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Made-Over Rover
by Jason Harper

Guys are obsessed with capability. Maybe it stems from the juvenile fear of being shown up. None of us liked being picked last for teams during gym class, and we don’t want a repeat now that we’re adults. Women like and respect capability as well, but with a practicality that men don’t possess. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the automotive world. Guys love that a Ferrari can rocket along at 182 mph; most women wouldn’t pay an extra $100,000 for that. Similarly, we’re comforted by the idea that our 4x4 truck could take us anywhere, anytime. Like up Mt. Everest. You know, just in case.

While skiing in the Southwest late last season, I caught up with a childhood friend who’d just bought Land Rover’s new LR3. He was justifiably proud of his minty clean, Tonga Green acquisition. Land Rover, after all, is founded on the solid-axle principle of overcapability. Encounter a foot of water in the road? The Rover can drive in two. Rovers still pull hard duty all over the world—safari transport in Africa, dune-bashing in the Middle East, ferrying government types in strife-torn regions. I recently spent two weeks rattling around the worst dirt roads in Central Asia on the steppes of Mongolia in the unbeatable Defender 110—a model that is, sadly, no longer sold in the U.S. Land Rover, now owned by Ford, is in expansion mode. This year, the LR3 is joined by the Range Rover Sport—the company’s take on a performance SUV—and a redesign of the flagship Range Rover. The LR3 is the much-needed replacement for the weary Discovery, a model originally introduced in the U.S. in 1995 and often beset by mechanical problems. Base-priced in the mid-$40Ks, the LR3 hits the sweet spot between the low-end Freelander (due for its own makeover in 2007) and the richly appointed Range Rover.

The LR3 is a sturdy, boxy machine, its design successfully evoking the heritage of the Willys jeep. It’s a study in non- fussiness. The blunt, clean lines suggest strength and sophistication without seeming over-thought or overwrought. The front end is simple but formidable, offering a massive windshield that hints at the ample room inside. It’s also one of the more comfortable SUVs out there, with a well-placed steering wheel and a high riding position. Even rear-seat passengers have a good view of the road.

The big change in each of Rover’s new rides is the engine that powers them. Ford bought the brand from BMW in 2000, and it initially continued using BMW-derived powerplants. Now they’re using modified versions of engines built by Jaguar—another recent Ford acquisition. The LR3 marries a 300-horsepower V-8 to an automatic six-speed transmission. The vehicle weighs more than 5,600 pounds, so each horse strains at the weight, but the LR3 accelerates surely, if not exactly speedily, with plenty of low-end torque. Land Rover has also employed the Range Rover’s excellent air-suspension system on the LR3, and it’s a fine compromise between off- and on-road requirements. For highway cruising, the suspension sinks to its lowest height for stability. But a switch on the console allows a driver to choose from a series of terrain modes in off-road conditions. These include “sand,” “mud and ruts,” and “grass/gravel/snow.”

Of course, I suggested to my friend that we test those settings on the same backcountry desert roads on which we’d spent so much of our adolescence. His wife looked at him. They had a brief discussion out of my earshot. A short time later, as we blasted down muddy roads, I asked him about their “discussion.” He shrugged. “She’s heard stories.” “What stories?” I asked. He reminded me of the little Toyota pickup he’d owned in high school. The one we’d used to jump over dirt hills, leaving behind pieces of metal and plastic on the rocks. Maybe she had a point. The LR3, though, was more than game for our challenges. It effortlessly conquered Twin Peaks, the highest point in the area, despite big rocks and slippery conditions. We even found the hill where we’d destroyed that old Toyota, piece by piece. But the LR3’s suspension just settled, and we crested comfortably over. Maybe we’d mellowed, but I choose to believe that the LR3 is simply over-capable.

the full range: up next
This winter we’ll start seeing the Range Rover Sport SC and the redesigned Range Rover beating paths to the slopes. The Sport is Rover’s answer to BMW’s X5 and Porsche’s Cayenne. It’s a people-mover that can truly move, offering the Rover aesthetic, if not its usual off-road chops. With a supercharged V-8 boasting 390 hp and 410 foot-pounds of torque, it’s meant for the Autobahn rather than the Amazon. Expect sticker prices around $70K. Meanwhile, the 2006 Range Rover gets a new grille, side vents and 19-inch wheels. The fourth incarnation of the flagship, which was last modified in 2003, loses the BMW-designed 282-hp V-8 in favor of the Jaguar V-8, with either 4.4 liters and 305 hp ($74K plus) or the supercharged 4.2-liter, 400-hp version ($89K plus).
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