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Driven: The new Range Rover Sport

Early look: Our ride may have been a LHD 'prototype', but it gave us a clear glimpse at just how good the new Range Rover Sport is.

A taste of Range Rover’s new Sport suggests the name should live up to its promise

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Land Rover logo2 Jul 2013

By MIKE COSTELLO

AN IMPASSE appears imminent as we point our left-hand-drive, second-generation Range Rover Sport at a twisting ribbon of tarmac along the Snowy Mountains’ Alpine Way.

Challenging roads with sharp drop-offs and patches of black ice are seldom friends to any car, let alone a 2144kg luxury SUV – even if it is wearing a ‘Sport’ badge on its haunches.

How then, are we to respectably hustle our early-build prototype along at a reasonable clip in a car seemingly so unsuited to the task? Especially when considering that this car’s predecessor, the first-generation, Land Rover Discovery-based Sport, was fast but dynamically compromised.

The company has gone out on a limb by calling this new Sport its “fastest, most agile, most responsive model ever”. It’s much lighter, more car-like underneath and has a new steering system, but has it overtaken the BMW X5 benchmark? We didn’t want to wait until its proper November launch to find out, so we accompanied Range Rover on a lengthy jaunt down Australia’s east coast, from Sydney to Melbourne via Canberra (on the night of the ALP leadership spill, no less), through Jindabyne, skirting Mt Kosciusko, through Wodonga and into the Toolangi forest.

Keep in mind, too, that the Range Rover Sport’s launch date falls around the same time as the Australian launch of BMW’s next-generation X5.

Rest assured, those 400 Australian early adopters who’ve place pre-orders without so much as touching the car can rest easy, because Range Rover has managed to turn its second-generation middle child into something that properly lives up to the Sport badge.

Chalk this up to the more sophisticated independent underpinnings, a sharper new electric steering system and a weight loss of up to 420kg thanks to its Premium Lightweight Architecture (PLA) shared with its Range Rover Vogue big brother.

This architecture incorporates aluminium in its doors, side intrusion beams, front-and rear suspension and final drive unit, as well as a magnesium cross-bar beam and front-end carrier.

The switch to PLA has also allowed a major rethink on the Sport’s proportions, eliminating the awkward rear overhangs. Where the old one was something of a mini-me Range Rover Vogue, the new one has a clearer identity of its own.

There is more than a hint of Evoque in the new lines, although it does carry over the Sport’s traditional two-stripe theme that starts with the twin-bar grille and extends down the side to the tail-lights.

Compared with its antiquated body-on-frame predecessor, it feels like something akin to a revelation – it corners neutrally until pushed too hard, at which point it tends to understeer, points with precision and holds on well, even on its 19-inch rims.

It also rides much firmer on its air suspension – a tad too firm over low-speed corrugations – and exhibits less bodyroll and head-toss than any SUV this side of a BMW X6 or Porsche Cayenne, thanks partially to a lower centre of gravity (it’s 55mm lower than the regular Rangie).

More impressive again were the class-leading levels of noise, vibration and harshness. Scarcely a breath of wind noise or tyre roar pervades the cabin. When you’re cruising at 110km/h and can hear the air coming out of the vents on the air-conditioning’s low setting, you’re in one heck of a refined car.

The nous extends beyond the beaten path, too. The Sport gets the larger Vogue’s “Terrain Response” system that adjusts off-road ability on the fly, as well as adjustable air suspension, plus 546mm of wheel articulation, up to 278mm of clearance, an approach angle of 33 degrees and a departure angle of 31 degrees.

The Sport can theoretically reach places that an X5 owner can only idly daydream about. However, our plans to put this to the test were blocked by rampant floodwaters in regional NSW – even a heavy Range Rover cannot withstand a torrent, after all.

Our test car had a 250kW/450Nm 3.0-litre supercharged V6 petrol engine under the bonnet. Shared with the Jaguar XF, it now supplements the big daddy 5.0-litre supercharged V8.

All versions of the Sport send power to all four wheels via a new ZF-built eight-speed automatic transmission, while the 4WD system uses a two-speed transfer case with high and low range.

It’s a sweet and free-revving unit that sends the Sport from standstill to 100km/h in around 7.2 seconds. It also has an unmistakable soundtrack, with a subtle but still noticeable supercharger whine seeping into the cabin.

We couldn’t match Range Rover’s claimed combined fuel use figure of 11.3 litres per 100km – on some spirited legs we saw the figure head north of 20L/100km.

For this reason, the company expects up to 90 per cent of all Sport buyers to opt for one of the pair of more frugal diesel V6 engines on offer (in either 190kW of 215kW guises).

In Australia, these versions will be available in HSE specification only, priced from $123,100 plus on-road costs. You couldn’t buy any petrol V8 version of the old Sport for less than $140,000. The equivalent HSE diesel will be $2700 more expensive than the petrol version we tested.

That said, an extra-cost options list as long as your arm could swiftly see this skyrocket. Frankly, we question why some of these aren’t standard fit to begin with.

Want paddle shifters? That will be $110. Other options include a contrasting roof colour ($1400), sunroof ($4000), a glare-reducing windscreen ($1400), tinted glass ($900), adaptive xenon headlights ($1000), premium metallic paint ($4200) and — for the first time in a Range Rover — third-row seats ($3700).

The list extends to a heated steering wheel ($500), aluminium tread plates ($1750), surround-view camera ($1800), park assist ($1490), blind-spot monitor ($1420), four-zone climate control ($3200) and digital radio ($900). Even carpet mats cost an extra $260.

Still, the cabin – which mimics the larger Vogue in design and execution – is a sumptuous place to be, with acres of leather and high-quality veneers, soft but well-bolstered seats and impressive rear-seat head- and legroom.

The design of the fascia is clean and well organised, though there were a few quirks with the touchscreen interface, notably the occasional stubborn refusal to play Bluetooth audio. The cars we drove were early build, and still had a few wrinkles, so we’ll withhold judgement until November.

It also, unlike its big brother, comes with the option of a third row of forward-facing seats, which stow away flat into the load space. At 4850mm long, the Sport is shorter than most seven-seaters, but a 178mm longer wheelbase than before liberates some room.

They’re best saved for special occasions, but will accommodate the neighbour’s kids on the school run without hassle.

Indeed, it seems appropriate to end this story talking about a key buyer type: the old Sport was popular – it’s outsold the Cayenne this year despite its advanced age – and the new one deserves to be even more so.

Will it reset the X5’s benchmark? It’s too early to tell – we will have to wait for the new-generation BMW to arrive before we can confidently make that call.

But what we can say is that this new Sport forges an identity of its own, both stylistically and dynamically. Minor foibles and dubious options aside, we can think of fewer better companions for such an odyssey as ours. If only there was a return leg.

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