Since we first heard that Land Rover was going to build the Range Rover Sport it was always going to be interesting to see how it would address the seemingly diametrically opposed objectives of creating a car that was both sporting in nature and utterly true to the Land Rover brand. The result is not perfect – in fact it’s rather flawed – but as a whole it is charming, capable, undeniably sporting and, above all, a Land Rover from bumper to bumper.
In fact it’s possible that the single biggest mistake Land Rover made with the Sport was the name. A Freelander Sport is a Freelander with stiffer springs and this naming strategy is replicated across the motor industry. And because it has been made to look so similar to the Range Rover, there will be a natural propensity for customer to view the Sport as little more than a fizzed-up Rangie. Spend five minutes in the company of the Sport Supercharged and you’ll realise how absurdly this misrepresents the car.
However much Land Rover wants the Sport to bask in the reflected glory of the BMW-financed Range Rover, they are, in fact, unrelated. Scrape away the cod-Range Rover clothing and look at the flesh, sinew and bone beneath and it’s all Discovery 3, albeit it bulked up in muscle and shortened 14cm in wheelbase.
There are double wishbones at each corner suspending Land Rover’s super stiff Integrated Body-frame structure, while the cabin wraps around the driver creating an aura of intimacy and immediacy that could scarcely be more different to the wide open spaces offered by the Range Rover. The world’s first genuinely sporting 4x4 interior has arrived.
Of course, the cabin’s purpose could have been to disguise the unavoidable dynamic limitations inherent in trying to make such a tall, heavy (2572kg) off-roader feel sporting, but it’s not. For sure the snug and cosy cockpit writes the cheque, but it’s nothing the car can’t cash.
On first acquaintance it does not seem this way. You still sit high (‘don’t worry, you’ll still be able to look down on X5 drivers,’ Land Rover’s director of studio design, Richard Woolley had assured me) and the 4.2-litre, 390bhp supercharged V8 does not exactly explode into life. Indeed, compared to its installation in various Jaguars, it seems positively muted. It responds smartly to a prod of the right foot, but there’s no savagery here, nor even much urgency.
Instead, it is a master of the silken shove. ZF’s sublime six-speed auto has been calibrated to change up early to make the most of the engine’s towering 405lb ft of torque and the overall gearing is extravagantly high. Cruise at 80mph in top and you’ll see barely 2000rpm on the clock. But call it to arms and the Sport quickly shows it’s more than worthy of the name. The acceleration is not in the Porsche Cayenne Turbo league, but nor is the £57,495 price. It will, however, still pin you back in your seat and throw you down the road in majestic and convincing style.
Supercharger wailing, it’ll hit 60mph from rest in 7.2sec and charge fairly relentlessly up to 130mph. Only then do the aerodynamics – good by 4x4 standards but a joke by others – start to haul it back. The Range Sport is electronically limited to 140mph, which I don’t doubt it’ll reach, but I’d be surprised if it would crack 145mph, even unrestricted.
Even so, if persuading a tall 2.5-tonne off-roader to go well was a tough challenge, it must have been as hard as deciding not to vote BNP compared to the task of making it handle properly. Land Rover has done well with the chassis but, ultimately, it’s a qualified success. Given its weight, it handles impressively well, but every time you feel the early onset of understeer, or its reluctance to change direction, you cannot help but think how much better it would have been shorn of a few hundred kilogrammes.
The Sport rewards smooth driving more than most, for if you don’t ask it to make any sudden movements it grips hard and hardly rolls, thanks no doubt to the active anti-roll bars. The steering is conspicuously good, too, given the tonnage sitting on top of the fat front wheels. There’s some feel, well-judged weighting and sufficient precision to allow the Sport to be guided with surprising confidence down narrow, twisting roads.
And it almost always serves a comfortable ride. There are luxury cars whose ride has been wrecked by no more than the fitment of 20in wheels (the Audi A8 being the most obvious example), but the Sport offers a ride that remains comfortable and controlled whether in town, on the motorway or scaling a mountain. Air springs keep body movements to a minimum, even at high speed on badly surfaced roads, and while there is some pitter-patter at street speeds, it is never more than mildly intrusive.
The Sport even maintains its composure when you drive off the road and into the unknown. And here, you swiftly discover, Land Rover has not forgotten the abilities on which it built its reputation. In fact, the road-biased 275/40 ZR 20 tyres are the only reasons the Sport won’t follow a Discovery 3 into the depths of hell. It has the same wondrous Terrain Response system, the same low-ratio transfer box. You can raise the ride height until it appears on tip-toe and if you still manage to beach it, you can raise it still further and just drive away. I’ve driven it on snow and ice, down rock-strewn paths and across sand dunes a camel would think twice about, and in each environment it coped exactly as you’d expect any Land Rover to.
The flaws are fairly predictable and none is more obvious than the monster fuel consumption: all that weight and the inherently thirsty nature of the supercharged engine mean the Sport Supercharged has a combined consumption of 17.8mpg, but you’ll need to be gentle to realise even this in real life.
Also, the looks don’t grow on you. After three days with the car I had gone from being quite curious about how the shape has been related to that of the Range Rover to concluding it’s simply not as good. That steeply raked D-pillar appears especially awkward. And while the cabin design is both clever and classy, part of its execution suffers from the same sense of cost-cutting that afflicts the interior of the Disco, exacerbated by the Sport’s higher pricing. There’s too much smooth, hard plastic and not enough soft, luxurious fabric.
Size-wise, there’s room enough for a conventional family, but those expecting acres of sprawling space will be disappointed. While the seating position for those in the front is magnificent, in the back it is little more than adequate.
In an era when car makers have concluded that creating cars that do little wrong is commercially cleverer than striving for true excellence and tripping up every so often, the Range Rover Sport is surprisingly easy to pick holes in. Most seriously, and like the Disco whose platform it shares, it cannot escape its weight: you feel it in every corner, down every straight and, most of all, when you look at the fuel consumption meter. But at least the Disco has no sporting pretensions.
And yet it is impossible to emerge from any serious encounter with the Sport less than positively disposed towards it. It is a car of true character, and charm oozes out of it from the wraparound driving position to the engine note.
Yes it’s a car more sporting than sports, but that’s not what matters most here. Of greater importance, perhaps not to those who will drive it, but the wider constituency worried that such a car might represent a dereliction of company values, it is every inch a Land Rover. And, from where I was sitting, a pretty damn appealing one at that.