What, would you say, should be the top priority when you’ve just arrived in Morocco, having safely delivered a new Range Rover from its Midlands home to the North African site of its international driving debut, 2000 miles south? A decent rest, perhaps, with a glass of something restorative pressed into the hand?
Both were quickly offered when, in the gathering dusk last Friday night, I swung our 4.4-litre Autobiography SDV8 through the tall gates of Marrakesh’s swish Palais Namaskar at the end of a road trip from the UK totalling 1288 miles, with another 600 sea miles thrown in for a lumpy crossing of the Bay of Biscay. However, my mind was on neither relaxation nor comestibles but – strangely, some will think – on locating one of three original Range Rovers that, I had been told, were ready to be driven at our destination.
It mattered because as someone who has attended launches for all four Range Rover generations over the past 40 years and found himself writing similar comments about each (unique elevated driving position, unparalleled feeling of well-being, soft but controlled ride, smooth V8 torque, accurate but slightly ponderous steering), I was desperate to discover, by stepping straight from the latest Range Rover into a decent original, how true this latest model was to its celebrated beginnings. It’s not often you get such a chance.
Our loose plan was to pick a Range Rover Autobiography SDV8 up on Tuesday, then drive the 120 miles from Jaguar Land Rover’s Gaydon base to Portsmouth to catch the 24-hour ferry to Santander on the northern Spanish coast. On Wednesday night we’d drive a couple of hours into Spain, then complete the trip to Algeciras, where you cross to Africa, by the end of Thursday. On Friday we’d drive the remaining 360 miles to Marrakesh via Casablanca.
Even at those times in its history when the Range Rover hasn’t been particularly impressive against continuously improving opposition, the model has occupied a pre-eminent position in the UK. To make certain this time that any hero status was well and truly earned, we drove to Gaydon in another extremely successful and luxurious SUV, a Porsche Cayenne Turbo, renowned for quality and top-class engineering. Clearly no full-on comparison would be possible or even desirable; the Cayenne’s twin-turbo V8 was a 500bhp petrol engine, the Autobiography’s a twin-turbo 334bhp diesel. But the Porsche’s £88k starting price is so close to the SDV8 Autobiography’s £94,695 that we reckoned it interesting at least to get a flavour of their basic similarities and differences.
A two-hour trip from Gaydon to Portsmouth is just the sort of stroll you need to ease into a longer relationship with a new Range Rover. It allows you to set aside the excitement of the car’s newness and concentrate on reality. What lingers about the new Range Rover is how directly it relates to the outgoing model. The major styling elements and proportions, the driving position and your relationship with fascia, door sills and windscreen are fundamentally the same. Sure, there are detailed enhancements all over the place, but they add up not so much to a feeling that the new car is unfamiliar, but that the outgoing (L322) model is just a bit old. Which it is, having been launched more than a decade ago.
The 32-valve twin-turbo V8 diesel, at the speeds one is permitted to drive in this country, is almost never extended and thus almost perfectly refined. Just enough exhaust/induction rumble remains for you to be able to detect that it’s truly a V8, but the clue is through sound, not vibration. Even if you require something close to its quickest acceleration (0-60mph takes 6.9sec), you’ll find the transmission changes up at about 3000rpm, the upper end of its maximum torque band. The band starts at 1750rpm, so you’re never out of it when accelerating hard. And because of the model’s 250kg-plus weight saving and its enhanced stability, for the first time in 40 years you drive without that subliminal “Cor, it’s heavy” feeling that has always accompanied fast-driven Range Rovers of the past. Now, it just feels effortless.
The eight-speed automatic transmission locks up low down in its rev range to prevent fuel-wasting torque converter slippage, and the upshot is that at an indicated 75mph in top you cruise at a paltry, fuel-sipping 1500rpm. At 90mph it’s a mere 1800rpm. If you ever see 2000rpm in top, you’re dangerously illegal – dangerously for your licence, that is. This amazing low-rev performance reflects the combined influence of a near-50mph/1000rpm eighth gearing and the muscular torque output: 516lb ft. How an owner would wear out one of these this side of half a million miles, provided he keeps the oil and filters clean, beats me.
As for the ZF eight-speeder, I’ve heard people complain about odd instances of inappropriate shifting back and forth between adjacent ratios but there’s never a sign of it in the Range Rover. The big benefit is in the way that it allows the engine to change speed relatively little, to the benefit of fuel economy.
We reached Portsmouth, having done 120 miles but feeling that we’d barely left the outer limits of Warwick, with the computer showing just over 34mpg, which struck me as amazing until I noted that we’d had a tailwind for two-thirds of the journey. But it did make me wonder how well one of the new-to-Range-Rover 3.0-litre V6 diesels would have done.
We didn’t do a lot of motoring for the next 600 miles, which is probably why the M/V Pont-Aven, our Portsmouth-Santander ferry, was a new experience for me. What stood out, though, was the number of people who use it as a quick and painless route to northern Spain, then to Africa. We ran into a well travelled group of Land Rover Defender drivers, the practical kind who know every nut and bolt and have the spanners out to adjust something at every stop. They were doing a favourite route for the umpteenth time.
The ship was late (a medical emergency, claimed the PA) so we disembarked in half-light and set off in teeming rain on the 630-mile route to the port of Algeciras on the southern Spanish coast, via Vallalodid, Salamanca and Seville. When wet, northern Spain’s rural roads are not only as black as a moonless night but their shiny surface also unpleasantly reflects oncoming headlights, so we persisted just long enough for me to appreciate the new subtlety of the Autobiography’s automatically dipping headlights, which not only religiously avoid blinding oncoming drivers but also dip promptly when they see the tail-lights of a car ahead. In the past, I’ve always deselected them, thinking that I could beat the system, but this Range Rover seems to have a new, smarter brain that works more or less exactly as you want.
