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Road Test: Range Rover SPort 5.0 S/C

13 August 2014

Elegance, sophistication and opulence – these are the things that one associates with a Range Rover. But with its latest model, Land Rover is attempting to add some true sportiness to the equation. Can a Range Rover be injected with a sporty spirit yet retain that quintessential Range Rover stateliness? 

Like other UK marques such as Bentley, Rolls-Royce and Jaguar, Range Rover trades on a very British image of elegance and refinement, and a somewhat old-fashioned concept of “class”.

Interestingly, Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Land Rover and its sibling Jaguar are now all in the hands of parent companies that hail from other parts of the globe, but these brands continue to rely on their essential “Britishness” to attract buyers.

And for the most part, the strategy has been successful. Nothing proclaims that your ship has come in quite as emphatically as your arrival in a Bentley, Rolls or Range Rover. When it comes to opulence and a sense of grandeur, even the German marques struggle to compete.

But there is a problem. It is probably safe to assume that the Queen has never once sat in her Range Rover and seriously contemplated what was lurking beneath the bonnet. Similarly, Rolls-Royce famously never disclosed the power of its engines in its early days, opting to simply state that they provided “adequate” power.

The aristocrats and landed gentry of a few decades ago would no doubt have viewed talk of kilowatts and torque with some distaste, but modern buyers have become obsessed with performance figures. And more worryingly for brands such as Bentley, Rolls-Royce and Range Rover, everything now needs to be “sporty” – even SUVs and large executive saloons.

This is why we get a vehicle like the Bentley Continental GT V8 S with a four-litre bi-turbo V8 powerplant, which offers a staggering 389 kW of power and 660 Nm of torque. The vehicle can zoom from 0-100 km/h in 4,3 seconds, and keep on going until it reaches 309 km/h.

Rolls-Royce now quotes the performance figures of its cars, and builds a vehicle such as the Wraith, which has two doors and a 6,6-litre V12 engine that develops 465 kW of power and 800 Nm of torque.

Land Rover, in turn, resorted to creating the Range Rover Sport in 2005. And, if we’re honest, it wasn’t the company’s greatest creation. In an attempt to build a vehicle that was sporty yet also a “Range Rover”, the company managed to create something that was neither.

One of the main issues was that the vehicle was built on the underpinnings of the Discovery, so it did not have the agility that the word “Sport” suggests. Also, in trying to make the vehicle sporty, Land Rover sacrificed some of the elegance and sophistication of a true Range Rover. The Sport was a bit too showy.

However, these problems did not prevent the Sport from selling very well. Such was the demand for sporty luxury SUVs that the company managed to sell no less than 415 000 units of the Range Rover Sport between 2005 and 2013.

A second generation of the model was therefore inevitable. But, thankfully, Land Rover went back to the drawing board in designing the updated version of the SUV, from the ground up. Land Rover was determined to build an SUV that was both a Range Rover and “the fastest, most agile and most responsive Land Rover yet”. Did it succeed?

***** Features and equipment

Although the new Sport was developed alongside the full-size Range Rover, and shares some components with the big Rangie, it was designed to have a distinctly different character. Responsiveness and agility were paramount.

To this end, the Sport has a state-of-the-art aluminium monocoque body that is 39% lighter than that of the previous model. That equates to a weight reduction of around 420kg.

The vehicle also has a new lightweight suspension. Also constructed from aluminium components, the suspension is fully independent and double isolated, with wide-spaced double-wishbones at the front and an advanced multi-link layout at the rear.

The lightweight chassis architecture is combined with a four-corner air suspension to optimise the vehicle’s versatility both on- and off-road.  The air springs now offer a variable ride height (+35mm and +65mm, rather than a single +55mm position on the previous model), which delivers 10mm more lift in the maximum suspension. Maximum ground clearance is pegged at 278mm at the front axles and 292mm at the rear.

Powering the model we tested was Land Rover’s five-litre V8 supercharged petrol mill, which produces 375 kW of power and 625 Nm of torque. This is obviously not the only powerplant on offer. Buyers can also opt for a three-litre V6 diesel, a three-litre V6 supercharged petrol or a 4,4-litre V8 diesel. These all engines offer more than enough power, and will certainly provide better fuel consumption than the five-litre supercharged version.

That said, the five-litre petrol mill is a true joy and, provided you can stomach the fuel bill, is the one to go for. It can propel the Sport from 0-100 km/h in around 5,3 seconds, and boasts one of the loveliest “soundtracks” we’ve encountered. Whenever you really put your foot down, the vehicle emits a deliciously evil growl, but if you’re in the mood to simply waft along in comfort, the engine is perfectly docile and well mannered.

