Kevin Hackett finds that the new Range Rover Sport handles anything, even driving inside a jumbo jet
Top of the Range: a first drive of the 2014 Range Rover Sport
"As you ease over the edge, when I tell you, I want you to take your foot off the brake pedal." Those are the instructions from a man who, I have just convinced myself, wants me dead. There is no rational thought process happening inside my mind - I'm too terrified to think straight - but there's no reason this smiling, genial gentleman should wish harm upon me. I mean, we've only just met and still don't know each other's names. But the things he's asking me to do, while I'm at the wheel of a new Range Rover Sport, seem to be geared towards one thing only: prematurely ending my life.
I do as I'm asked and gingerly edge the car onto the metal ramp. "You'll be going down at a 45-degree angle," says the man. "We're going to die," I think to myself. I can see nothing beneath me but then, suddenly, another man comes into view. He's on terra firma, giving me hand signals as I inch my way down, helping me keep the front wheels perfectly positioned. When the man says, I let go of the brake pedal and put my life in the hands of this extraordinary automobile as it takes over the reins and gets us down without the merest hint of drama. Driver, passenger and car emerge unscathed, but it will be some time before my legs stop shaking - that was one of the most intense few minutes I have ever experienced.
What I have just emerged from is the belly of a Boeing 747. And while that is fairly unusual in itself, you'd really have to see and experience it for yourself to understand the craziness of this exercise. Having driven up a ramp similar to the one I've just driven down, entering the dark and foreboding fuselage of a hollowed-out jumbo jet that's soon to be cut up into scrap metal, I've just negotiated one of the most extreme off-road courses imaginable. Inside the plane.
Whoever came up with this idea is either a genius or a psychopath. Or perhaps a mixture of both. No matter, because what they've done is make this the most remarkable thing I have ever experienced on a motoring press event - and that's really saying something. Having completed the course, which comes at the end of two long days of driving hard, both on and off road, my mind is made up: the new Range Rover Sport is an impossibly brilliant and capable car.
It needs to be, too. It replaces a car that nobody thought the world needed but became a massive success, selling almost 400,000 units since its launch in 2005. Critics and purists alike pointed to it as a four-wheeled oxymoron. How could a Range Rover ever be "sporty"? Being a luxury SUV with go-anywhere capability and a dynamic drivers' car are no longer mutually exclusive. The previous generation proved that and it was, from the outset, my favourite model because its more compact dimensions made it more like the old Classics I used to own. As with so many new vehicles, the Range Rover has become utterly enormous and the Sport toned down the girth just enough.
Unfortunately, it would appear that, to justify the Evoque's inclusion in the Range Rover line-up, the new models have to look like the newcomer. So the Sport, despite the baloney spouted by the company's design chief, Gerry McGovern, about "athleticism", "dynamism" and every other design cliché you can think of, looks like an Evoque that's been overdoing it at McDonald's, with particularly the rear end losing much of its previous machismo. While some other manufacturers are seeking to differentiate their models, Land Rover is still busying itself making everything look the same. The Range Rover Sport, though, is definitely not the same when it comes to those qualities of athleticism and dynamism.
Dynamic is a word that's been bandied around a lot over the past couple of days, and for good reason. This new Sport has been comprehensively redesigned from the ground up, resulting in a lighter, more agile, more responsive car that merits its nomenclature. For the first day, I spend many hours as both driver and passenger in the one that's bound to be the big hitter in the UAE: the 5.0L V8 Supercharged petrol. It is nothing short of ballistic - we couldn't have covered the routes any quicker in a Porsche 911. Which, when you think about the physics of hustling a car like this along open, twisting country roads, is unfathomable.
A great deal of this performance has been liberated by enormous weight savings during the design and development phase. It might look like it's piled on the kilos but the new Sport actually weighs almost 500 kilograms less (depending on the model) than the outgoing one, thanks to its all-aluminium construction. The supercharged V8 is essentially the same as that found in the full-sized Range Rover and the new Jaguar F-Type V8 S, but the way the Sport drives on the road has much more in common with Jaguar's cars than Land Rover's.
