Clinging to a rutted wall of sand, the redesigned 2014 Range Rover Sport ascends to the peak, picking a careful path between ancient California redwoods that predate the first Europeans in America. Not a half-hour earlier, the Rover was rocking — but not rolling — through forested asphalt curves at speeds that would have seemed surreal in an earlier, clumsier era of SUV’s. The Rover Sport plays a 5,000-lb. cosmic joke, creates a psychic disconnect that no current SUV can match: One part river-wading, boulder-dashing Tarzan, one part pavement scorcher for up to seven slack-jawed passengers.
And later this evening, the Rover plays a third role: Docking at a Silicon Valley restaurant, its upper-crust standing so apparent that wealthy Tesla owners leer with the desire usually reserved for Internet IPO’s. Yes, you will be seeing Range Rover Sports at the temples of Google, the player’s lot at Giants Stadium and every freaking overpriced spa, resort, boutique and farm-to-table establishment in America.
The Rover Sport waded ashore in America for 2006. Many auto journalists refused to get it, scratching their reactionary heads and wondering why anyone would want a smaller, sportier, slope-roofed Range Rover when they could have the real thing. As usual, actual moneyed buyers ignored the WalMart wisdom of auto scribes, making the Sport the best-selling Rover model in America. It maintains that position today, with New Yorkers buying more Rover Sports than any other market, including Los Angeles.
Yet for all its style and mountain-man skills, the Rover Sport wasn’t all that sporty on pavement, certainly not in the league of a BMW X5 or Porsche Cayenne. Consider that changed.
Land Rover calls the redesigned Sport simply the fastest, best-handling Rover in history. In this case, that’s no marketing fluff. With a 5-second surge to 60 mph, the Sport is faster than a base Porsche Boxster. That claim, and that pace, requires choosing the Jaguar-based, 510-hp V-8 fitted to Supercharged ($79,995) and Autobiography ($93,295) models.
But as with any out-of-shape athlete, putting more sport in the Sport was as much about diet and exercise as sheer power.
Harnessing the aluminum-intensive chassis of newer Rover and Jaguar models helps the Sport shed a claimed 800 lbs. – though adding porky options, like a panoramic sunroof that adds back more than 100 lbs. – can re-expand the Rover’s metaphorical spare tire. This brute can still shoot past 5,100 lbs. in V-8 trim, with Land Rover claiming 4,727 lbs. for the base V-6. And the Sport only weighs about 100 fewer pounds than the six-inch longer, two-inch-taller Range Rover on which it’s based.
Yet that aluminum body structure remains 33 percent lighter and 25 percent stiffer than its mostly-steel predecessor. Combine that with a new double-wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension, a four-corner air suspension, new electric steering and the latest handling gizmos — including adaptive anti-roll bars, a torque-vectoring rear end and an electronic rear differential — and this Rover searches and destroys roads like a Marine brigade, while keeping its body flatter than a buzzcut.
The slenderized body helps even “basic” supercharged 340-horsepower V-6 models — you know, for peasants who can only afford $63,495 to start — ease to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds. That’s 0.3 seconds quicker than the previous generation’s naturally aspirated 5-liter V-8. Yet fuel economy jumps nearly 30 percent to 17/23 mpg, up from 13/18 mpg. And with the same 5.0-liter, 510-horse as the outgoing Supercharged model, the reworked version gains 2 mpg in both city and highway, at 14/19 mpg. All models are ably supported by a discreet eight-speed automatic transmission, with available paddle shifters and an honest-to-God sport mode that prevents upshifts until the driver calls for one. Brembo brakes, including six-piston calipers up front, keep speeds in check.
Rover Sport fans were also calling for more luxury, and the 2014 model mostly complies. A streamlined body, with its demure grille, slashing fender vents, descending roof and tapering hull, has a decidedly yacht-like presence; the navy blazer is entirely up to you. That roof can be had in contrasting colors to amplify its “floating” effect over the window glass. A saucily upturned rear end flashes a trapezoid-shaped skid plate and twin exhaust outlets.
The Sport grows 2.5 inches longer. More significantly, a seven-inch wheelbase stretch carves out notably larger rear-door openings for easier entry and exit, and adds about an inch more rear knee room. A third-row seat — strictly for children or hostages — is available for the first time, and it power-folds to disappear below the cargo deck.
The interior bears the stylish fingerprints of Gerry McGovern, the Land Rover design director who has helped lead the brand to record U.S. sales with well-received models like the Evoque. McGovern adores the minimal approach, tastefully accessorized with a few rich details. And the Rover Sport tries its damndest to emulate the sleek London style of the big Range Rover, which might be described as Burberry on Wheels.
McGovern’s visual architecture includes an angled center stack, bookended by satin chrome pillars, that rises to join a sleek, nearly vertical dashboard. Seats are upgraded in style, sculpting and support: In this Sport, you sit in it, rather than perch on it. The driver’s thin-film digital display is elegant and informative, especially in the higher-grade, 12.3-inch version.
This being a Rover, there are still missteps inside. On basic models, faux-leather material that drapes the dash and door panels looks more Birmingham country diner than British country estate. Uplevel versions add apropos stitched leather, but those models also involve the upsell, on a Rover that can sneak past $100,000 all-in. Wheels range from 19 inches to a club-hopping 22 inches, with the 21’s offering the best combination of off- and on-road performance.
Driver and front-passenger footwells remain constricting for a vehicle of this size. And with a bare minimum of buttons protruding from these sleek surfaces, you’d better be able to rely on the ones you’ve got. But the navigation screen remains stingy, and its response time and graphics are behind-the-curve, especially compared with Audi and other eye-popping players. Available Meridian audio systems do ease the frustrations, including a top-dog, 3D-imaging unit with a monumental 1,700 watts and 23 speakers.
One inarguable feature is the sequel to Rover’s Terrain Response System, imaginatively titled Terrain Response 2. In addition to the usual modes – including grass, gravel and snow; mud and ruts; sand and rock crawl – an available Dynamic mode girds the Sport for on-road action. It quickens steering ratio by 10 percent, speeds up the rear limited-slip differential, heightens transmission, throttle, torque-vectoring and anti-roll bar response and frees up the electronic stability control. Oh, and it also wraps the Rover’s digital speedometer and tachometer in a crimson ring of pixels, the better to match the driver’s rising blood pressure.
A choice of two full-time four-wheel-drive systems includes one with a genuine two-speed, low-range gearbox for serious adventure or towing. The Full Monty of off-road technology keeps the Rover churning in any imaginable conditions: Hill descent and hill start controls, gradient release control, even an off-road information screen and camera views to keep the Sport on the straight and narrow.
The four-corner air suspension, at full inhale, lifts the Sport to a 10.9-inch ground clearance — more than a Jeep Wrangler. That suspension can raise or lower the Sport over seven inches of travel, including a hunkered-down height for loading, and a pair of tiptoeing emergency heights to unstick the Sport from an obstacle.
Descending the steepest, gut-check mountain trails above Half Moon Bay was as easy as popping the Rover into first gear and letting hill descent control automatically ease the Sport to the bottom. If that’s too boring, skilled off-roaders can left-foot brake to their heart’s content.
Naturally, Land Rover affirms that manyowners will recruit the Sport for their own expeditions. Our hunch is that for most Sport buyers, the highest degree of difficulty will involve a bumpy meadow or two-track dirt road, or for northern buyers, the occasional blizzard, all of which the Rover will dispatch with a yawn. The point is that, while this SUV performs heroically in the wild, most buyers will judge the Range Rover Sport on how well it performs on pavement. Our own judgment? This Rover rocks.