Driving Impressions

By February 17, 2007

Land Rovers must, by definition, be at least as adept off-road as on. The Range Rover Sport may push the needle a bit closer to the on-road end of the gauge than many of the marque's faithful will find appropriate. But most needn't worry, as it'll still go where many will hesitate to tread, no matter how lightly.

For this, credit the chassis engineers' unwavering commitment to such measures as suspension articulation and angles of approach, ramp break-over and departure. Yes, it trails its kin in almost every measure, the LR3 the most. Still, we climbed rock faces nearing a 45-degree gradient with minimal tire slippage, thanks to the all-terrain traction control. Dangling a wheel in the air while crossing fields of boulders upset neither us nor the Sport. Hill Descent Control worked its magic on slopes ranging from loose gravel to slippery silt. The biggest obstacle we faced over an afternoon of serious off-roading was our reflexive tendency to interfere with the various terrain-sensing systems.

What impressed us is how well the Sport comports itself when the going gets paved. Both engines come from Jaguar, so urban and exurban refinement is presumed. The automatic transmission is sourced from Aston Martin, noted for high-performance polish. Land Rover, Jaguar and Aston Martin are owned by Ford Motor Co. and share technology.

Tooling around Aspen, the HSE, with its naturally aspirated V8, felt more comfortable, more at home, than the Supercharged. Throttle response in the HSE seems more linear, shifts more subtle, the ride more compliant. The Supercharged seems occasionally to catch the transmission off guard, as if the transmission isn't quite sure what the engine wants by way of managing the gear shift. Throttle tip-in, too, was sometimes a bit more aggressive than we wanted, making difficult a calm acceleration from a stop. The lower profile tires' ride is a bit harsher over rough and broken pavement. These issues hurt the Supercharged in stop-and-go traffic.

Both the HSE and the S/C account well for themselves on the interstates, even when pushing the posted limits more than just a little; at highway speeds, the air suspension automatically lowers the Sport one inch, lessening drag and stabilizing the ride. At highway speeds, the speed-sensitive assisted steering feels a tad light, with not as much on-center feel as we like. Cranked up to seriously extra-legal rates of travel, though, directional stability improves markedly.

The adaptive cruise control works as promised; the Sport maintains your choice of one of four programmed following ranges, which are based on time, not distance, slowing perceptively but not obtrusively as the gap to followed vehicles closes, then gently building speed when the road is clear. No, the system won't slam on the brakes if it senses impending doom and you're too busy chatting on the cell to notice, but it will sound an alarm to get your attention.

Braking is more than adequate, much better than older Land Rovers, for which a couple of marmots scurrying across the road on a pass above Aspen should be eternally grateful. There is, however, more dive under braking, and squat under acceleration, for that matter, than we expected with a suspension as sophisticated as this one.

Range Rovers have never been known for their prowess on winding, two-lane back roads. No longer, at least in the Sport. And this holds for both the HSE and the S/C, especially now that the HSE can be ordered with the excellent Brembo brakes and Dynamic Response suspension. The engine, the air suspension and the tires play their part, but sharing top billing are the transmission and the aforementioned Dynamic Response System (DRS).

The transmission adapts to a wide variety of driving styles, from the sporty to the laid back. When it senses a heavier foot on the gas and high cornering loads, it heads toward the sporty end of the spectrum, downshifting more readily and a