Range Rover’s Undercover Reinvention


Any car company that rolls out a smash-hit design immediately creates a problem for itself: How do you refresh a look that everyone loves? It seems you either go for purposeful evolution (see: Nissan 350Z to 370Z) or make the even bolder decision to declare icon status and leave things alone. The 2002–2012 Range Rover presented just this quandary, because even at the end of its run, its upright, imperial styling was aging like Helen Mirren. And how do you redesign Helen Mirren?

The answer is, you don’t. While the Evoque demonstrates that Range Rover can go futuristic, Land Rover design director Gerry McGovern – part of the team that designed the 2002 SUV – kept the 2013 model close to the established template: bluff front end, rakish rear window, “gills” on the front fenders, with no compromising the proportions in the name of third-row seats. (This is not a minivan, sir.) To the casual observer, the new Range’s chief differentiator is the modest streak of bright brushed-aluminum paneling running along the doors.

Under that familiar shape, though, the SUV is concealing brand-new technology, like a push-button folding tailgate and reclining rear bucket seats. Defying convention, the redesigned Range includes no additional horsepower. Instead, the company designed a new aluminum chassis (the only one in any SUV) and thus excised roughly 700 pounds. Meanwhile, a new eight-speed transmission makes the most of the power on tap from the two available V-8s. The result is a big, upright SUV that absolutely hauls ass, with the ­510-horsepower super­charged ­engine running 0–60 in 5.1 seconds – exactly as quick as a BMW M3 convertible. Oh, the beauty of a diet.

Meanwhile, the Range Rover retains all its off-road abilities, and then some. Most notably, a new snorkel-intake system snakes from the hood back down into the engine bay so that the motor breathes from the highest available point on the front end. Maximum wading depth is now almost three feet, meaning that as long as the hood isn’t entirely underwater, you’re good to go. Most Range Rover owners will probably never test that claim, which is why I took it upon myself to do so.

One day last winter, armed with the 375-horsepower Range Rover HSE, I arrive at a small meet-up for serious off-roaders. Waiting in a wooded parking lot are two guys and their wives, with their 4x4s of choice: a jacked-up Jeep Grand Cherokee and an even gnarlier Wrangler, equipped with a winch and a set of tires evidently borrowed from some large piece of farming equipment. My arrival in a $100,000 luxury vehicle is met with expressions of skepticism cut with a dash of pity: I’m the guy who thinks I can go on an expedition to Antarctica because I bought a Burberry parka.

I get out and introduce myself to Micah and Rob, whose doubts about the Range Rover are crystallized when Micah – owner of the Grand Cherokee – offers to let me leave the Rover in the parking lot and ride with him. They’re obviously worried that they’ll spend all day dragging this poseur rich guy through the woods on the end of a tow strap. I assure them that it will be OK. When I climb in and raise the adjustable air suspension to maximum height – nearly a foot of ground clearance – I see the doubts start to evaporate.

We set off into the brush with the Range Rover locked in low-range gear, an increasingly rare feature that marks a serious all-terrain machine. The trail is beautiful, snaking through pine trees past a glassy lake. Eventually we arrive at a clearing where the trail forks – to the right, an easy bypass; to the left, a mud puddle that might be more reasonably characterized as a small pond.

Do I take the easy way around, or give that snorkel a test? I plunge in. For a moment, the left front corner falls into some underwater crevasse, send­ing a splash of water up over the hood. But down in the depths, the tires keep churning, and the Range Rover claws its way out the other side. Drunk with success, I turn around and decide to make another pass. This, it turns out, is one too many. But getting stuck seems to earn me further credibility, because if you don’t get stuck, then you’re not trying hard enough. Or so I hope, because this thing will definitely take a long time to hose off.

Later that day, after we’re all safely home, Rob sends me a message: “I was really impressed with that Range Rover.” That makes two of us. After all, how many vehicles can hang with modified Jeeps off-road, keep up with sports sedans in a straight line, offer a Rollsesque interior, and eke out the magic 20 miles per gallon on the highway? At $83,500 to start, the Range Rover ain’t cheap, but the really good stuff seldom is.

If you need to ford three feet of water while getting a massage from your 20-way power seats, this is still your best (and only) option. The Range Rover may have lightened up, but it didn’t sell out.

Enduring Icons

Why meddle with the design when you got it right the first time?

Porsche 911: 1965 to 2014
Half a century later, the teardrop profile and round headlights still look as good as they did in the ­Swingin’ Sixties.

Jeep: 1945 Willys MB to 2013 Wrangler
Blocky fenders, flat windshield, open cockpit: The Wrangler doesn’t look much different now than its ancestor did on the beaches of Normandy.

Viper: 1996 GTS to 2013 SRT
Long hood, cab-rearward cockpit, and, yes, side pipes: The 2013 SRT Viper keeps the flame burning for the concept car Bob Lutz first rolled out in 1989.

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