Land Rover is on a roll. Staring over the precipitous edge of financial disaster just a few years ago, the company has made a heroic comeback that must be making its Indian Tata owners jump for joy - not to mention the once-beleaguered UK workforce, who are now working round-the-clock trying to meet demand with supply. And the models responsible for this dramatic turn of events? Range Rovers.
Or, more accurately, the Range Rover Evoque. The ultra-fashionable small SUV was always destined to be a hit, but nobody expected it to be selling in excess of 100,000 units a year. "We were hoping for 70,000," Land Rover's director of design, Richard Wooley, tells me over dinner in our palatial Moroccan hotel. Turns out they didn't need the "assistance" of "special design consultant" Victoria Beckham after all - the car sells itself, thanks to a unique blend of futuristic looks and genuine off-road capability. "The vast majority of Evoque customers have never been interested in Land Rover products before and demand is showing no signs of abating," says the genial Woolley.
The "real" Range Rover, however, has just been completely overhauled, and Land Rover's people are genuinely proud of what they've achieved. It's only the fourth all-new Rangie since its original 1970 incarnation and, interestingly, they're not talking about it competing with the likes of Audi's Q7, Porsche's Cayenne or BMW's X5. Oh no, now they're gunning for sales that would otherwise be swelling the coffers of Bentley or Mercedes-Benz.
The list of objectives set by Land Rover's management when it came to designing and engineering this new Range Rover would probably fill this entire newspaper, so let's look at the highlights. Overall, weight has been reduced by a frankly colossal 420kg, which is like four grown men jumping out of the old model. This means smaller engines can be used that still offer the performance of the outgoing model, which, in turn, means less damage to the planet. To silence any complaining eco-warriors, 33.9kg of recycled plastics goes into each car and, like Fisker's Karma, the leather upholstery is "low-carbon", supplied by the Bridge of Weir Leather Co in East Renfrewshire, Scotland.
It had to be even better at cutting it in the rough stuff, and one remarkable advancement is in its wading depth, which has increased by 300mm to 900. This is down to a very clever air intake system for the engine, situated on the front wings under the clamshell bonnet's leading edge. Two plastic funnels either side - known by Land Rover's engineers as the "Queen Mary" after the famous ship - suck in air instead of pulling it through the front radiator grille. It's a startlingly simple solution and helps give the new Range Rover a huge breadth of abilities.
Wanting to produce a go-anywhere version of a Bentley, refinement was obviously a key area for improvement, and the new model comfortably eclipses all its rivals in every area, with only the Merc S-Class bettering it when it comes to wind noise. The 29-speaker sound system is exceptionally good, having been engineered by renowned sonic experts Meridian, and it's possibly the best I have ever heard. The various centre console switches have been simplified (well, it seems like most of them have been relocated to the steering wheel), making for a clean, understated and intuitive look, and the materials and methods used in building the Range Rover's cabin are old-school excellence, the likes of which are normally only seen in, you guessed it, Bentleys. If only they hadn't fitted such cheap and nasty feeling gearshift paddles to the steering wheel, though.
So, the new model is greener, leaner and more luxurious than ever before, and that is what the market demands, especially at the prestige end of the market. The Range Rover has always combined refinement with staggeringly good off-road ability, though, and I'm intrigued to see for myself what this thing is capable of - both off-road and on.
Unsurprisingly, the Middle East's powertrain of choice in the region's Range Rovers involves a hairy chested 5.0L, supercharged V8 engine. So that's what I plump for when offered my pick of the range. It's when I'm faced with this large selection of cars that I find myself undecided on its external design. To me it's lost some of that distinctly macho edge. The front and rear lamps are too reminiscent of the Ford Explorer's own units for comfort, and it appears that the designers have tried to endow the flagship with an appearance that's heading for Evoque territory. To me it's a backward step but the looks are actually helped if 22-inch alloys are fitted and it's in the right colour.
No matter, it's time to see what this thing can do, and first up is a lengthy section of dune bashing on one of Morocco's stunning beach areas. Entirely deserted, the Atlantic waves are crashing to shore just metres from where we gather, and it's difficult for me to get my head around the fact that this is Africa. The route takes us in convoy across some pretty difficult terrain - mud and damp sand abound, and the many previous visitors on this press launch have badly carved up the surfaces. The car takes everything in its stride, however, slowly but surely making headway. And, yes, the experience is akin to taking a Bentley off road - no matter what stupid angle we end up at, a soothing serenity and sense of wellbeing is to the fore.
I've done this sort of thing many times with Land Rover products, so it comes as no surprise that the Range Rover takes anything you care to throw at it and simply gets on with the job in hand. What is surprising, though, is just how planted this behemoth feels when hurtling down a motorway. And Morocco has plenty in the way of camera-free, perfectly surfaced highways.
The supercharged V8 is limited to a top speed of 250kph, with a theoretical maximum way in excess of that. But, seriously, would you want to go any faster in a vehicle this size? The 0-to-100kph sprint is dispatched in a 911-baiting 5.1 seconds and its automatic transmission is an absolute joy, seamlessly shifting between eight ratios. No matter what gear I'm in, as soon as I bury my right foot, the Range Rover powers on with seemingly unstoppable force. With 510hp at its disposal, along with 625Nm of twist, it's a formidable performer.
It's the way it handles corners and sudden changes of direction that really get me, though. Many years ago, the UK's police force had to stop using Range Rovers in high-speed pursuits because a sudden turn often ended up with the vehicle on its side or its roof - the long travel suspension unable to provide composure at speed on the roads. Not any more. The lightweight aluminium suspension utilises adaptive, computer-controlled air componentry, which senses, in a fraction of a second, what's going on under each wheel. It's not supercar stiff but it's certainly more than up to the job of keeping this 184cm tall car upright when hitting a really quick corner. And yet, remarkably, it still manages to traverse mountain ranges. Which is what's next.
A four-hour trek over a section of the Atlas mountain range awaits us at the end of our motorway dash. Unfortunately, Morocco has been hammered by heavy rainstorms, which have literally washed away much of the route that Land Rover's team has spent six months preparing. Still, we get to do a short and tough section of rock crawling at around 2,000 metres above sea level. With the air suspension raised all the way, the transmission in low ratio and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers punching out of the speakers as if they're playing right in front of us, it's undoubtedly the best there is.
Land Rover's marketing people are claiming that "the best car in the world just got better". For once, I'm not going to argue with them because, after two days pounding the wilds of North Africa in one, I think it probably can lay claim to that title. Looks aside, it has moved the game on significantly and, if you have to have just one vehicle in your life - one that is good for every possible occasion - this should be it.