The 2012 Range Rover was swell — beautiful interior, powerful engines and styling that earned icon status about five years ago. Designed and introduced back when BMW owned Rover, the Range Rover was the rare design that survived a full decade without seeming dated. But ten years equals an eternity in the car business, and 2013 heralds a new Range Rover era. The new SUV looks much like the old one, embracing the Porsche 911 strategy of not messing with a good thing, but making it just different enough to tip off the neighbors. The real action lies under the skin, where Land Rover tackled the old machine's biggest problem: its weight.
Thanks to an all-aluminum chassis (the only one in an SUV), the new Range Rover is about 700 pounds lighter than the old one. The bare body is in fact 50 pounds lighter than that of a BMW 3-series, and the base V-8 model weighs 4,850 lbs. Subtracting weight, rather than adding power, confers all sorts of advantages — handling, fuel economy and off-the-line quickness all improve.
I recall that when Porsche introduced the original Cayenne Turbo, they said something to the effect of, "This thing is 90 percent of a Range Rover off road and 150 percent better on-road." Since then, the Porsche has dialed back its off-road aspirations, but the Range Rover has drastically improved its on-pavement prowess. Burdened with so much less weight and bolted to the new ZF 8-speed transmission, the carryover direct-injected V-8s (in 375 hp naturally aspirated and 510 hp supercharged flavors) hurtle this box down the road with nearly Porsche-like haste. The Supercharged model does 0-60 mph in 5.1 seconds, splitting the difference between a Cayenne S and a Cayenne Turbo. That's pretty nifty for a machine that is still equipped to crawl up mountains in Africa.
Which is what we did with it.
Land Rover introduced its new flagship in Morocco, surely planning for dramatic sand-flinging on the dunes and heroic mountain-goat rock crawling in the Atlas Mountains. But nature threw a curveball, with a omnipresent soaking deluge turning the fluffy dunes into hardpack oatmeal and the highest mountain roads into rockslide-scarred no-go areas. But the weather accidentally helped prove the relevance of an imperial high-riding SUV, as we powered through raging flash-floods and soaked rural roads that surely tested the labyrinthine new air intake -- breathing from the gap between the hood and fenders, this built-in snorkel affords a wading depth of nearly three feet. More than once, I glanced out the window and remarked that I wouldn't want to be walking across the terrain that we were serenely regarding from the comfort of our leather-trimmed aerie.
The revised four-wheel independent air suspension offers 10.2 inches of wheel travel up front and 12.2 inches at the rear, both numbers only about an inch shy of what you get in a Ford Raptor. A new Dynamic Response active lean control system counters body roll on the road while also allowing major axle articulation off-road. The Supercharged can be had with an active rear differential lock in addition to the standard locking center diff. If probably goes without saying, but low range is still standard. True to its heritage, the Range Rover will go places that only a tiny minority of owners will ever dare take it. We did drive up over a craggy mountain trail, a detour that Land Rover claimed was necessary because of a washout but I'd wager was just for the fun of it. Hey, I'm always in favor of gratuitous off-road shenanigans.
If the old Range Rover's weighty chassis offered an obvious area for improvement, the gorgeous interior was harder to upgrade. And the new cabin isn't outrageously different than the old one, but there are some sleek new wood options and the back seat gains almost five inches of legroom (as well as a two-plus-two seating option for the real Gulfstream-on-wheels effect). As in certain sedans, the captain of industry in back can control the front passenger seat to gain some legroom. Land Rover points out that China is vying to become its biggest market, and over there the rich folk don't ride up front.
As for a third row, they're thinking about it and it's a safe bet that Rover will probably offer a really halfhearted one (a la the BMW X5) sometime down the road. But for now the Range Rover is built for selfish people. Or at least, people who don't require that a machine like this should be stand in for a minivan. That's what the LR4 is for.
So, is this the best SUV in the world? Well, I don't know what really competes with it. The Toyota Land Cruiser might be the most relevant competitor off-road, but the Range Rover leaves it for dead on the pavement. The new Mercedes GL is a fine hunk of metal, but it's more of a three-row people-mover that happens to have some off-road ability — the Range Rover is like an amalgamation of G-Class off-road chops with GL on-road modernity.
The only major weak point is fuel economy, which will likely improve from the old model's 14 mpg EPA combined rating—but then only to perhaps 16 or 17 mpg. However, there's a diesel hybrid in the works that would address that concern, presuming Land Rover decides to ship it stateside.
But it's not like any of these dreadnaughts get wonderful mileage. Normally, I applaud the move toward crossovers, because for most people it really does make sense to sacrifice off-road chops that will never be tested in the name of carlike efficiency. But I'm glad Range Rover didn't go in that direction. By going big on aluminum, they managed to invest their flagship with drastically improved on-pavement manners and performance while losing none of the famous off-road ability (and in fact, probably improving it). This is still most certainly an SUV. I'd say, the best.