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JLR’s first ‘special vehicle’ is big on charm, pace, capability and driver engagement. Expertly judged and executed

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It takes an inordinate amount of brand cachet and confidence to do this. At a time when austerity is still making front page headlines throughout the western world, this is a £96,900 Land Rover Range Rover Sport (£108,450 as tested) that has 542bhp.

Those are large figures that could easily seem out of kilter with the times. But austerity be damned: this car has been coming, no matter what.

The people at SVO have made the SVR nothing less than the most powerful Land Rover in the company's history

In the past year, more than 500,000 people have become millionaires in the United States alone, and that rate is being outstripped by the Chinese. There are now more people than ever before who have the means to afford cars like this Range Rover Sport SVR, the first Land Rover product of Jaguar Land Rover’s Special Vehicle Operations (SVO) division.

The people at SVO have made the SVR nothing less than the most powerful Land Rover in the company’s history. The car deploys 542bhp from its supercharged 5.0-litre V8 engine and adopts a raft of mechanical and dynamic changes to accompany the extra horsepower.

This is still a vast SUV, but given the kind of demand that’s available globally for luxury and performance 4x4s, the question, then, is no longer “why would you make a car of this size, with this power?”. Given that there are so many people with the income and inclination to buy one, the question is “why wouldn’t you make one?”.

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It’s a question BMW asked itself with the X5 M as long ago as 2010 and that it answered well enough to continue into the latest BMW X5 and BMW X6. But, then, BMW was ahead of the game when it introduced the X5 a good half decade before Range Rover launched the Mk1 Sport in 2005. Porsche’s Cayenne Turbo is into its second generation, too.

So the fact that the SVR only now tops a Sport line-up that has, in this second generation, been on sale since 2013 means it’s a latecomer. We’ll find out whether the time has been well spent.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Range Rover SVR rear

It’s tempting to pre-judge a new performance car by the number of bespoke mechanicals its maker has lavished on it.

Even the most open-minded petrolhead may be surprised that there’s been no extra-large engine shoehorned into this car and very little special hardware fitted to the standard Sport’s driveline and suspension. But that only serves to show the danger of judging this particular book by anything other than its driving experience.

The SVR is powered by a venerable supercharged 5.0-litre V8, albeit here in the more rarefied 542bhp tune

Instead, SVO’s approach was to be fairly pragmatic in deciding what to replace or simply retune or enhance from the Range Rover Sport. In doing that, it has run a risk. But it has also rather cleverly taken the opportunity to emphasise the engineering integrity of the standard Range Rover Sport by demonstrating – more or less – what it was always capable of.

The SVR is powered by the same ‘AJ133’ supercharged 5.0-litre V8 that goes in the V8 S/C model, albeit here in the more rarefied 542bhp tune with which it powers the Jaguar F-Type R Coupé. Although curiously SVO turned the wick for the F-Type SVR which produces 576bhp.

The driveline is materially unaltered, although new electronic controls for the eight-speed automatic transmission deliver faster shifts, while revised settings for the electronic locking rear differential make for enhanced traction and directional control.

You also get an electronic locking diff on the front axle and Land Rover’s clutch-based centre diff, which nominally splits power 50/50 front to rear but can send 100 percent of it to either pair of wheels. Plus you still get the Range Rover Sport’s low-range transfer case and Terrain Response 2 traction control system, so the compromises to Land Rover’s traditional rough-stuff capability are almost non-existent.

The changes to the make-up of the SVR’s height-adjustable suspension are limited to firmer bushes, new pistons for the air springs, bigger wheels and tyres and, on cars such as our 22in wheel-shod test example, wider axle tracks.

Additionally, with those optional wheels come the first performance road tyres to be offered on a Land Rover product, in this case Continental ContiSportContact 5s. Otherwise, SVO’s efforts have largely gone on retuning the interlinked springs, magnetorheological dampers and active anti-roll bars offered on the regular Range Rover Sport.

Besides the SVR badging, the styling identifiers consist of enlarged front air intakes on a revised front bumper, new black grilles on the nose, bonnet and front wings, a new roof spoiler and a rear valance that includes a rear diffuser and quad tailpipes.

No single design revision looks over the top in isolation, but on a performance car the sheer size of the Sport they combine to create an impression of genuine menace.

INTERIOR

Range Rover SVR dashboard

SVO received a pretty good base point for the SVR’s interior, so it hasn’t taken a huge amount of work to make a Range Rover Sport’s cabin feel appropriate for a car costing in excess of £100,000. Material quality, fit and finish are all pretty much first rate.