Previous models suffered from noticeable whine from the superchargers, but that has been totally obliterated, the deep bass throb rising to a hammering crescendo as the speed relentlessly gathers, channelled slightly into the rear of the cabin to give occupants a pleasingly macho soundtrack that never once makes a nuisance of itself. The downside of this monumental performance (the 100 kilometres per hour dash is dealt with in just 5.2 seconds) is that the car actively encourages you to drive like an idiot, at least on the road.
Off road it excels just like any model before it. From wading through muddy rivers with water practically lapping the door mirrors, to traversing slippery mud ruts that look like they could engulf the entire car, the Sport takes absolutely everything in its stride with a confidence that its class rivals couldn't hope to emulate.
The biggest surprise, though, comes from the 3.0L Supercharged V6. Surely, with a 170hp deficit, the smaller engine wouldn't have a chance against its big brother? On the contrary: as with the aforementioned Jaguar F-Type, the V6 makes a strong case for itself as the pick of the bunch. Less weight over its front wheels and less firepower has resulted in a much more pleasing road partner. It's quick enough for impromptu overtaking (there's 450Nm of twist available) but it doesn't turn you into an antisocial hooligan, despite the gruff soundtrack blatting its way out of the exhausts. It feels more responsive when cornering, lighter on its feet with a delicacy missing from the madman V8, and it's easily an equal when it comes to mud-plugging and the crazy stunts we've just pulled inside that 747.
Will either of them cope, though, with the extremes that our climate will punish them with? They should, because while we might have put them through the rough stuff on a rain-sodden assault course in the UK, the company spends as much time and effort developing its products in the UAE as it does in Britain.
It's the on-road capability that really shines through with both models. And this is demonstrated with devastating effectiveness when we swap the V6 for another V8 and head for the runway at this diminutive regional airport. When the planes aren't homing in on us, we're able to see just how far this SUV has come in terms of dynamic behaviour.
There's a gusty side wind rocking the car and the runway isn't exactly flat, so the figures we're about to post might not be fully representative of its abilities, but we'll give it a shot. With an instructor riding shotgun, armed with timing gear, I wait for the word. The gearbox is set to Sport Auto, my left foot is on the brake and, with my right foot, I'm holding it at 2,000rpm. At my passenger's command, I remove my left foot and floor the throttle. We hurtle towards the horizon. My passenger keeps an eye on my speed while I keep firmly fixed on the end of the runway and, when we reach 100 miles per hour (161 kilometres per hour), he yells at me to brake as hard as I can. In no time at all, 2.3 tonnes of metal, glass, plastic, rubber and leather comes to a halt with no deviance in direction. The entire process, from start to finish, has taken just 16.4 seconds.
Then it's time for a maximum speed run - the maximum given the short runway, at least. I manage 152mph (244.6kph) before I'm told to slam on the anchors and, once again, it's over almost as soon as it began. It's a road weapon, pure and simple.
A few years ago, I used to own an old Range Rover Classic V8. Unreliable, slow, ponderous, with an insatiable thirst, it was nevertheless an extremely special car. But I could never have imagined its successor being capable of these feats. I used to have to take corners at a leisurely pace in mine, lest I flip it onto its roof, and had I tried to perform a maximum speed run, I would have run out of time, nerves and fuel before it reached it. This new one offers almost supercar pace with luxury, refinement and genuinely stunning all-round ability, and is testament to the engineering skills of a firm that might be funded by an Indian parent but is still resolutely British.
Could it be the planet's most capable vehicle? With its enormous breadth of talents, it could well be. But biggest in this case does not equal best and, if it was me heading for the showroom, it would be to put down a deposit on the V6. It really would be all the car I could ever need.
The new Range Rover Sport goes on sale in the UAE this autumn, with prices still to be confirmed.
For more photos of the new Range Rover Sport, visit www.thenational.ae/multimedia
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