London. It covered a variety of roads, mostly through the winding countryside, which took us into Wales before returning to Cheltenham, with a stopover at Eastnor – Land Rover’s testbed for many tens of years. The second day saw a dynamic drive experience at an active airfield that was as memorable as it was different.

We had the 3.0-litre turbodiesel to begin the first’s day drive of more than 300km. A parting shot before we started was a caution on the active traffic police monitoring along some of the roads we were to cover. The interior was a cosy retreat with the respective items fitted in a simple, yet elegant, two-tone arrangement to make driving more convenient. We also liked the good support of the leather seats with dedicated side squabs to hold us in place.

The dashboard is uncluttered with a tidy layout: the large central multi-function screen provides a gamut of information, alerts and the GPS maps. The large central pad steering has two modules, topped by round button controls, on each side, giving almost a robotic face to it. This is supported by steering column stalks to assess the respective functions, mainly the turn indicators, and light and wiper activation.

Press the start button on the dashboard, next to the instrument binnacle, and the V6 turbodiesel fired up to idle smoothly and fairly quietly for a diesel engine. With 600Nm of torque coming in early, we enjoyed the easy pace without having to work the accelerator pedal hard. It certainly made light work of the two tonne plus (including us and our co-driver) it had to haul.

Keeping to the suggested speed limit most of the time, the fuel gauge recorded a slow and steady decline. One of the exuberant drives was on a 5km winding course through an open grassy plateau, where we explored the Range Rover Sport’s handling limits, up to more than 140km/h. The active air suspension accommodated the moving yaw rates to take us through the bends without too much body roll and understeer. Steering direction was also quite good despite the electric assistance, with a weighted feel at highway speeds.

It was on a 10km offroad track through a military training ground in Wales that we felt the brunt of its weight. Pushing it through sharp corners at 60-70km/h on the gravelly road had the Range Rover Sport fighting to make the turn. After going onto road shoulders and nearly hitting earth banks a few times, we dropped the tight corner speeds to about 50km/h.

All the Range Rover models made available appeared to be running on the same 21-inch alloys with Pirelli Scorpion 275/45 R21 all-terrain tyres. Land Rover says the vehicle’s suspension is engineered to work with such tyres, even for off-road driving. To prove that, we were put through some tough off-road courses at its proving ground Eastnor. The terrain was so challenging that one of the Range Rover Sport suffered a rear wheel puncture negotiating one of the courses: the challenges involved going up and down steep inclines while manoeuvring between trees (within touching distance) with Land Rover experts guiding us through using hand signals. It gave us a good sampling of the vehicle’s Terrain Response 2 offroad technologies.

We also drove into a stream for about 500 metres and put the wade sensing feature to the test. With the function selected, sensors in the door mirrors gauge the water depth. The depth level was increased by 150mm over the previous model to 850mm: we were driving in water close to that depth for a good length of the stream experience (as gauged through the graphics on the centre dash screen). For those attempting to drive through flooded stretches, this wade-sensing feature should be useful.

We had the supercharged 3.0-litre V6 petrol Sport the following day, covering a shorter route of about 100km and another off-road stint with long, steep slippery slopes, again under expert guidance. The first thing we noted was the lower torque in the low to mid-range rev band. While it didn’t make tarmac driving less exciting, especially when we got the supercharger into action, we could feel the vehicle’s weight with the petrol model.

There was a less positive feel during normal cruising as we had to step on the accelerator more to get that good forward motion we had enjoyed with the 3.0-litre turbodiesel. However, we feel that we would not have noticed this apparent lack of low to mid-range bite had we not driven the turbodiesel beforehand.

Overtaking performance was about similar as the added boost from the supercharger piled on the horses to pick up speed to pass other vehicles quickly within relatively short stretches. We also had the pleasure of comparing its acceleration performance against a Volvo XC60 on entering a highway. The Volvo had turbo power while the Range Rover Sport had the supercharger, so it was pretty even, bearing in mind that the Volvo is lighter.

Another difference was the ride between 50-80km/h for the diesel and petrol models. Again, taking into the consideration that both were running on similar wheels and tyres, we were surprised that the V6 diesel had a mild bouncy ride at those speeds as if the vehicle was running on rumble strips. This was clearly felt by the front passenger, but it wasn’t there in the petrol V6. It could be due to the air suspension tuning.

To cap the day’s driving was the dynamic experience at the Kemble Cotswold Airport, an active airfield used by flying clubs and domestic airlines. It included a timed sprint on the single runway from standstill to 160km/h, which we covered in 24 seconds, and a full-bore charge that saw the speedometer needle hit 207km/h towards the end of the runway. We had the transmission in Sport mode, with upshifts occurring at about 5500rpm, taking first gear to 80km/h and second gear to almost 110km/h.

The other interesting aspect was driving the Range Rover Sport in and out of a decommissioned Boeing 747. This involved going up and down 60-degree ramps, and manoeuvring within the tight confines of the plane interior. It was certainly a nice change from other media events as we enjoyed the pleasure of driving into the first class compartment in style.

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