The resolution on some of the digital touchscreen’s graphics and the head-up display is bettered by that of some of the German car makers, but even the standard Sport counters with a sense of rare opulence inside.

Deep doors that close over the sill mean you're less likely to get a wet or dirty leg when you climb in or out

For the SVR, the differences are slight but sufficient to give the Sport another lift – albeit one aimed squarely at those looking for performance cues rather than luxury ones. They get them in the deeply sculpted shapes of the seats, which scream ‘sporty’ in a way that’s slightly out of kilter with the fact that you’re looking horizontally across at them, not down on them, when you open the door.

Land Rover’s high-set driving position is unchanged by buckets that, ultimately, look more supportive than they are. There’s no denying that the driving position remains strong, however, with plenty of room for occupants both front and rear. The steering column electrically adjusts through a vast range and the seats have 16-way adjustment.

Sporty chairs aren’t just reserved for front-seat occupants either. Open the back door and you’ll find rear passengers get the same look to their chairs, right down to the holes for harnesses that will never be fitted. A fifth seat remains, but Land Rover calls it ‘occasional’. We’d like to be in it even less frequently than that.

However, the rear seatbacks still split 60/40 and fold, so, discomfort of the fifth seat aside, the car remains as practical as ever. The boot is large – 489 litres in capacity with the seats up, rising to 1761 litres with them folded.

As for the standard equipment, the SVR is certainly well-endowed. It basically has all the bits fitted to a Range Rover Sport Autobiography Dynamic plus darken headlights, exterior gloss black trim, a specially-made rear spoiler, a quad-exhaust system, an aggressive bodykit, blue Brembo brakes, heated seats all round and perforated Oxford leather upholstery.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Range Rover SVR cornering

Presented with nothing else to do, the SVR’s optional head-up display shows only two numbers: your speed and the legal limit. Basic information, you might think, but a vital reminder given the rarity with which these numbers marry up organically.

The combination of Range Rover variant and JLR’s bombastic V8 is a familiar one, and that fact makes the new-found ferocity of the SVR’s performance even more startling. Where the standard motor is a prodigiously swift, relentlessly sonorous item, the SVO treatment has delivered a rabidness for which the extra 40bhp hardly accounts.

Despite giving away 700kg in kerb weight, the SVR Sport's one-way 0-60mph time at Millbrook was just 0.2sec behind Jaguar's F-Type R

Indeed, in S mode (a convenient wrist nudge of the gear selector to the left), the SVR’s caterwauling acceleration doesn’t just make for a satisfying comparison with its stablemate; instead, it rivals that of the all-wheel-drive Jaguar F-Type R with which this car shares its ECU.

Despite giving away a preposterous 700kg in kerb weight, the Sport’s one-way 0-60mph time at Millbrook was just 0.2sec behind Jaguar’s claim for its quickest coupé yet.

Of course, the SVR enjoys a traction advantage over that model, but even when measured against the Porsche Macan Turbo we figured last year (itself at least 300kg lighter), the Range Rover is still 0.3sec to the good – and a full second quicker over a standing kilometre.

As startling as they are, the figures provide only a pencil sketch of what is undeniably an oil and canvas experience. As it is in the F-Type R, the V8 is truly on song from a little after 3000rpm to about 6000rpm. As the in-gear numbers attest, its efforts tend to trail off slightly before upshifts, but that’s barely apparent when you’re subjected to the brutish, unflagging shove of the thing. It’s part tectonic plate and part Bowler Wildcat.

And then, when you’ve had enough, plainer sailing is just an additional gear selector waggle back towards you. In D mode, the SVR reverts closer to type: the accelerator is duller, ratio swaps slushier and the butterfly valves firmly shut until beyond 4000rpm. It isn’t schizophrenic enough for you to forget the underlying frenzy entirely, but that is as it should be.
 

RIDE & HANDLING

Range Rover SVR side profile

Clearly, given the nature of its raw performance, the SVR would be nothing without commensurate enhancement of the Sport’s chassis. But we’d argue that it would have been rendered equally defunct were the car not still discernibly a Range Rover.

The careful treading of this fine line, somewhere between unstoppable force and immovable object, is a core part of what makes the new model such a compelling vehicle to drive. That said, not even Land Rover, with its favourite suspension spring medium – namely air – to play with, can entirely conceal a whopping tightening of the dynamic screw. Consequently, the suspension’s usual mighty consumption of bumps comes now with a certain constriction.

