In the media, we call it “narrowcasting.” Instead of trying to aim for a vast audience of everyone from casual viewers to slavish devotees, outlets like Animal Planet, Sirius, and yes, TheCarConnection.com, try to attract very precise segments of an audience that’s not being served by the titans of the industry. (Yes, you, titans! Your days of towering are nigh unto over!)
In the car industry, the same principle applies to niche vehicles — those with annual sales that don’t even come close to the monthly numbers posted by the likes of the Ford F-150. Within Ford’s own empire, the Land Rover franchise could be seen as a narrowcast brand — and within its confines, the new Range Rover Sport is probably the narrowcast-est vehicle you can imagine.
The upside of this tight focus is twofold: guaranteed exclusivity, and the unique prospect of a rugged SUV that’s been brought up to act like a sports sedan.
The Sport, you can now infer, is like the Porsche Cayenne S and BMW X5 it chums around with at the club. It’s one of those hybrids that’s been tried time and again, from the dawn of the SUV era, when the first automaker tried to sell you on the notion that its sport-ute was “carlike.” Many have tried; few have prevailed.
In this trio, though, the carlike tag is very nearly fulfilled — most convincingly in the Porsche and BMW, but surprisingly so in the Sport. You think Land Rovers are more at home on the savanna and the steppes, not in Stuttgart or Sydney or San Francisco. But the Sport will shift that reality to a new channel.
What’s the difference?
I’ll explain in a minute how the Sport fully commits to the carlike dynamics. But first, let’s answer the big question lingering in the air like thick cologne: why would I ever need a Range Rover Sport when the original Range Rover exists? The first reason, obviously, is to keep Land Rover customers from drifting over into Porsche and BMW dealers. The second, Land Rover execs add, is to make the best-performing and best-handling vehicle the brand ever has built, to appeal to buyers who might like an M5 or E55 instead.
Finally, there’s so vast a gulf between the $40,000-ish LR3 and the $75,000-ish Range Rover, even those vehicles would be loathe to cross it. At $56,750 for the base V-8 edition and $69,750 for the supercharged version, the Sport neatly plugs the gap.
As the fastest, best-handling Land Rover ever, you might expect the Sport would owe its genetics to the Range Rover. That would be incorrect. The LR3 is the DNA donor here, and the LR3’s seven-passenger configuration is the prime reason the Sport is a five-seater only, with a six-inch deduction in wheelbase length. Meanwhile, looking upward, the DNA the Sport shares with the big Range Rover is all visual, but parked side to side, it’s clearly the sexed-up, hormonal progeny of the patrician Range Rover, with a “fast” windshield (meaning it’s steeply raked) and D-pillar and, on supercharged Sports, big, blingy 20-inch rims.
The Sport owes both its engines to both its family members, though. The base engine is the same 300-hp, 4.4-liter V-8 that’s installed in the LR3 (and mechanically unrelated to the BMW powerplant formerly used in the Range Rover). The supercharged version, which we drove northeast from Barcelona smack into a snowstorm, offers up a 390-hp supercharged 4.2-liter V-8 derived from the Jaguar unit. It supplies 30 percent more power and 29 percent more torque, at the same fuel economy as the normally aspirated engine, along with a wonderfully subdued whistle that sounds to me like a British luxury vehicle ought to. The supercharged edition charges to 60 mph in about 7.0 seconds, Land Rover claims, on its way to a top speed of 140 mph. The standard engine will get to 60 in 8.2 seconds and tops out at 130 mph.
Engine power meets the Sport criterion, as does the trimmer, lower body. But how exactly do the five-speed automatic gearbox (with CommandShift manual control), hardcore off-road hardware, and ground clearance enough to pass over Flinstonian obstacles mate up with the mission? Put it this way: there’s hardly a path you can throw at the Sport that it can’t tackle gamely or quickly.
Rattle off the hardware beneath and the Sport can seem like a bit of a control freak. There’s stability control, traction control, Hill Descent Control for easing down crumbly hillsides, Dynamic Response control and Terrain Response control (the latter two, optional on the base model). Throw in the copy of Janet Jackson’s Control playing on my iPod and it sounds as if the Sport needs lots of expensive therapy. But it doesn’t: massive computing power underhood sorts out the competing demands of all these systems to deliver the Sport safely and swiftly on its route.
Some of those names you know. Terrain Response, if you missed our reviews of the Range Rover and LR3, lets users choose the vehicle’s off-road performance based on five modes: general driving, mud and ruts, sand, and rocks. Dynamic Response allows the air suspensioned-Sport to adapt its anti-roll bars to the proper stiffness to limit body roll; it also deactivates off-road to let the wheels travel more easily over stones, fallen trees, maybe Stonehenge if you gave it a little warning. The center differential has electronic locks for added off-road control, but leaves the axles dividing their power 50-50 front and rear; a locking rear differential can be had.
So again, how does the Sport differ substantially from the LR3 and Range Rover? It’s all about those dynamics. In concert with all the electronic accommodations to off-road prowess, the on-road tuning of the suspension and steering makes for pleasantly fast curves. Hairpins will still slow down the big SUV body (or rather, the big Brembo brakes on the supercharged Sport will be called to do), but the Sport rides noticeably better than any X5 we’ve ever sampled, though it can be a little rumbly-jumbly, with side-to-side sniggles. It steers with good precision, a tough challenge with any four-wheel-drive vehicle. The closer-to-earth feel may be superior to the Cayenne’s, too. And then there’s that evocative whine — the Sport’s, not mine.
The Sport already has in its corner a more stately, speedy look than any of its German colleagues, the ML500 included. Like the others, the seating in front is cosseting, the leather and wood trim intoxicating, and the sheer amount of gadgetry thrust in the driver’s face and hands, occasionally bewildering.
Given all its capabilities, the Sport’s control manual is on the right side of the Airbus-or-Apple spectrum. You can simply dial the texture of the ground beneath, set and forget the adaptive cruise control, let the adaptive bi-xenon headlights throw light on the subject ahead, and generally let go of all control save for that of the steering wheel and the gas pedal. But for safety’s sake, let your co-pilot type in the instructions into the DVD navigation system – and let the kids in back play with the optional twin-screen DVD system and report back when you hit the beach, finally. You can tune in the Harman/Kardon audio system to something Siriusly soothing before you leave the driveway, can’t you? Where’s the button for the seat heaters, while you’re at it?
It may come off as the slangy version of the Range Rover, but the Sport is an interesting frond on the company palm that deserves to be cast in the set along with the Cayenne, X5, and ML500. How buyers will read it — a too-dear LR3 or a bargain-priced Range Rover — will be critical to keeping the Sport from carving its niche out of its own hides. If the right enthusiasts find it, that shouldn’t be much of an issue, unless you’re BMW, Porsche, or Benz.
Land Rover Range Rover Sport SC
Base price: $69,750 (HSE, $56,750)
Engine: 4.2-liter supercharged V-8, 390 hp/410 lb-ft (HSE: 4.4-liter V-8, 300 hp/315 lb-ft)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 188.5 x 75.9 x 71.5 inches
Wheelbase: 108.0 inches
Curb weight: 5670 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 17.5 mpg (avg. est.)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, side airbags, and side curtain airbags; four-wheel disc brakes (Brembo fronts) with anti-lock control; Dynamic Response system; Terrain Response system; traction control; stability control; Hill Descent Control
Major standard equipment: DVD navigation system; Harman/Kardon Logic 7 sound system and six-disc CD changer; dual-zone climate control; power windows/locks/mirrors; leather seating; 20-inch wheels; power front seats
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles