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SPORT/L320 INTRODUCTION

In August 2005 I got the chance to drive the new Sport on and off road at a special event organized by Land Rover to publicize the new model and get customer input into their vehicle designs. Thanks to intrepid Range Rover owners Kevin Kelly and Granville Pool I was alerted to the event and garnered an invite. The venue was the exclusive Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley, California, using the nearby off road course intended for the new Quail Run Land Rover driving school. A selection of Range Rover and Land Rover models were on display, including the new Supercharged Mk III/L322 and the LR3 in addition to half a dozen Range Rover Sports (HSE and Supercharged models) on tap for the actual driving.

ON ROAD PERFORMANCE AND IMPRESSIONS

The immediate impression on stepping into the Range Rover Sport is that its interior is more compact and enveloping than the standard Range Rover -- an impression deliberately enhanced by the high and wide drivetrain tunnel and console between the front passengers. Aside from serving as the location of numerous instruments and switches, the console also conceals a rather neat insulated cooler that keeps hot things hot and cold things cold. Grey and metallic colors dominate the leather and wood trim, conveying the feel of a high performance machine.

The model we drove was the HSE, so it did not have quite the acceleration of the supercharged version, but the 300 horsepower coupled to the 6 speed transmission gave a decent push in the back when floored. The steering and handling were very precise and car-like, noticeably different from the Classic and 4.0 models we were used to driving. The ride was firm with very little body roll. The engine was extremely smooth and quiet.

We tested the ABS by doing a panic stop with two wheels on pavement and two on gravel. The Sport handled this challenge with aplomb, maintaining a perfectly straight line! Overall, a great ride!

OFF ROAD FEATURES AND IMPRESSIONS

All the off-road controls (high and low range, terrain response, suspension height, hill descent control) are conveniently grouped together at the rear of the center console behind the gearshift. There is also an "advanced 4X4 information center" on the dash which displays information relevant to off-road driving such as the direction the wheels are pointed, the Terrain Response mode selected, and which wheels are in contact with the ground. The model we drove was fitted with the optional rear diff lock, and the state of this and the center diff were also displayed in the information center.

Our instructor, Ken Cameron, advised us to put the Terrain Response system in the "Mud and ruts" mode for the soft forested ground we were about to traverse. This automatically raises the suspension to the "Hi" setting, selects low range, locks the center and rear diffs, and adjusts the action of the traction control to optimize it for the conditions. The course was not too challenging, but contained enough steep climbs and drops, sideslopes, tight sections, and rough undulating surfaces to help us get the feel of the vehicle off-road. The ride was firm but not harsh, and several aspects of performance were noticeably different from older models. For one thing, the precision of the steering is a great advantage, especially in tight quarters, and being able to see where the wheels are pointing is great.

The Hill Descent Control will be familiar to drivers of various other Land Rover models, but takes a bit of getting used to. When it first engaged, I thought it was a tire scraping on the wheelwell. This is because the brakes are applied so many times a second that the frequency you hear is high enough to confuse with such a sound. At first we found the action of the system disconcerting, but Ken pointed out that it is possible to adjust the operation of the system via the throttle and gearshift to achieve just the desired speed. The more throttle you give it, the higher the descent speed limit; the speed limit also goes up as you shift into higher gears. This is easy to do by moving the gearshift to one side and rocking it to and fro like the BMW Tiptronic system to shift up and down. Or, if you prefer, you can leave it in "D" and let it figure out the gears itself.

In our testing, ground clearance was not an issue as there were few places where any stock 4x4 would be in danger of becoming high centered. However Ken informed us that if this should happen, the suspension automatically senses it and goes into "Extended Profile" mode whereby the vehicle is raised another 1.5 inches. Then, if necessary, the driver can raise the suspension another 1.5 inches (for a total of 3 inches over "off-road" height) by holding the "up" switch on.

Being based on the Discovery 3/LR3 chassis, the Sport is built like a tank, as indicated by its massive weight, and the sturdy underpinnings will easily withstand the harsh treatment of real off road driving. Approach and departure angles (34 and 29 degrees respectively) are very good, and there are no protruding exhaust tips that will get broken off when exiting a deep ditch or washout (except on the supercharged model which has protruding chrome exhaust tips). The spare tire is mounted under the rear end, and for serious off road trips one might want to move it so it won't get damaged. We were also impressed to find that Land Rover has managed to get Continental to develop a special on and off road tire for the new models (photo above right), featuring staggered outer tread blocks for grip in mud and ruts.

For those wanting to further improve the off road performance of the Sport, it is good to know that the 255/55R19 Goodyear MT/R tires used on the Range Rover in Land Rover's recent G4 Challenge should fit perfectly. The Sport is being used in the 2005 G4 Challenge, equipped with a winch, so it is hoped that the winch will soon be available as an official accessory.

Overall, all three of us were much more impressed than we expected with the Sport's off-road prowess. Photo at Left: Our long-suffering instructor, Camel Trophy veteran Ken Cameron, flanked by co-drivers Granville Pool and Dave Townsend.