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It is going to take a leap of faith.
Somewhere just past my bumper is a 75-foot cliff steep enough to make an extreme snowboarder think twice. But now I’m getting ready to take the plunge—not on skis, but inside a new, 2003 Land Rover Range Rover.
Gently, I feather the throttle and the big SUV creeps forward until suddenly, the earth falls away, the nose tilts down and my co-pilot and I can finally see where we’re headed. Nearly straight down. But not all that fast. Loud grunts and groans emerge from each wheel as the Land Rover’s unique Hill Descent Control, or HDC, system gently guides us down to the bottom.
The third-generation of Land Rover’s flagship sport-ute is full of surprises—not the least of which is the hefty increase in its price tag. But there’s no question that the all-new Range Rover is a vehicle that will catch the attention of both serious off-roaders and those likely never to drive on anything rougher than gravel.
The ’03 ute has had a strange and curious gestation. First conceived when Land Rover was still part of a British conglomerate, the project really only got underway when Land Rover was acquired by BMW, along with a portfolio of other troubled U.K. brands. BMW had visions of transforming itself into a major mass-market player, but the venture proved more than it could handle, and two years ago, the effort collapsed, nearly destroying the German automaker in the process. BMW kept only Mini, selling the Rover passenger car operations to a British start-up.
2003 Land Rover Range RoverLand Rover, in turn, wound up in the
hands of Ford Motor Co., and in a serendipitous stroke, so did BMW’s former
product development chief, Wolfgang Reitzle. As head of Ford’s new luxury unit,
the Premier Automotive Group, Reitzle continued overseeing development of the
Range Rover. And although he has left Ford in recent weeks, his imprint—and the
clear signature of BMW design and engineering—is apparent from the moment you
look at the new SUV.
2003 Land Rover Range RoverEnlarge Photo
The tall and boxy shape of the latest Range Rover maintains what designer’s like to refer to as the brand’s visual “DNA.” Yet there are subtle touches of elegance, such as the jewel-like headlamps, which suggest this version has moved even more up-market. That impression is underscored when you slip inside.
The interior of the 2003 Range Rover is arguably the most elegant and tastefully designed of any SUV on the road and might qualify for similar plaudits whatever the class of vehicle. The BMW touch is unmistakable, and some of the design elements remind you of the new 7-Series sedan. (Whatever concerns critics have raised about the 740’s exterior styling and iDrive technology, it provides a new interior benchmark.) There’s just enough wood to say “luxury,” but there’s also plenty of brushed aluminum and a few pieces of chrome brightwork.
2003 Land Rover Range RoverOur test vehicles did have a few minor
issues: a cupholder that tended to stick shut and a plastic panel or two that
seemed surprisingly flimsy. But company officials quickly acknowledged each of
our concerns, insisting fixes are being put in place even as the first vehicles
are shipped to dealers.
2003 Land Rover Range Rover
To be blunt, the British have never been ones for great ergonomic design. This vehicle could salvage their reputation. The new Range Rover is loaded with electronic features, from the aforementioned HDC to a large navigation system. But unlike BMW’s iDrive, controls are easy to reach and simple to understand.
The nav system offers a nice little touch, by the way. If you’re off-roading, it’ll drop electronic “bread crumbs” on the map to show you where you’ve been—and to help you find your way back in unmarked terrain.
There’s plenty of space for both front and rear seat passengers, though the automaker caught on to an emerging trend too late in the development cycle. For the moment, the new Range Rover is offered in two-row/five-seat configuration, though company insiders hint a three-row version could follow.
Seating is plush and luxurious, but again, BMW’s invisible hand is apparent. These seats envelope you like a good sports car. That’s a great idea in a sport-ute as it keeps you from bouncing around whether you’re racing around some tight mountain roads or jostling over a deeply rutted trail.
During a long day in the mountains east of Santa Barbara, we got an opportunity to test how well the new vehicle would handle severe off-road conditions. While a Hummer would likely out-flank the new vehicle, there are few other competitors who could stand up to an environment the new Range Rover easily overcomes.
