x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Land Rover's diamonds in the rough

The Land Rover LR4 and the Range Rover Sport tackle the rugged and beautiful Scottish countryside.

It's lucky the Scottish landscape is so naturally beautiful; it would have offered at least some reward for the hard life there in medieval times. And even the royal family couldn't escape these dire straits. In 1565, Mary Queen of Scots married her first cousin, Henry, who became her second husband. The next year, in looming Edinburgh Castle, she gave birth to her only son, Prince James. But Henry would be killed in an explosion in 1567, and Mary later wed Henry's suspected murderer, James Hepburn, the fourth Earl of Bothwell. After an uprising against the couple, Mary was forced to abdicate the Scottish throne and sought protection from her father's cousin, England's Queen Elizabeth I. And what did Queen Liz do? She promptly had Mary arrested and later executed, for fear of losing her throne. So much for family loyalty.

So, why the history lesson? Partly because we're here in Edinburgh and the surrounding Scottish countryside, exploring the on- and off-road capabilities of Land Rover's latest editions. And, unlike the ancient Scottish royals, the British car maker enjoys a blissful and rewarding relationship with its extended family of Jaguar. In fact, of all the small tweaks and major revolutions of the new LR4 (the replacement of the LR3) and the upgraded Range Rover Sport, none are more significant than their new powerplants, and we can thank Jaguar for that. The 5.0L petrol-powered engines, in both normally aspirated (available on the LR4) and supercharged versions (Range Rover Sport only), are direct variants of the same ones Jag debuted in their model range this year. The Land Rover versions get larger sumps (to allow the vehicle to tilt without losing oil pressure) and waterproof seals and bearings, among other small differences.

These engines give the new Land Rovers a major increase in power and torque over the last generations and, according to Land Rover, better fuel economy and lower emissions. With 375 hp for the normally aspirated V8s (vs 300hp from the last version) and 510h for the supercharged versions (vs 390hp in the 2009 model), both the LR4 and Range Rover Sport have a marked increase in performance. But it's the torque that makes the biggest difference: the 510Nm and 550Nm, respectively, give smooth and effortless acceleration. The revamped six-speed automatic gearbox doesn't need to search around for the right gear with so much torque, making the ride smoother still.

Indeed, twisting through the perilously tight tarmac roads in the countryside, through towns and past breathtaking hills of purple heather and green grass, there is not a want for anything more. The difference in driving between the old and new versions is notable; the LR4 now gets to 100kph from nought in 7.2 seconds; the supercharged Sport rockets there in just 5.9 seconds. Of course, a new engine isn't solely a reason for a new model launch; Land Rover had to do more, and they did. Though, from an exterior standpoint, you would be forgiven for not noticing much difference. Oh, they both get the now de rigeur LED light clusters, and there are subtle changes to the front and rear. It's the LR4 that sees the biggest change; the clean, cubist grille and bumpers of the LR3 are eschewed for the same stylized bars and lines as are on the upper-model Range Rovers. According to Jerry McGovern, Land Rover's design director, the LR4's exterior is now "more friendly, less stark".

"When the customer tells us they want a change, we don't tell them to go do it themselves," explains McGovern. "We listen to them, and the customer wanted a more premium look. "When we were talking about the design direction of the LR4, some people were saying, 'what is a Land Rover' and 'what is a Range Rover'. I said, 'what does it matter?' We have the same influences in the LRX (the company's small SUV concept), and it's all the same family."

Sitting inside the car, though, is where the changes are much more apparent. "Where the exterior has been 'evolution', the interior has been 'revolution'," says McGovern, and he's right. Both interiors have been cleaned up considerably, with about half the switchgear from the previous models. The LR4 has a less truck-like and more luxurious environment compared with the last generation, and of course, leather, aluminum and wood are in good supply. The Range Rover has a deeper, more wrap-around cockpit for the occupants, with a high console and even more luxury. Both interiors are kept extremely quiet from road noise, enough that occupants can actually have a conversation no matter what seat they are in.

