Here in the Emirates, we are blessed with wide expanses, open spaces reign; a boon to those who relish a bit of excitement off the tarmac. Rolling desert dunes, craggy mountain regions and rocky wadis offer a great opportunity for adventure and recreation.
The bonus is these areas can be found within a two- or three-hour radius of our larger cities. You can live the urban life, enjoying the bright lights and nightlife of Dubai or Abu Dhabi, and enter a whole different world on the weekends. And this brings up an obvious question: what is the best vehicle to satisfy those cravings for both a luxurious city vehicle and something that will take you into the wild and, more importantly, back to civilisation?
One brand that always enters this conversation has been Land Rover. The British marque has long been synonymous with combining off-roading with luxury, and to that extent, its latest LR3 deserves a look. First of all, I like the looks of this mid-size SUV. Its sharp creases, smooth panels and boxy shape make it look both modern and macho at the same time. And the asymmetrical rear door and glass make it very distinctive from other SUVs on the road. The lack of chrome bits and other unnecessary trim also helps to clean up its appearance - the LR3 would definitely fit in pulling up to a club or swanky hotel for valet parking.
But no matter how cosmopolitan the LR3 looks, there is no mistaking this for anything but a truck-based SUV. Because it is just that, and it reminds you of that fact every time you pop behind the wheel. The driving position is upright with a good view of the road, while the middle seats are slightly higher - stadium seating, they call it. And, while it actually handles quite nicely for the most part, it bares its truck roots in more spirited cornering. It's more than comfortable and stable on city streets, with responsive steering, and it's solid as a tank on the motorway. Its ride is just firm enough while still being comfortable. But get a little excited on the roundabouts and it starts to sway ever so slightly like the tall, heavy truck it is.
And, it is heavy. At 2,629kg, it weighs about as much as a larger Toyota Land Cruiser, and it's about 600kg more portly than a BMW X5. And, that weight affects more than just the handling. The 4.4L V8 is the only one offered here in the Middle East. Its 300hp gets the LR3 up to speed fairly quickly, but there is a noticeable sluggishness from a stop for a second or two. It's just physics - moving that much mass is difficult, but once it gets going, the engine does fine. As well, at a combined city/motorway fuel economy of 16.8L/100 km, this is one thirsty SUV.
If you can get over the fuel consumption, those nigglings would fall away from sitting in the cockpit. Again, it feels like a truck inside, but a very luxurious and modern one. The layout inside is superb; very businesslike with a variety of surfaces and materials, including black and aluminium plastic, leather and piano-black wood trim to keep it interesting. The navigation system is intuitive, and the rest of the buttons are laid out sensibly. Of course, the seats are all comfortable with plenty of head and leg room.
In fact, this is a true seven-seat truck, unlike other SUVs that profess to have that much room only to sport rear seats suited just for small children. The LR3's rear seats fold out of the floor and don't look like much, but they reveal a deep footwell that actually makes sitting back there a reasonable proposition. So it's a perfectly fine car to tool around town with in style, no doubt. But it being a Land Rover, you would just naturally expect more. And you wouldn't be disappointed.
On a recent outing into the desert, the LR3 really showed its off-road credentials. A train of various Land Rover models was guided through the desert near Bab al Shams by the team at Nomad, an adventure company in Dubai. Desert marshals led by Peter Gladstone brought us into the deep sand and towering dunes, teaching the best ways to tackle various obstacles and pointing out things to look out for. And, tellingly, the guides were driving LR3s.
Land Rover has fitted the LR3 with a myriad of electronic aids for almost any kind of off-road adventure. Foremost of these is the Terrain Response - simply twist the dial on the centre console to whatever terrain or weather condition you face, and the computer remaps the engine, transmission, air suspension and traction settings to optimise it for that surface. For example, the sand setting forces the gearbox to hang on to a lower gear longer for more torque, while giving the traction control much more leeway. But no matter the setting, the 4x4 system is always on, and the option for a low gearset is there.
Speaking of air suspension, that was one of my favourite toys - flicking the switch raises the LR3 by 125mm or lowers it by 50mm, to help with terrain or loading cargo. It also has a hill descent option that controls the brakes and throttle in steep descents. All of these gadgets helped make the desert sojourn flawless for the LR3. The soft sand, tall hills and plunging dunes didn't pose a single problem for the Land Rover. And that's despite the stock tyres (albeit deflated) and the heavy weight of the LR3.
One disappointment was the piece of black trim on the A-pillar that came off at motorway speed. Much like the EX35 below, you wouldn't expect something to fall off for this price, but I could chalk it up to a fluke. If you want a solid off-roader, the LR3 should be able to tackle all but the most rugged terrain; but because of that ability, you have to expect the poor fuel economy. And though you would also have to expect its truck characteristics, the LR3 does a good job of pretending to be smaller and more lithe than it really is.
To find something that would be the best of both worlds, the LR3 HSE would be high on my list. firstname.lastname@example.org