As we pulled the 2012 Range Rover Sport into a parking lot off I-40 just outside Jackson, Tennessee, we saw another car just like ours.
"Say hi, everyone!" I said.
My wife, my 9-year-old-son and I all smiled and waved frantically. From the front passenger seat, I held up Hercules, our squat, elderly Boston Terrier, and moved his paws to make it look like he was waving, too. In the other Range Rover sat a guy in jacket and tie, sipping on his venti. He ignored us completely.
"Snotty," said my wife.
"Rude," I said.
"What's that guy's problem?" my son asked.
The dog snarfled.
Ours was clearly conduct unbecoming of a Range Rover-owning family. But we weren't owners, so we didn't care. If driving a new car is like wearing a disguise, we were doing a poor job, the equivalent of a cheap fake mustache. This beast of a car, for us, was a great, unexpected, exciting treat. We were taking it on a test drive. It had traveled a long way already. And we already owed it a lot.
My wife wanted to visit her family in Nashville for Christmas, but it wasn't looking good. One of our cars is leased. We couldn't take the mileage hit. The other car only does long hauls in emergencies.
Then, late in the afternoon on the 23rd of December, I got a call. Land Rover had a 2012 Range Rover Sport available for a test run. We could use it for ten days. Our week between Christmas and New Year's was wide open. So I said hell, yes. It was a Festivus Miracle!
On Christmas Eve morning, a guy was standing in our Austin driveway, looking pleased. Next to him was a gleaming new "Indus Silver" Rover with only about 300 miles on the odometer. He'd just driven it down from Dallas and had a great time. There it sat, in all its power and glory, boxy, confident, attentive and solid, like a purebred Rottweiler that had just spotted a bird.
I'd just watched an episode of Top Gear where Jeremy Clarkson had nearly outrun a Challenger 2 tank on open ground in a RR Sport. This was an even newer model, and it sort of resembled a tank itself, with massive 19-inch aluminum alloy wheels, but without the gun. You could cook a deer on the grill. The "Automatic Xenon Headlights" cast a pleasant aura, but they range wide. They'd catch a spy at 1,000 feet. The appointment sheet says the Rover has an "Integrated Body Frame with Hydroformed, Boxed-Steel Ladder-Frame and Welded Steel Monosides." That's car company-ese for "it's built like Brian Urlacher."
Even a magnificent machine like this, with a base price of $60,000, has negatives. It gets horrible gas mileage, an estimated 13 mpg in the city and 18 on the highway, with an estimated annual fuel cost of almost four grand. Plus, it prefers premium gas. We drove it not quite 2,000 miles, the vast majority of that highway, and spent almost $300 on fuel. That's a ton of money. While I realize that a Range Rover Sport is meant to be a luxury off-road vehicle, not an economy car, that's still embarrassing, almost an extended middle finger to Mother Earth.
The 2012 Range Rover Sport contains every comfort of home, if your idea of home is a stylish bachelor loft with a wraparound view of downtown. Our nice, tight cabin felt more like it belonged in a sports car or a coupe. The legroom wasn't expansive, but it certainly had enough. The car's "luxury interior pack" had exceedingly comfortable premium heated black leather seats with nifty white accent stitching, wood trim, and an 825-watt 17-speaker sound system with satellite radio. Also, there was a mini-cooler in the compartment between the driver and passenger. A refrigerator! In a car, for god's sake!
That said, I wouldn't necessarily choose the Range Rover Sport for a family road trip again. It worked for my family, because there aren't many of us. But if you have a lot of kids, or little ones, I don't see how it wouldn't be a huge headache. The drink holders in the back are essentially on the floor, too far down for kids to reach. It doesn't have much more trunk space than an ordinary hatchback, which would have been a real problem if this had been a family camping trip instead of a little suitcase jaunt to grandma's house. There's a DVD function in the GPS screen, but it won't show a picture while the car is moving. That's understandable and safe. Believe me, I was extremely happy to not have to watch the Pokémon 2000 movie while driving through North Texas. Still, when you're trying to get a nine-year-old through a 13-hour road trip, your driving priorities shift.