All engines are mated to an eight-speed ZF automatic transmission, and are fitted with an intelligent Stop/Start system that purportedly improves fuel consumption by up to 7%.

The new Range Rover Sport also offers a choice of two full-time intelligent 4WD systems, each able to find drive on the most challenging low-grip surfaces.

One system provides a two-speed transfer case with low-range option for the most demanding off-road conditions, with a 50/50 default front to rear torque split.

The alternative system is 18kg lighter and features an all-new single-speed transfer case with a Torsen differential and 42/58 default front to rear torque split, designed to provide a rear-wheel drive bias for optimum driving dynamics while maintaining decent off-road performance.

Like the Range Rover, the Sport is equipped with Land Rover’s Terrain Response 2 system. It features an auto setting that analyses driving conditions and automatically selects the most suitable terrain programme. The five-litre model we tested was also equipped with a dedicated “Dynamic mode” in the Terrain Response system. This provided a more sporting bias during enthusiastic on-road driving, with a firmer ride, tighter body control, reduced roll and more responsive steering and performance.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that, while the Sport comes with a collapsible third row of seating in other parts of the world, it isn’t equipped with these seats in SA. Why? Well, the vehicle doesn’t come with a full-size spare wheel in most countries, but Land Rover SA opted for a full spare rather than the extra seats. Some buyers might have preferred the seats, but we’re glad the company decided to equip its 4×4 with a proper spare wheel. One shouldn’t market a vehicle as off-road capable if it doesn’t even come with a spare.

***** Accommodation

The Range Rover Sport boasts one of the nicest interiors you’ll encounter in any SUV. It is plush, elegant and wonderfully minimalist in design. It has great flourishes that make it clear this is a more driver-focused vehicle than the full-size Range Rover.

For instance, the Sport provides drivers with what Land Rover calls a Sports Command Driving Position (CDP), “which combines the supreme sense of confidence and control offered by the Range Rover with a more sporting, less upright seating position which is similar to that in the Evoque”.

This might sound like nothing more than fatuous marketing speak, but there is no doubt that the Sport has a wonderful driving position. The commanding driving position and high ride height of an SUV is still there, but Land Rover has nevertheless managed to imbue the Sport’s cockpit with a certain sportiness.

Visibility is excellent, and all controls fall nicely to hand. The steering wheel has a good, weighty feel to it, and our test model was also equipped with optional paddle shifters.

To add an extra level of driver involvement, the normal Land Rover rotary gear selector has been replaced with a more sporty vertical gear shifter that can be used to shift manually.

Adding to the “cockpit” feel of the driver’s seat, the Sport is the first Range Rover to offer a head-up display (HUD). The colour display projects key vehicle and navigation data directly into the driver’s field of vision.  The height and brightness of the display can be manually adjusted.

For the first time, the Range Rover Sport is available with a 12,3-inch high-resolution display on the main instrument pack, as found on the full-size Range Rover.  This is accompanied by an 8-inch high-resolution touchscreen display on the centre console for infotainment and secondary functions.

At the same time, though, the cabin is refreshingly minimalist. The control layout has been significantly simplified, with 50% fewer switches for ease of use. The air conditioning dials, for instance, are simple, and their layout uncluttered.

It is also worth mentioning that all the seats are supremely comfortable. The SUV might be performance oriented but it retains the comfort that the Range Rover nameplate demands. Regardless of where you find yourself seated in a Range Rover Sport, you will be ensconced in a cocoon of luxury.

**** Performance

As mentioned, the Range Rover Sport has been lightened significantly. But that doesn’t mean it is a lightweight vehicle. The 5.0 Supercharged V8 weighs in the region of 2300kg, so it is anything but a lean little sportscar.

However, Land Rover has done an admirable job of hiding that bulk. The Sport feels lighter and far more nimble than its weight suggests. It accelerates quickly and without fuss, especially with that five-litre V8 supercharged mill under the bonnet. As stated, it boasts a staggering 375 kW and 650 Nm of torque.

In terms of straight-line performance, there are few large SUVs that can eclipse the Range Rover Sport 5.0 V8 Supercharged. It is a beast, as its sprint time clearly illustrates. You would have to look at something like the Porsche Cayenne Turbo to challenge it.

