Home on the Range Rover


Published: Thursday, June 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 31, 2006 at 10:39 a.m.
It had been raining hard for three days and the results were predictable. The forest canopy was lush, the ground was dotted with puddles and mud and the streams ran hard and full. All things considered, it was a perfect day for a drive.
Getting to the old growth forest in the Hudson Highlands south of West Point was uneventful, despite rain that sometimes lashed sideways and a highway that periodically was under an inch or so of running water. The Range Rover Sport, a machine designed to go anywhere in comfort, doesn't much care if it's a sunny summer day or the start of New England's flood season.
Park Rangers had built a raceway to channel runoff from a steep, treeless hilly area and avoid the danger of flash floods. The course was about 30 feet wide and six feet deep, and began near the summit and wound its way down to the base where it emptied into a huge storm drain. The channel had a thick gravel base lined with rocks that were about a foot in diameter. They are slick with water, rough, and roll as the tires go over them. For many cars, the course would guarantee flat tires and a ruined chassis.
I had driven a few cars down the raceway before: the smaller Land Rover LR3, the Hummer and Nissan Xterra, and the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. On those occasions, there had been light rain and the water was about a foot deep.
But this was different. The rain was slashing, the wind was howling and about two feet of water tumbled and gurgled and raced around and down the hillside, turning the normally rough and rocky channel into a sliding, treacherous trough bent on pushing any craft out of control.
Getting to the top of the raceway meant climbing a hill that was a mass of slippery grass and mud interspersed with sections of gravel, but that did not pose much of a challenge for the Rover.
This is a different breed of off-road car. The designers understood that the usual number of limited transmission and height settings - while effective - would not provide the best mixture of power, transmission adjustments, differential control, and height for any given terrain. So they followed the example of the folks who prepare the "Calculus for Dummies" books, with picture settings etched onto the console to help you decide what gear and height settings to use in different on- and off-road conditions. When you're cruising on the highway, you turn the dial to "high" and a picture of a highway lights up. When you head off-road, you turn the dial to a picture of mountains. Just point and shoot. There are four chassis settings, two transmission settings and five suspension settings, with the etchings telling you which combinations you should use. There are four terrain settings: level, mild grass, sand or gravel, and traversing the side of the hill.
And in the middle, is their downhill button - you take your feet off the pedals and the Range Rover stays in low gear and will not go above five miles an hour. Purists may complain that it takes the mystery out of off-roading. But if you are going to pay $64,000 for a car, you may want reasonable assurance that your adventure is not going to wreck your chassis and transmission. f-z I locked the transmission in to "off-road" mode, set the suspension for "rock climb," locked the wheels and pushed the "hill descent" control. There was nothing to do then but put Usher in the CD player, turn up the 550-watt sound system, switch the navigation system to "off road" and watch the car's progress via satellite, and step on the gas. The hood of the Range Rover rose in the air as I crested the side of the raceway and then plunged down. Rain laced the front windshield and water raced under the 19-inch wheels and splashed against the side windows as the Rover rocked along the unstable rocky bottom of the raceway. It was predictably bouncy, but not jolting as the electronic air suspension kicked in, providing constant load leveling and shielding the passenger compartment on a cushion on air. On the CD player, Usher never skipped a beat as I went back and forth across the raceway, sloshing through the gurgling water till it was time to exit at the bottom of the hill as the water disappeared into the culvert. f-z Leaving the raceway behind was easy. The off-road setting on the navigation setting shows where the nearest highways are and how to get to them. At that point, you are not necessarily in a hurry to get home because the designers put as much thought into the makings of a luxury SUV as they did to a high performing off-road vehicle.
The seats on the Range Rover are plush leather and all seats - front and back - may be heated. The rear seats fold down in a 60/40 split to enhance an already large cargo area. The interior padding is also leather, offset with wood and brushed aluminum trim. There is nothing stark or Spartan about the Range Rover despite the fact that it is geared to extensive off road use. This is a car really at home anywhere.
The entertainment system has AM/FM Sirius satellite radio as well as a 6-disc, in dash CD player. The 10-digit key pad serves both for programmed radio positions, and a pad for the built in telephone system. If the passengers in the back don't like the music choices, there are screens for the DVD movie player in the backs of the front headrests, giving each of the rear passengers their own uninterrupted view.
Inside the center console is a hands-free docking station for non-clamshell style cell phones. The station continuously charges the phones up to 10 minutes after the engine has been turned off. There are microphones built into the overhead console above the rear view mirror.
On the highway, you can either drive it as a 6-speed automatic. It is powerful and balanced enough for you to hit triple digits without feeling reckless or as if you are in a runaway train. Or you can switch to manual mode, with electronic clutch - though in terms of performance, the difference isn't that noticeable. The Rover is thirsty - getting about 14 miles per premium gallon on the road, and a lot less during off-road jaunts.
If you've never outgrown your sense of adventure and still long for the chance to get off the beaten track and head out overland - but you're at the age where you still like to be comfortable - then you couldn't be more at home on the range than when you are roaming in a Rover.

2006 RANGE ROVER SPORT

MSRP: $63,550 EPA mileage: 14 mpg city; 19 mpg highway.
Towing capacity: 7,700 pounds.
Performance/safety: 4.4-Liter Aluminum Alloy V-8 engine producing 300 horsepower and 315 pound-feet of torque; permanent 4-wheel drive; 2-speed electronic transfer box; 4-wheel electronic traction control; 6-speed automatic transmission; 19-inch aluminum alloy wheels; power-assisted 4-wheel ventilated disc brakes; 4-channel all-terrain anti-lock braking system; electronic brakeforce distribution; cornering brake control; hill descent control; 4-corner electronic air suspension and automatic load leveling; independent front and rear suspension; front, side, and head curtain airbags in front, head curtain airbags in rear; front and rear fog lamps; rain and speed-sensing wipers; xenon headlights and headlight power washers.
Interior/comfort: AM/FM Sirius Satellite Radio; 6-disc in-dash CD player with 550-watt Harmon Kardon sound system with 13 speakers; voice control for audio and navigation; leather padded, tilt and telescope steering wheel with fingertip controls; DVD system with dual headrest display; personal telephone integration system; heated front and rear seats; GPS off-road navigation system; sunroof and power windows.

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