There is no topping the Range Rover, which is still lord of the manor. After all, it was the first off-road ready luxurious SUV. It was introduced in 1970, but didn't reach America until 1987.
Still, many Americans had seen it before its U.S. debut in adventure movies set in such locations as Africa, and it had a well-deserved reputation for being tough and adventuresome. Never mind that it had a spotty reliability reputation and a modified 3.5-liter aluminum ex-Buick V-8 from the 1960s.
The first Range Rover here came from the Land Rover division of England's state-owned Rover group, which always managed to botch things up, and was costly at about $30,000. It was the most upscale SUV, and its legendary off-road abilities added to its sex appeal. However, most Range Rover owners felt it was too precious to take off-road.
The Range Rover never has been inexpensive. The standard 2011 HSE version is $78,835 and the S/C (supercharged) version lists at $94,615. However, they should last just about forever, without losing snob appeal.
The Range Rover always has been as British as afternoon tea and has had incredible snob appeal for many Americans. There are only two global SUVS that have been around a long time-Range Rover and Jeep. And, well, a Jeep just doesn't cut it in the snob appeal area, compared to a Range Rover.
Nearly everyone from international rock music stars to members of England's royal family have driven Range Rovers. Although it was never a thing of beauty, a Range Rover was exhibited at the Louvre in Paris as an example of modern sculpture.
Land Rover actually has been making rugged four-wheel-drive vehicles since 1948, making its debut at the Amsterdam Auto Show. It drove like a car and labored like a truck, and everyone from farmers to police and military personnel fell in love with it.
By the early 1960s, the Land Rover was marketed as being trendy and upscale, although it still was mainly a workhorse. During the frenetic 1960s, it was fashionable in swinging London to own a British Morgan sports car, Mini Cooper-and a Land Rover.
The first Range Rover was a boxy two-door vehicle with only a four-speed manual transmission and full-time four-wheel-drive. It was never intended to double as a passenger car. But the more stylish, luxurious Range Rover with four doors, an automatic transmission and such items as Connolly leather upholstery filled that role, introduced in 1970.
Ford owned the Land Rover operation since 2000. BMW had bought Land Rover from the British in 1994 and spent $1.3 billion to improve its Range Rover, which had become rather old and tired. BMW lost a bundle on the Rover auto operation, which led it to spin off Land Rover to Ford for $2.6 billion, although it kept the Mini car operation. Ford thus got the new Range Rover as part of the deal, and BMW agreed to supply its 282-horsepower V-8s for a while.
Ford improved the Range Rover, concentrating on better quality, and gave it powerful Jaguar V-8s because Ford then also owned Jaguar,although it eventually sold both makes to India's Tata Motors to concentrate on its own line of cars.
The Range Rover still has a reputation for spotty reliability, but now carries a four-year/50,000-mile limited warranty, besides 24-hour roadside assistance. There also is complimentary scheduled maintenance on the first service at 15,000 miles.
This brings us to the latest Range Rover. It was given two new Jaguar-derived V-8s in 2010 and they continue to power the current model. The HSE has 5-liter unit with 375 horsepower and the S/C has a supercharged 5-liter V-8 with a whopping 510 horsepower.
Both make the Range Rover fast, although it weighs 5,697 to to 5,891 pounds.
That's an awful lot of weight, but so what if you've got all that power? The 375-horsepower Range Rover does 0-60 mph in just 7.2 seconds, with a 130-mph top speed, while the supercharged version hits 60 mph in 5.9 seconds and tops out at 140 mph.
The engines work with a responsive six-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission with normal, sport and manual shift modes.
As one might guess, fuel economy isn't a strong point, with all that power and weight. The Range Rover delivers an estimated 12 mpg in the city and 18 on highways, although a good driver should be able to coax 20 mpg during steady highway cruising. Premium fuel is required, and the fuel tank capacity is 27.6 gallons.
One might suspect that driving the high, heavy Range Rover would be somewhat tiring, but that's not the case. The new test 375-horsepower Range Rover I drove was very quiet and incredibly refined.
The nicely geared steering isn't too quick for off-road driving or too slow for on-road motoring. The ride is smooth on all roads, and handling is quite good, especially for such a big guy. Powerful anti-lock brakes are controlled by a pedal with a linear action for consistently smooth stops.
While the weight is felt during quick moves, much of it is kept low in the Rang Rover to provide a lower center of gravity for better handling.
Enhancing handling are a sophisticated four-wheel-drive system, electronic traction control, all-terrain dynamic stability control, enhanced understeer control, cornering brake control, roll stability control and enhanced hill start assist and gradient acceleration control.
Safety items include a bunch of air bags.
It takes a little extra effort to get into the roomy interior, which looks Rolls-Royce sumptuous. The heated front/rear seats (also ventilated on S/C version) are generally supportive, but could use more lateral support. The large controls can be easily used. Traditional physical instruments are replaced by a 12-inch Thin Film Transistor screen that presents essential driver information via virtual dials and graphical displays.
Occupants sit high, and the driver has good all-around visibility. However, a driver will find the shift lever gets in the way of the console cupholders. And the wide opening to the large cargo area is high.