Even in town, ride comfort remains of a standard that would make the German engineer weep into his currywurst

This you’ll notice before anything else, because to get to the higher speeds where the trade-off proves rather inspired, you must first traverse the low speeds at which it feels incrementally less accomplished.

However, even in town, ride comfort remains of a standard that would make the German engineer of an equally fast saloon weep into his currywurst. And as you still sit high above it all, the car’s capacity to absorb the world underneath you unheralded is still largely intact, but the ability to then make it disappear behind you in fierce, scathing bursts is all-new.

With the adaptive settings left unaltered, the SVR’s heightened potential feels much as SVO promised: a firmer, flatter, pointier Range Rover Sport. That literal description hardly explains the molten pleasure of the thing, though.

Tantalisingly, none of the characteristic heft or directional certainty has been dialled back in the pursuit of a conjured-up leanness. Instead, the car just feels quite brilliantly ‘more’ than it was before, as if it were using the extra power to try harder at being dynamically sweeter.

The roundedness of it all obviously speaks to the quality of the tuning job done, and were it the limit, we would have declared ourselves massively contented. But the meat of SVO’s mission statement resides in the SVR’s Dynamic setting - select this mode and the car is a different animal.

That we enjoyed it most on track - not the Hill Route, either, but Millbrook's flatter handling circuit - says it all. With the suspension at its firmest, the SVR hunkers down into Cayenne-aping mode, yet it shuns the Porsche's aloofness. Instead, channelled through its consistent, muscular steering, the SVR becomes thoroughly exploitable.

SVO has not only achieved both on and off-throttle adjustability but has also brilliantly preserved a sense of all-wheel drive mastery. The SVR is assured and staggeringly adhesive on proper tyres, right up to the glorious point where you no longer want it to be. A fast Range Rover, then, in the absolute best possible sense.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Range Rover Sport SVR

Land Rover’s positioning of this car leaves room for it to be considered by two distinct types of buyer: the Range Rover Sport regular who simply wants the best, most powerful and most exclusive example of the breed, and the performance SUV buyer migrating from BMW M division, Mercedes-AMG or Porsche offerings.

The car is sufficiently attainable on price and dynamically broad-batted enough to appeal to both sets. While the 18.8mpg our True MPG testers recorded from the car is sobering, it’s unlikely to bother those performance SUV fans. It may give the first group something to think about, but at least the standard Range Rover Sport’s 105-litre fuel tank makes for a reasonable cruising range.

While 18.8mpg may give you something to think about, at least the SVR's 105-litre fuel tank makes for a reasonable cruising range.

Benefit-in-kind tax at 37 percent makes the SVR a vanishingly unlikely fleet option, meanwhile, as much as that matters. Of greater concern to private owners may be our residual value forecast, which makes this the fastest-depreciating Range Rover Sport that you can buy.

Our sources don't expect early demand to make for great residuals, with the Porsche Cayenne Turbo depreciating less over the first four years. It was always likely to be the case, and some other – but not all – high-performance SUVs will cost you more on that front.

A five-year service plan - reasonable at £699 - will be a dependable way to ensure ease of sale, while 22in wheels should pay back a big chunk of their £2400. But 'personalised illuminated treadplates' with your name on could end up costing you rather more than their £766.

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VERDICT

5 star Range Rover SVR

In terms of star rating, the Range Rover Sport SVR’s final tally provoked a lot of discussion in the office.

It says much that the car was widely admired yet not roundly loved. For some, the flagrant thirst, weight, expense and comfort-limiting excess smack too obviously of needlessness. A diesel V8 is, after all, plenty quick enough.

Huge pace and space with 4x4 capability. The SVR is rich, poised, exciting and charming

However, ultimately, that position suggests a predisposed aversion to the concept of supercar-fast SUVs in general, and that is a question of taste, not quality. Admirers of the niche – and they are numerous – deserve an unclouded verdict that recognises the outstanding prospect among many.

That car, for our money (and all our stars), is the Range Rover Sport SVR. No rival better mixes handling prowess, off-road talent and an SUV sense of functional plushness. But more importantly, none comes close to capturing the perfect savagery and lewd sense of fun it keeps so amply on tap.

It will not appeal to everyone, but if your two tonnes must come thus, there really is nothing else like it.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Land Rover Range Rover Sport SVR (2015-2021) First drives