Evolution is a strange thing. You start with a single cell animal, wait a couple billion years and end up with Eminem. By the same token, you start with a rough and ready off-roader, wait thirty-four years, and end up with a luxury car on stilts. Evolution is not a good thing or a bad thing; it's just a thing. But the question remains: is the Range Rover fit enough to survive in an automotive environment teeming with first class competition?
The moment you heave yourself aboard the Range Rover, the British-built SUV asserts its exclusivity. The RR rejects the usual luxury car sports seat posturing in favour of a driver's throne, complete with leather arm rest. The view through the all-but-vertical windscreen reinforces the imperious vibe. You sit up high, master of all you survey – including about an acre of bonnet stretched out beneath you like the playing fields of Eton.
It's hard not to submit to the Rover's class snobbery. There's so damn much of it. From the elegantly restrained dash to the wonderfully tactile switchgear, the interior caters to your every need like a discrete, fastidious butler. Heated seat? Press here sir, in the centre of the climate control button. Satellite navigation? We use the old BMW system. It's so much more intuitive than iDrive. Cup holder? Allow me. I'll just push this little panel and… there you are. You see, it adjusts to any size beverage.
The Range Rover's cabin is ergonomically perfect eye candy. It's no surprise that corporate parent Ford copied the style for its revised F-150 pickup truck. Like Ford's best-selling behemoth, the Rover's interior offers the ultimate luxury: a super-abundance of elbow, leg and shoulder room. The Range Rover can carry a sham of professional wrestlers, and their bulbous belts, without cramping the grapplers' style.
Of course an off-roader this epic requires a gi-normous engine. The Range Rover's 32-valve, 4.4-litre V8 cranks out 282hp. Equally impressive, the powerplant unleashes a torrent of torque: 325ft. lbs. at a leisurely 3600rpms. Feel that? You will when you put your foot down. The engine bellows, the rear end squats and the Range Rover just plumb takes off. This stately home on wheels whooshes from zero to sixty in nine seconds, cruises comfortably at the ton and responds enthusiastically to most throttle inputs without resorting to kickdown.
And here's where we start to run into trouble. Do you really want to cane a vehicle that weighs 2,439kg and stands over 6 feet tall? To their credit, Land Rover has tried every trick in the book to make the beast handle on-road: monocoque construction, adjustable air suspension with terrain sensing software, cornering brake control, dynamic stability control, MacPherson struts with double-pivot lower arms and long-travel variable rate air springs (computer-controlled with cross-link valves) – the works. The result? As the visor says, "Avoid abrupt manoeuvres".
The steering doesn't help. The speed-sensitive rack and pinion set-up is lighter than a wino's wallet. While you can wheel the Rover through the urban jungle with one finger, there's nowhere near enough steering feel to tell you when the 19' wheels (20' optional) are stressing in the twisties. With 3.5 turns lock-to-lock, there's also a lot of slop in the system. It's all too easy to over-heave the helm. High speed driving requires a gentle hand and massive concentration.
If you're thinking, well, that's the price you pay for genuine off-road capability and why don't you just slow the Hell down anyway? I'm cool with that. But the handling issues bring us back to square one, wondering whether it's a good idea to build a luxury car that wants to fall over in every corner. I'm not so sure. I've seen three Range Rovers on flatbeds with the front left pillar squashed down to hip level. That's got to hurt.
Besides, real luxury cars are all about wafting. While the Range Rover is a veritable flying brick, it lacks the reassuring (if limited) driving dynamics of a similarly priced, equally sumptuous, spatially equivalent BMW 745iL or Audi A8L. Carve through a corner in one of those bad boys, and the machine will gently remind you that you're driving something titanic that prefers not to be hustled. Do the same in a Range Rover and the wake-up call is not so gentle. The sudden arrival of tippy-over trouble makes it difficult to drive a Range Rover in that luxury car auto-pilot psycho-bubble kinda way.
So where does this leave the £45k-plus Range Rover? The trend at the top end of the SUV market is towards on-road performance. Given Land Rover's evolving strengths, I reckon the brand will find the fitness it needs to survive. The next generation Range Rover is bound to be a real stormer.