Even so, it was a relief to stop for the night at a convenient outpost of the government-controlled Parador hotel chain, which occupies distinguished buildings across the nation. This one, surrounded by a huge national park, had a wide and welcoming foyer, smelled deliciously of wood smoke, obligingly served us tasty Spanish omelettes and rich local red wine at 10.30pm and generally made me believe that when next I need a bed in Spain, it’s the local Parador I’ll try first.
It was still wet when we arose before dawn and it kept raining hard for the next 520 miles, until we were within a shout of Algeciras. But it was still a great day’s driving, on wide, billiard-surfaced and deserted roads, during which the Range Rover really showed off its new levels of stability and the subtlety of its accurate, low-effort steering, especially near the straight-ahead. You can cruise everywhere in the new model using the automatic setting for the new Terrain Response 2 system, but I found the basic on-road setting a little softer to ride on and the steering a shade lighter, which suited my preference.
If you want to make a high-riding car more stable, the classic ways to do it – which go back to Colin Chapman – are to widen the tracks, lengthen the wheelbase, get the front-to-rear weight distribution close to 50/50 and make sure there’s not much in the way of a weighty rear overhang. To improve the steering, chase away friction in every gear and joint, make sure every mounting on to the car is as rigid as granite and then refine the geometry as carefully as they do for a new McLaren. Oh, and choose your tyres after a ‘beauty contest’ of the world’s best rubber suppliers.
All these things they’ve done with the new Range Rover, and it tells. In low-grip conditions – off-road mud included – the car feels reassuringly tenacious, balanced, completely predictable, neutral, not the least bit ‘topply’. Our test car, incidentally, was on 20-inch wheels (deliberately down-specced from the Autobiography’s standard 21s) and all the better for it; it still felt agile in corners but was noticeably better-riding than bigger-wheeled versions. As we closed in on Algeciras, the rain stopped for an hour or two, but it hardly mattered. Soon we were ensconced in a dockside hotel, a former convent fetchingly named the Santi Ponce. The odometer read 854.9 miles and the trip computer had eased back to 29.7 mpg – still brilliant in my book.
On the Algeciras dockside, you get your first real taste of African bureaucracy. If it’s your first, like me, you’ll react badly to the confusion, disorganisation and competitive crowding. Veterans (I am told) stroll through it. But we queued first at one book-in booth, were diverted to another amid chaos, then were directed back to the original. By sleight of hand, we managed to jump forward a couple of dozen places, feeling not guilt but triumph. Only by such means does a person understand his private flaws and foibles.
On board the M/V Santa Cruz de Tenerife, a sign suggested we get our passports stamped by the Moroccan immigration official aboard for the purpose. On a 90-minute crossing in a half-full ferry, it should have been easy. But the bloke drank coffee and played cards for three-quarters of the crossing, until punters banging on his closed shutter became too loud to resist. There followed a mad scramble to get stamped before it was time to disembark, during which I learned that Moroccan people, although unfailingly gentle, friendly and polite, are experts at competitive queuing. We made it back to the Range Rover with seconds to spare and drove off the ship. Although near the bow, we again found that many dozens of residents’ overladen vehicles had beaten us to Tangier’s swish new customs post. It took an hour to clear.
Morocco, initially, was disappointing. The road around Tangier and down the coast to Casablanca, a new toll autoroute restricted to 75mph, was as flat and deserted as any you might encounter in large tracts of Spain, Australia or the US. Snapper Stan Papior was getting distinctly agitated – and his mood wasn’t helped 280 miles later when we spent a fruitless hour looking for photographic locations in Casablanca. Only my own confidence that Marrakesh – 160 miles further on – was the gateway to the magnificent Atlas Mountains and made it possible to end our journey in reasonable harmony at the Palais Namaskar, just too late to try one of the original Range Rovers.
From there, things came good – very good. Marrakesh, for all its teeming car and truck traffic, punctuated by hordes of suicidal motorcyclists and pedestrians, turned out to be the most remarkable North African jewel of a city, whose ancient centre was a fascinating mêlée of sights, smells, sounds, customs and traditional businesses that seemed as they must have been 500 years ago. For Stan, prime photo locations were now fighting for priority in his head.
The next day I tried a 1971 Range Rover and did some off-roading in the new one. The old car was practically the twin of the early-build, no-power-steer, four-speed, two-door model, rust-wracked model I owned 25 years ago. Twenty miles into our mountain route, while overtaking a donkey cart, I managed to break the throttle cable, but it was promptly soldered back to life by a young roadside mechanic, one of those self-trained geniuses who keep machines running decades after their Western cousins would have given up for want of spares.
It was an uplifting experience, as was my continuing drive in the old Range Rover, which, I was overjoyed to discover, did indeed still possess those unmistakable qualities ascribed to it all that time ago: a beautiful and timeless shape, a wonderful driving position, a soft and well damped ride, the beguiling elasticity of a V8 engine and – still – quite decent capability on and off the road.
Only the very finest designers and engineers can preserve a great car’s key characteristics across many years and generations. The creators of the Volkswagen Golf have consistently achieved it, and in its latest iteration the Porsche 911 is back to its best. But the all-change 2013 Range Rover eclipses them all. Everything about it is new, yet not a single crease or widget diminishes the intangibles that make a Range Rover great. What is more, the scale of this new model’s improvement over the outgoing one is certain to surprise anyone who drives it. Leaving Morocco, I attempted to sum up the new model in my notebook. “It’s like a Range Rover,” I wrote, “only much, much better.”