A 250 percent stiffer monocoque body certainly contributes. But a lot of that is the result of the ‘03’s new technology, HDC, a dual-mode Traction Control System, Dynamic Stability Control and more. Anyone who thinks you can’t do serious off-roading with an independent suspension system needs to spend some time in the Range Rover.
2003 Land Rover Range RoverOne of the more interesting technical
development is the Crosslink air suspension, which ties constantly compares the
position of the SUV’s left and right wheels and, if necessary, will adjust the
height of one or more corners. Under five mph, the suspension automatically
adjusts spring rates to compensate for trail and road
2003 Land Rover Range RoverEnlarge Photo
The air suspension also permits the driver to choose between three separate heights. In Access mode, the vehicle drops 1.5 inches to make it easier to climb in and out. In Off-road mode, the body rises two inches. There’s also a highway mode, which initiates automatically, after riding for about a minute at freeway speeds.
The Hill Descent Control system works with the ABS brakes and Traction Control. On a descent, it will automatically limit your speed to roughly three mph, though you can override that with the throttle.
As good as the Range Rover is off-road, that was a sort of “gimme,” something Land Rover aficionados had every right to expect. “We wanted to be true to the brand” off-road, notes David Sneath, the engineer who oversaw development. But “we knew our (traditional) on-road behavior wasn’t the best. It just didn’t meet luxury standards…and the new vehicle had to be very good on-road.”
Even if you’re a serious off-roader, you don’t want to be beaten up before you hit the trail. And considering that less than ten percent of Range Rover owners will ever do any serious trail work, most buyers want the new model to drive like, well, a 7-Series or Jaguar XJ.
The stiffer body, IRS suspension and a new rack-and-pinion system certainly make a big difference with the new Range Rover. For a passenger, the ride is now smooth and comfortable. For the driver, there’s a clear sense of road feel and a solid sensation of control.
Our one complaint concerns steering. It’s a bit slow and heavy, as we came to discover on the scenic and winding byways that cut through the wilderness outside Santa Barabara. Surprisingly, we found the all-new ’03 Lincoln Navigator to handle the same roads with a bit more aplomb. That said, this is a relatively minor issue. And the new car still handles better than virtually any other mid or full-size SUV on the road.
Performance is more than adequate, by the way, thanks to a beefy 4.4-liter V-8 driving the permanent four-wheel-drive. This BMW powertrain is another holdover from Land Rover’s recent, convoluted history. For the moment, there are no plans to switch engines, though some sources suggest that eventually, the new Range Rover might get one of the new Jaguar powertrains, perhaps the supercharged engine that will be used in the all-new XJ sedan coming soon.
Buyers will not have to worry about what models and options to select. There’s only an up-market HSE version, with a limited selection of options, such as bi-xenon headlights and heated seats and steering wheel. The “base” 2003 Range Rover will set you back a hefty $69,995 (with dealer delivery). That’s a nearly $2000 jump. But company officials are quick to point out that they’ve added $4770 in new content and features, including three years or 40,000 miles of free scheduled maintenance.
What you’ll get for the money is a go-anywhere vehicle that can stand up alongside almost anything. Only a rare few products will out-do it off-road. And on-road, the new model is far more fun to drive, with looks that will do you proud wherever you’re heading. The price is steep, but we’d be surprised if the automaker doesn’t sell every Range Rover it brings to the U.S.
Land Rover Range Rover
Base price : $69,995
Engine: 4.4-liter V-8, 282 hp/324 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Five-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 194.9 x 77.0 x 73.3 in
Wheelbase: 113.4 in
Curb weight: 5374 lb
EPA City/Hwy: N/A
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags and side airbags, front and rear-seat side head protection airbags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes, traction control, Dynamic Stability Control, Hill Descent Control, Emergency Brake Assist, Electronic Brake Force Distribution, Park Distance Control, tire-pressure monitor
Major standard equipment: Dual-zone climate control, GPS navigation system, six-CD changer, leather and wood trim, multi-adjustable power seats, Homelink garage door opener, power sunroof
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles