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First drive: Range Rover Sport

2005-09-08 14:40

John Oxley

Imagine a narrow track through unspoilt forest, towering cliffs on one side, untouched bush on the other.

Imagine a dirt surface, hard and firm, dry and sandy where the sun has filtered through the high branches of ancient yellowwood trees, treacherous and slickly damp in deeper shade.

Imagine the luxury of knowing there's no other vehicle on the road in front of you for at least 7 km.

Imagine you have a beautiful four-wheel drive thoroughbred under you, with a massive 287 kW supercharged V8 engine, suspension that lowers to get the centre of gravity down, massive brakes, and handling that rivals many a hot hatch.

Stop imagining. I'll describe it, because that's what happened to me yesterday in the sparkling new Range Rover Sport.

Logging road

We were traversing an old logging road in the mountains north of George. In front was another Range Rover Sport being driven by a woman journalist, but she was getting slower and slower, and we were left far behind the rest of the convoy.

Afterwards I learned she had been admiring the trees.

Eventually she waved me through, and after a quick chat on our walkie-talkie with the front-running team, realised I had the road to myself.

The Range Rover Sport is designed to challenge the might of the BMW X5 when it comes to on-road presence and ability, while retaining the legendary off-road abilities that have made Land Rover a global 4x4 icon.

It's built on a shortened version of the Discovery III platform, and has the same Terrain Response system, designed to ensure that the car's suspension - and other - settings correspond to road conditions.

We had been tootling along in the "Grass/Gravel/Snow" setting, but now things were about to change.

A warning

First a warning. Don't try this in your Range Rover Sport unless you have at least three years of rallying at national level under your belt!

What I wanted to do was explore the car's limits, and to find out just how close it is to the X5 when it comes to highly-taxing smooth road conditions.

So I switched across to the "tarmac" setting, switched off the DSC (traction control), slotted the gear lever across into the "sport/manual" mode, and selected first.

After that it was just a matter of concentrating VERY hard as all hell broke loose....

There's never a suggestion of wheelspin as you pull off under full throttle, despite traction control being off. With permanent four-wheel drive, and more than 2.5 tons forcing down onto the fat low-profile 274 mm tyres, how could there be?

You rocket into the first corner, flick the steering to get the tail to slide slightly, and power through while allowing the 'box to change up automatically, thus ensuring both hands are firmly in control of the wheel.

Race-bred braking system

Then it's brake, brake, brake as you haul down from well over 100 km/h after just a short straight to enter yet another tight, tight corner, grass hissing against the sides of the car, small stones pattering against the undersides, the big race-bred Brembo four-piston ventilated disc brakes hauling the mass down, and your left hand flicking the gearlever backwards so you're into first as you enter the bend.

Then it's onto the power and repeat the exercise, roaring to 100 km/h in just 7.6 seconds - fast as the latest Golf GTI turbo - and on beyond.

Corner after corner we revelled in handling that shrank the car, making it feel like a small hot hatch rather than a sports juggernaut, unruffled, cool, calm and collected.

Later the roads opened up as we found ourselves climbing onto the escarpment, and now it was a different sort of road surface. Dry, dusty and slippery.

I switched in the DSC for safety, but quickly took it off again as it stifled the engine the first time I tried to power out of a corner, the traction warning lights flashing, the system doing its job but spoiling mine...

Triple figures

Some of the corners were wide and long, and my passengers pointed out I was well into triple figures at times, but the Sport always felt sure-footed, always felt comfortable.

Eventually we caught up with the front of the convoy, and stopped to allow a heavily-laden truck-trailer pregnant with logs to slide past on its way down the valley we had just left.

A warning crackled on the radio for those still on their way, and we stood in wonder and gazed at the Sport, slightly muddied along its flanks, but with not even the slightest wisp of smoke from brakes which had been working harder than a locomotive's on an alpine downhill..

Later we went out onto the tarmac, and found the Sport can indeed take on the X5 in those conditions, too.

And when we went onto a private farm and plodded our way through a variety of off-road conditions that would tax even the best of the best, we discovered the Range Rover Sport is every bit as capable off-road as the Discovery III it is based on - and infinitely better than its BMW rival.