Highlighting the interiors are new displays for the gauges and information screen. This allows the driver to customise his gauges to display the information he wants, such as the turning direction of the wheels. The centre information display houses one of the most intuitive navigation systems I've used, as well as a fantastic graphic display of the articulation of each wheel, the activation of the front and rear electronic differentials and other surprisingly useful technical information.

Another interesting new technology is the camera system surrounding the vehicles: two in the front bumper, one in the back and one under each wing mirror. The rear camera's purpose was obvious - used not only for reversing, but for a novel new system that helps back up a trailer. It actually plans the best route, via the dashboard screen. The other cameras seemed a bit excessive, but their uses became apparent later on.

Only the LR4 offers seven seats (five in the Sport). It's two hidden seats are actually rather comfortable, considering what they are. I spent a half hour in one of them and, while not the most cushiony, it offered enough room to be a completely practical alternative. It seems everything has been improved in these vehicles, and the on-road drive is no exception. Both are more solid than before, with pitch and sway kept to an absolute minimum; not a small feat considering the sizable weight of both vehicles. At 2,646kg for the LR4 and about the same for the Range Rover, these are not light cars, to say the least.

Helping the handling are the continuously variable dampers. The dampers are monitored 500 times per second to adjust to road conditions, and the result is a smooth and controlled ride. Brakes for all models have also been upgraded, with the supercharged Sport getting a Brembo-sourced setup that drags it down quickly. A new handling feature is the Trailer Stability Assist. This helps settle an oscillating trailer at speed by controlling the cars' brakes and throttle. If you've ever done some towing, you'll know how dangerous a swinging trailer is on the motorway.

Of course, these are Land Rovers. Yes, the most extreme terrain many of them will see might be climbing a kerb in a Starbucks parking lot. But it's a shame, because these vehicles are made for much, much more than that. And thankfully, we experienced what the cars can really do, taking on extreme mud, rivers and other terrain in the rugged forests and landscape of southern Scotland. Guided by a team of Land Rover's off-road specialists, we used both the LR4 and Range Rover Sport to cross rivers, crawl down steep, muddy slopes, balance on two wheels, articulate over rickety bridges and other decidedly less-genteel activities. It offered quite a dichotomy: splashing mud up on the windscreen while you're crawling through a brown pool of water deep in the forest, all the while sitting on cream-coloured leather seats in a luxury vehicle. More amazingly, all of this was accomplished on the same road tyres that come with each vehicle from the factory.

To make this all possible, Land Rover stuffs an amazing amount of technology dedicated to the rough stuff under the bonnet. Its signature Terrain Response system, which changes engine, suspension and differential settings based on driver input of the landscape, has been improved. (In fact, the supercharged Sport gets an added selection called Dynamic, which firms up the car noticeably for aggressive tarmac driving.) The Hill Descent Control has also been improved, as have the basic suspension components.

And those cameras I thought were superfluous really showed their uses. Using the dash display with split screens for the wing cameras, the driver can see what the terrain is like around each wheel. It's especially good when crawling over rocks or travelling a tight trail or bridge. My biggest problem with these vehicles is their hefty weight and higher fuel consumption. While the official mileage for the supercharged Range Rover Sport hasn't been released, I was reading an average of 16L/100km from the car's own computer. Hopefully, that nav system includes petrol station locations.

Regardless, I liked both the LR4 and the Range Rover Sport. In fact, they seemed almost made specifically for the landscape of Scotland, where you would imagine leaving the tiny roads to cross a river and traverse over grassy, muddy hills to get to your medieval castle. The fact is, I can't think of any other vehicles that do everything so well. Impeccable and exciting road manners, undeniable off-road capabilities, and high-end luxury - what else is there to compare with? BMW and Porsche SUVs are fantastic on the road but not so much off of it, while big Toyotas or Hummers are good in the boonies but don't offer the sophistication on tarmac. The only other competitor I can mention would be a Mercedes G-Class, but you'd be paying considerably more for the pleasure.

The Range Rover Sport will reach the UAE sometime next month, starting at Dh325,000 for the normally aspirated and Dh395,000 for the supercharged version. The LR4 will debut here in November and start at Dh215,000 for the V8 model. nvorano@thenational.ae