But what a masterful ride. This SUV has a 5-liter aluminum alloy V8 engine, good for 375 hp and 375 ft-lbs of torque; permanent four-wheel drive, and a Terrain Response system that adjusts the chassis and suspension to move through mud, sand, snow, or, one we admittedly didn't try, "Rock Crawl." There's no driving condition or situation it can't handle.
My wife and I, who alternated two-hour shifts behind the wheel, loved driving the Rover. It was an all-day party. You're so high up that it almost feels like you're cruising through an Imax movie, a quiet, tight, private ride, not easy to come by on a busy holiday Interstate. The car does 90 mph before you can blink; 60 mph arrives in 7.2 seconds. It has massive pickup, great steering, and the turning radius of a car half its size, and it feels incredibly agile, like a great heavyweight playing rope-a-dope. The suspension was a little stiff. When we hit highway ruts, they registered. Then again, this car was designed to handle a lot more than our mundane domestic paces.
That night, it showed us what it could really do.
Just outside of Little Rock, we stopped for dinner at the Cracker Barrel to sate our desire for soggy green beans and overcooked chicken. It had been raining all day, though nothing serious. Sensors on the windshield meant that the Rover operated its wipers at exactly the pace we needed. As soon as we hit the road for Memphis, the weather got worse.
I drove into a massive squall, the raindrops growing exponentially by the minute. Trucks whipped up huge horizontal sprays of water, and the wind swirled around us. Yet the Rover never wavered out of the lane, not even remotely buffeted. It took the elements like a champ, holding steady at 70 mph in the slickest possible conditions.
The roads in Arkansas near the Tennessee border are some of the worst in the U.S., with barely-painted-on lines, tight lanes, and constantly malfunctioning street lamps. I found myself surrounded by cruising trucks and terrified elderly drivers in shoddy sedans. This was tough sledding.
My hands stayed locked 9-3. I couldn't remove my thick winter coat. My forehead dripped as my wife gave me sips of ice water through a straw like I was a surgery patient just coming up from anesthesia. The dog snored in her lap. My son snoozed in the backseat. The Rover held its ground.
In Memphis, the roads got a little better, but more crowded. We crossed the Mississippi, her belly swollen like a trucker who'd eaten too much barbecue. Broken-down cars dotted the roadside. There were fender-benders and emergency lights. Mounds of mysterious wet debris were spread everywhere, as though an 18-wheeler full of insulation materials had recently exploded, disgorging its contents.
The highway had three lanes. I drove in the middle. A semi cruised to my left. A broken-down pickup sat on the shoulder. I was in the trucker's blind spot. He swerved toward my lane, fast. My wife instinctively grabbed for the wheel.
"Go to the right!" she yelled.
There was a car in that direction. So instead, I braked cleanly not to a full stop, but lowering my speed to 25 or 30. Then the truck saw me, and pulled back into his lane. I increased my speed. My wife sat there, pale and shaking. I exhaled.
The Rover had reacted, smoothly and undisturbed, without even the notion of a screech or a skid. If I ever meet the person who designed this four-channel anti-lock braking system, I owe him or her several drinks, not to mention my life. I've never experienced a car, of any size, brake so efficiently or so well.
My son woke up.
"What happened?" he said.
"The Range Rover saved us," I said.
The storm continued for a while. We stopped for the night. In the morning, we cruised into Nashville, enjoyed the car for a few days, and then drove it home. We hit no more weather, and faced no more tests of substance. But when we'd put the Rover to the ultimate challenge, it had performed majestically. Every time I looked at it, I felt grateful that my family had been loaned such a heroic disguise for the holidays.
Photo: Edgar Gonzalez via Flickr