Range Rover Sport:Brawn to rule

The Range Rover Sport is no longer the pretender of the family. The turbodiesel V8 could well be the new king.

Pros: Style, stonk, space, suaveness.

Cons: Awkward gear lever, dated central display.

Score: 4.5/5

SOMETIMES stuff falls into place perfectly. Take this test … basically, everything that could go wrong, did, and yet it all played out exactly as I’d hoped.

You should be reading about the Supercharged petrol V8 Ranger Rover Sport. You’re not because the test car was jinxed.

A day into our week’s drive, the distributor apologetically asked for the car’s return; unavoidable emergency circumstances. No problem. We’d try again, a month hence.

That’s what I booked. The distributor heard different. So scratch May, let’s go for June. When that day rolled around, I was out of town, so phoned up the dealership to sort out a pick up time. Good news, the car was there. Bad news, it wasn’t going anywhere. The windscreen was fatally cracked. A replacement glass was en route. Maybe I could call back the following Monday?

Actually, I couldn’t. Rather, I phoned the distributor. To discuss potential for a Plan E. Which they had and it was perfect. I was almost at their doorstop, so why not drive another Sport home? Sorry, not another Supercharged but its twin from the dark side, the V8 turbodiesel.

Fantastic news. Dream come true, in fact. All along, the petrol had never been my primary choice. It had always been the diesel which, until then and despite a number of requests, had simply been unavailable.

So, it was that we forgot the $177,000 Costa Concordia flagship sand instead set sail in a $155k variant that’s more akin to the Queen Elizabeth; less flashy, but very much the cruiser of which you’ll have better lasting memory.

Design and engineering:

Drop some weight, make more friends. Sounds trite, yet clearly a lighter, sleeker Range Rover Sport is what Kiwis want, for the new version has wasted no time finding homes – at such a pace that this and the small V6 turbodiesel have established significant waiting lists.

Well, you can see – and feel – why. The latest shape its trendy Evoque styling overtones is not only great to look at and be seen in but easier to justify now that it’s substantial in size only. The all-aluminium monocoque body/chassis – the ‘Premium Lightweight Architecture’ also employed by the next size up Rangie - changes everything: Yes, it still treads with a degree of heft, yet is reformed nonetheless.

Land Rover design under Gerry McGovern is bold to the point of brash; it’s really more ‘new money’ than ‘old school’ now, but then you could say the same of everything else in this category. The Sport is not only patently a Range Rover, but it is also unmistakably a sister ship to the full size, regardless that not a single panel is shared.

Rating: 4.5/5

Powertrain and performance:

The 4.4-litre V8 diesel is simply astounding in everything it does; yes the 4999cc petrol flaghip has more power, with 375kW against the diesel’s paltry 250kW, but in this category it’s all about torque – and that’s where the oiler muscles supreme with 700Nm against 625Nm, and at much lower revs; basically it’s seeking to reverse the Earth’s natural spin from 1750rpm to 3000rpm.

Step-off and mid-range surge is so strong that you could imagine Land Rover having to epoxy the tyres to the rims lest the alloys turn within them.

What is also great is that the thing will stand a walloping yet stay sipping so demurely that you actually begin to winder if it has capacity to self-create diesel as it runs. Okay, so you’re hauling a big fuel tank – total capacity is 105 litres – yet the V8 petrol has the same and it appeared to use a quarter of that capacity in a single day of … well, just driving around. The diesel ran from Auckland to the lower North Island on pickup day – that’s seven times the distance I saw in the petrol - and used a quarter of that quarter at most. Overall economy for the week was 7.2 litres per 100km. I mean what’s wrong with this picture, people?

The other thing about this engine is its richly resonant character; there’s just a hint of deep-throated brawn at a steady 100kmh that breaks into a wonderful timbre when prompted further. Conversely, at idle it is so quiet and refined that you tend to check the tachometer to ensure it is actually running. On-the-move smoothness is abetted by the imperceptibly smooth and efficient eight-speed auto.