That said, the brute performance is masked by other characteristics of the SUV. Thanks to its size, plushness and quiet cabin, driving the Sport at speed isn’t a particularly visceral experience. It is very efficient at covering ground but it isn’t showy, and some people might be turned off by that. Because it needs to retain the elegance and opulence that the Range Rover marque is famous for, the Sport doesn’t feel as angry and focused when driven hard as its performance figures might suggest.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. And you shouldn’t interpret the comment to mean that the Sport is “boring”. It isn’t. But it never completely abandons the poise and refinement one associates with a Range Rover. The Sport is very fast, but it is first and foremost a Range Rover.

So how do the brakes cope with all that power and speed? You can certainly notice the weight of the Sport when you try to bring it to a stop, but the large brakes (380mm ventilated discs at the front and 365mm ventilated discs at the rear) do an excellent job of slowing it down.

During the initial launch of the Sport in the UK, we had an opportunity to find out how long it took the vehicle to get up to 160 km/h from standstill, and then back to zero. The five-litre V8 needed a mere 15 seconds.

***** Ride/handling

Land Rover is synonymous with off-road capability, so with the new Range Rover Sport the company’s engineers had the unenviable task of creating an SUV that was sporty on tar but remained capable off road. Not an easy job by any means.

Amazingly, though, Land Rover’s wizards appear to have pulled it off.

The Sport feels surprisingly composed on tar, especially if you consider its off-road ability. The SUV has total wheel travel of 546mm (compared to say, 424mm on the BMW X5 and 329mm on the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class), yet it has minimal body-roll in corners and stays amazingly planted. How is that possible? Well, the Sport has a host of electronic systems that conspire to improve its on-road dynamics.

It has a dynamic active rear locking differential that can vary the degree of lock-up almost instantaneously to optimise traction, handling and cornering stability.

It also has something called torque vectoring by braking, which uses the car’s brake system to imitate the effect of a torque vectoring differential, constantly balancing the distribution of engine torque between the four wheels during cornering, resulting in improved grip and steering, and a reduced level of understeer.

The five-litre V8 model we tested also had Land Rover’s Adaptive Dynamics system, which features continuously variable dampers that provide the optimum balance of ride and control by offering infinitely variable damper settings between soft and firm extremes.

All these systems ensure that the Sport can truly adapt to just about any surface. Its ride is soft and comfortable when you want it to be, but it can also corner at impressive speeds. Take it off road, and it reveals itself to be far more competent than a luxury SUV ever needs to be.

The Sport has no shortage of off-road gadgets. It has good ground clearance, excellent wheel travel, an 850mm wading depth, a (now optional) low-range transfer case, Land Rover’s Terrain Response system and an active rear locking differential.

Few owners will end up taking their Range Rovers off road, but should they decide to venture into the rough stuff in their pricey SUVs, they’ll find them exceptionally capable. In fact, the only thing that really hobbles the Sport off road is a set of road-biased tyres with relatively low profiles. In order to provide the sort of handling and stopping power that modern expectations demand, though, thin tyres with large brakes and big rims are a must, so there is little that can be done about this sacrifice.

Overall, the Sport is probably not as agile and composed as the Porsche Cayenne Turbo when driven very hard, but it has a greater breadth of capability. It somehow manages to combine the refinement of a Range Rover with true sportiness, and even throws in some real off-road ability to boot. Few SUVs are as multi-talented.

***** Verdict

The Range Rover Sport is one of the most exquisite SUVs we have ever tested. It is sublime.

It really is “the fastest, most agile and most responsive Land Rover yet”, but it has lost none of the refinement of the Range Rover name. And, to complete the deal, it has real off-road ability.

As Land Rover correctly states, the Sport boasts an impressive breadth of capability. Of course, this means it can’t be quite as good on tarmac as a vehicle set up exclusively for on-road performance. Nor can it be as capable off road as a vehicle designed specifically for that task. As an all-rounder, however, the Sport is just about unbeatable.

Niggles? Well, there is the price tag of R1 325 823 for the Supercharged HSE Dynamic that we tested, but griping about price when it comes to this segment seems a bit silly. And when compared to the Porsche Cayenne Turbo and Turbo S (R1 710 000 and R2 070 000 respectively) it even starts to look like a bargain.

Predictably, it is very thirsty, especially when driven “enthusiastically”. But if you can afford a Sport you probably won’t be too worried about fuel consumption.

In short, the Range Rover Sport is good – so good, in fact, that we can’t help wondering why someone would even look at the full-size Rangie. And that’s probably the biggest compliment we can give it.

  • Linus MacWinfrey

    SCV6 S will suffice, SDV6 S if you trust our dirty diesel fuel.