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SUV IMAGE AND PRACTICALITY

Today's burgeoning market for Sport Utility Vehicles is based largely on image, partly on practicality. Many buyers are attracted by the image of being able to go "anywhere", an aggressive looking stance, or merely the confidence of all-weather security. The practicality of a vehicle that combines the functions of car, minivan and truck, with enough carrying capacity for most needs and  appointments is also a powerful draw. The other aspect of practicality applies only to a very small proportion of buyers who actually go off road. For this group the SUV's high clearance, truck-like strength and other four wheeling attributes are essential. To gain a share of the SUV market, almost every auto manufacturer has fielded one or more contestants, to address the market in different ways, focusing on different aspects of the SUV.

URBAN FAMILY HAULERS AND MALL CRAWLERS

The majority of SUV manufacturers, selling the highest volumes of vehicles, focus on everyday practicality, making the vehicles as car-like as possible while retaining some minor degree an image of toughness and off-road ability. For this group, four wheel drive is really an all-weather confidence boosting measure rather than conferring true all-terrain ability. The advertising campaigns display the vehicles in off-road situations as an image-building strategy, but most are not designed for real-world off-road conditions, and are not built strongly enough to withstand sustained four wheeling. Instead they are designed to drive like a car, have almost as much carrying capacity as a minivan, possess an aggressive looking "go anywhere" image, and give better traction than a car in mild mud or snow conditions on graded roads.

REAL OFF ROADERS

A second category of SUV manufacturers, Land Rover, Jeep and Toyota , design their SUVs with real off road capability as a priority. These marques have long traditions of building true all-terrain utility, military and expedition vehicles. Jeep and Toyota are high volume brands which necessarily lean towards car-like design and performance at the expense of ultimate off-road ability, although some new models such as the Jeep Wrangler TJ and JK Rubicon models show a commitment to improving off-road performance over previous versions. With the possible exception of Hummer, Land Rover is the only member of this group that is a true specialty off-road vehicle manufacturer. It is the one player which places off-road ability first and foremost in its vehicle designs. An interesting indicator of its commitment is the fact that it is one of the few manufacturers to offer a winch as an option on many of its vehicles.

The Range Rover's position at the top end of the off-road ability spectrum is its selling point, and the thing that sets it apart from the competition. More owners of Land Rovers than of any other marque actually use their vehicles off road. If its off road superiority were to be lost, its customers would have no reason to choose it over the products of other manufacturers who are far more experienced in low cost volume production, ergonomic design, pavement performance and quality control.

THE RANGE ROVER ADVANTAGE

If Land Rover is the most serious off-road manufacturer, the Range Rover is the king of off road vehicles, period. Its attraction lies in its effortless superiority over competitors in off-road performance, while providing a level of sophistication and comfort expected from a luxury sedan. It even shines over the other Land Rover models except for circumstances when mud tires or additional ground clearance of a Defender are needed. In a recent side by side "off-road only" comparison test with a Land Rover Defender (LROI magazine, July 2002), the Mark III/L322 Range Rover still came out on top. Land Rover correctly describes the Range Rover's uniqueness as its "breadth of ability" compared to any other vehicle on earth.

In test after comparison test, the Range Rover's off-road supremacy is consistently acknowledged, even though the testers sometimes prefer a different contestant for reasons of price, acceleration, luggage capacity or other criteria. The combination of excellent on-road ability with awesome off road prowess is the Range Rover's selling point. Those who buy a Range Rover do so because they feel the extra off-road ability is worth the cost, even if they may seldom use it. The image of off-road supremacy is based on fact; otherwise, buyers would switch to Lexus or Mercedes models which offer equal luxury and more practicality at a lower price.

SHOULD YOU BUY ONE?

Of course! Seriously though, if you are the type who is motivated by Consumer Reports criteria such as price, annual running costs, repair records, practicality as a family hauler, fuel economy, etc, one of the many alternative choices will suit you better. If you really don't need awesome off road ability, and cannot put up with the higher than average rate of niggling problems, you may be happier with one of the more "practical" SUVs mentioned above. That said, in spite of the less than stellar record on build quality problems, Consumer Reports rates Range Rovers very highly in Owner Satisfaction due to their class and innate superiority over lesser 4X4s. So if you want the best off-road vehicle in the world, you should definitely buy one. Even if you never use its awesome capabilities, it's nice to know they are there, and that you could run circles around the neighbor's Eddie Bauer Explorer if it came to an off-road crunch. Meanwhile, you can enjoy an unequalled level of luxury and comfort as you glide past the lesser SUVs on the freeway.