Rating: 4.4/5

Driver appeal:

Even though real royalty is a minority in the buyer set now, it retain a pleasing air of autocratic ‘black labs and Purdeys’ authority yet is an utterly modern car.

The raked windscreen, clean surfacing and pushed-out wheels suggest McGovern’s muse, at least during his youth, might well have been another Gerry – the late Gerry Anderson, of ‘Thunderbirds’ fame, was another fan of big wheels, chamfered-edged blocks and low rooflines. However, there’s a lot of inbuilt function, too, bringing excellent ground clearance (the air suspension allows a hunkered down ride height for easier egress to jacked-up rock crawler loftiness) and improved approach and departure angles.

Placing the Porsche Cayenne it the cross hairs is the reason for the Sport having a ‘Dynamic’ setting which stiffens the active anti-roll bars, speeds up the steering, sharpens the throttle, relaxes the stability control and turns the dials bright red. It also enables ‘torque vectoring’, which brakes the wheels on the inside of the bend and sends torque to the outside wheels, quelling understeer and helping the Sport corner ... well in a really sporty manner, basically.

This is not just due to the suspension firming and lowering so that it sits low and flat, but also because the huge tyres offer masses of grip and because the body is so much lighter. It’s not a sports car equivalent, per se, but there’s enough ninja to this slimmed sumo to make it the dark horse of a dynamic battle.

Rating: 4.2/5

Ride, refinement and quality:

Prizefighter punch is not solely the appeal. Tone down to cruise and it’s at optimum: The cornering stance remains assured, the steering keeps sharpness but it adopts more of the glorious imperiousness that’s part of the brand pedigree.

All this comes in a package that feels incredibly solid. My drive home was in increasingly appalling weather and yet, the more the conditions worsened, the better it felt. It’s a reminder that it’s much tougher than the classy looks might suggest. Just ask the cow confronted on highway north of Taumarunui – yes, right in the middle of the road. It faced down the Rangie long enough for me to park up, skip across to open a gate. Then the bovine bovver boy skedaddled straight in. Even cows know cred when they see it.

The one issue from that big drive was that, from the amount of headlamp flashing I received from oncoming motorists, the automated headlamps seem a touch slow to flick from high beam to low in the face of on-going traffic. Or maybe they are too bright to start with. Oh, and the larger 20 inch and above wheel and tyre combo do transmit turbulent road surfaces.

Rating: 4.2/5

Practicality and packaging:

The quality and execution transfers into the cabin, which again blends modern and traditional English just so; horizontal dash themes engender that appropriate Range Rover ambience, also appealing are the lush carpeting and commodious front chairs that could serve as upmarket lounge and the leather and alloy work don’t let the side down. Neither does the tall driving position, somehow achieved despite the obviously low roof.

If you’ve sat in an Evoque or Range Rover, this is familiar territory, not least with a rotating knob for your chosen terrain setting, which can be pushed in to leave it in Auto. Much thought has gone in the design and operational detailing behind the myriad buttons and switches on offer. The Sport takes an actual gearstick – well, shift lever, really – rather than the rotating horizontal dial that’s a Jag-LR norm apparently because this suits sporty driving. Er, it doesn’t: The shift is awkward and, anyway, there are paddle shifters that do a better job.

The major electronic interface is a touchscreen with satellite navigation and all the usual phone and music integration. It works really well, with welcome sensibility, but looks a little dated in appearance. Still, Sports are loaded: Full electrics, parking sensors with a camera display, climate control air-conditioning, big alloys and a full-size spare are standard fare; our car had a lot more besides.

Rating: 3.8/5

How it compares:

The Sport is the Range Rover that comes perilously close to wholly stealing the spotlight from its bigger brother. The two rigs share so much; not just technology but in luxury feel. And the Sport offers something the largest model cannot, seating for seven.

The Sport is a great machine, potentially the best Range Rover yet, and I’m happy to suggest the V8 diesel is the best of the breed. By the way, I never got back to the Supercharged … the replacement screen got smashed in transmit. Like I say, jinxed.