In fact, we doubt that the BMW would have got past the first off-road hurdle....

The secret is Terrain Response control, and the Range Rover Sport's fully adjustable air suspension, which allows it to stoop low for easy access, and ride slightly higher to ensure it doesn't touch the road on tarmac while still retaining a low centre of gravity.

And best of all, to lift to 227 mm of ground clearance on the highest ride setting - with the possibility of a few more cm if it encounters sudden potholes, whereby the affected wheel "reaches" down to touch the bottom!

Click here to find out more about Terrain Response control in our report on the Discovery III.

The Sport in detail

The Range Rover Sport was designed, as we said, to take Land Rover into a new sector of the market.

At the top of the Land Rover product range the Range Rover sits proud as the ultimate luxury off-roader, and the Discovery III is the middle-weight champion.

But there's a new breed of buyer out there who wants sporting motoring while still allowing him - or her - to get down and dirty from time to time, to explore not just the limits of handling, but the great outdoors, too.

The Sport does all that, and in a package that is desirable, luxurious, comfortable and totally modern.

Two versions are currently available - the Range Rover Sport HSE V8 priced at R675 000, and the Range Rover Sport Supercharged at R740 000.

The top model uses a 4.2-litre supercharged 287 kW Jaguar-derived V8 engine. Maximum torque is 550 Nm and power and torque are fed, full-time, to all four wheels through a ZF six-speed "intelligent shift" automatic gearbox.


The transmission features sport programming and Land Rover?'s Command Shift, which offers manual control of gear changes. Low range is electronically selectable on the move, for tough off-roading.

Other engines offered are a 220 kW 4.4-litre normally aspirated V8, while later the advanced new 2.7-litre 140 kW turbo-diesel V6, which produces a healthy 440 Nm of torque, will come on stream.

They use the same six-speed ZF automatic gearbox and the same full-time four-wheel-drive system as the supercharged model. Other high-technology features of the power train include an electronically controlled centre differential, which improves the vehicle's handling both on-and off-road.

The fully independent air-sprung suspension has also been tuned for on-road performance. It has double wishbone suspension front and rear - as typically featured on the world's leading sports cars - while a new Land Rover technology, Dynamic Response, further reduces roll and improves handling.

This computer-controlled active anti-roll system senses cornering forces and then acts to reduce lean. It is standard on the supercharged model, and optional on other versions.

As mentioned the Sport also gets the Terrain Response system, standard on all models.

Five settings

This allows the driver to choose one of five terrain settings via a pop-up rotary control on the centre console.

Terrain Response then automatically selects (or guides the driver to select) the most appropriate settings for the vehicle?s many advanced electronic controls and traction aids - including ride height, engine torque response, Hill Descent Control, electronic traction control and transmission settings.

Styling follows Discovery and Range Rover cues, but the Sport has a lower roof line, a steeper windscreen, air outlets on the flanks, and a sloping rear.

The Range Rover Sport has five doors, with a single-piece rear aluminium tailgate that includes an opening rear glass for easy access.

The car is roomy inside, with space for five, and good head and knee room.

Premium materials - including leather, wood and metallic finishes - are used extensively. The cockpit is designed around the driver, and is more enveloping than other Land Rovers.

The high and sweeping centre console helps the driver reach across to the controls, rather than down to them. The seats are sporty and supportive.

Technologically, apart from Terrain Response, Dynamic Response and a host of other advanced power train and traction controls, the Range Rover Sport features Adaptive Cruise Control (its first Land Rover application), bi-xenon adaptive front lighting and the latest generation satellite navigation, both on- and off-road.

Audio systems by harman/kardon and a twin-screen DVD rear seat entertainment system, using high-resolution screens enclosed in the front seat headrests, are available.

Naturally aircon, electric windows and mirrors, and electric seats are fitted as standard.


Land Rover has taken a bold step with the Sport, but I believe it's one which will enable the company to reach across the divide and capture customers from its greatest rivals.

Certainly it matches its obvious rival, the BMW X5, on smooth roads, while offering off-road ability the Beemer just can't come close to.

In fact, I will go on record as saying I prefer the Land Rover product to Porsche's storming Cayenne.

More change in your pocket, for starters...


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