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2003 Land Rover Range Rover
Car Cultures Merge to Create a Fine Specimen
by Denise McCluggage

Who would have thought that the issue of these two car cultures would have turned out so well? We speak of the German (or more specifically the Bavarian) and the British automotive traditions.

An odd, and short-lived, union began with BMW's acquisition of a handful of British marques a number of years ago. From that congress came the delightful MINI and MINI Cooper S, the only offspring still under the BMW roof.

When BMW decided it wanted out of its precipitous plunge into matrimony the custody of Land Rover migrated to Ford, along with Wolfgang Reitzle who had been chief of BMW's product development. He continued looking after the Range Rover at his new address.

Out of all these convoluted and sometimes fleeting relationships (Reitzle is himself no longer with Ford) we nonetheless have the happy circumstance of Land Rover's new 2003 Range Rover.

It's a fine, lusty and handsome specimen.

This is the third major redesign of the Range Rover in its some 30-year history. The 2003 version is wider, taller, longer, heavier, higher off the ground, more powerful and more expensive than its predecessor. It also is far better mannered on the highway, roomier, better-looking, more comfortable and more replete with technological and safety features (there are no fewer than eight airbags in the new model.)

In brief, the 2003 Range Rover is a dazzler. And quite likeable in the process. Though it lives large it drives small. Goldilocks would have found it just right.

The first thing the German input did at Rover was straighten the rather wobbly quality control that had befallen the British industry. (Ford had brought much the same reforms to Jaguar.)
Then came the total makeover of the Range Rover. The new influence is immediately evident in some of the de-quirking of the controls. But perhaps fortunately BMW did not have the time nor will to indulge its penchant for over engineering that can be downright obfuscating at times. You'll find nothing like BMWs befuddling iDrive in the Range Rover. Everything is in ordered rows with clear dials and generally intuitive controls.

A legacy of the new BMW 7 Series is pleasantly present in the smart interior. Executives familiar with corner offices, fine ocean-going yachts, limited edition watches and furniture with designer names attached will feel instantly in their element in the Range Rover. There's the sculptural wood trim that invites a hand, the brushed aluminum and the touches of bright work all making for the sort of elegance that is cool and warm at the same time. The seats are both comfortable and supportive and fitting for both off-road upheavals and Interstate blandness.

The Range Rover with its excellent full-time four-wheel-drive system has always been noted for its aplomb on seriously bad roads and on no roads at all. Perhaps only the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen (now called the G-Class) with its three locking differentials could out do it off-road. This new Range Rover may well be a match. It certainly bests the G-Class in elegance and smooth design. The G-Class still cannot quite conceal its military origins in its stiff civilian clothes and utilitarian demeanor.
The Range Rover's road clearance has been increased by 2.6 inches to an impressive 11 inches. That's one of three riding heights. The vehicle automatically lowers its stance at highway speeds and an "Access" height (1.5 inches lower) can be selected to make getting in and out easier.

Probably the most remarkable change in the Range Rover is its ability to eat up the Interstate without any hint of its being an SUV. Bring on the lo-o-ong treks. It will not rival a grand touring car on the twisty bits but its new independent suspension and greatly increased rigidity (250%) improve its road handling characteristics considerably. (Something I'd like to see down the pike: use of the Lincoln Navigator's precise new steering system. It's all in the family now.)

Ford, Land Rover's corporate parent, finds itself in the interesting position of selling a British car with a German engine. This is the BMW 4.4 liter V8 with 282 horsepower at 5400 rpm (up by 62 over the old Range Rover) and 325 foot pounds of torque at 3600 rpm. Though this bigger vehicle totes 500 more pounds that the previous one it can accelerate from a stop to 60 mph in under 10 seconds. The old one could not.

Will future Range Rovers see the supercharged Jaguar engine? Silly. No one talks future at new vehicle introductions.

Range Rover has long sniffed at differential locks but now has a locking center differential. The smooth-shifting five-speed automatic gearbox is quick to respond on the road and easy to use in rough conditions. Shifting between high and low range can now be done while underway at speeds up to 30 mph. In low range at 1000 rpm the vehicle will walk smoothly along at 2.4 mph, a segment-best creeper in my experience.

A driver might look forward to testing such a granny gear on steep hill descents but technology has thrown in another assist for that. Drop the Range Rover's neat nose over a near precipice. As the all-sky view sweeps to the depths below simply keep your feet away from the pedals and ride it out. With groaning and creaking worthy of a Harry Potter soundtrack, an abler-than-thou system known as HDC (Hill Descent Control) alternately brakes and frees the individual wheels to keep the vehicle heading down the fall line totally under control.

I am of mixed emotions about this feature - in awe because it works so well but a little miffed because it won’t trust me to try it on my own. Getting down the treacherous steeps safely is satisfying, yes, but feeling as if you as driver had some part in accomplishing that end can be elating. HDC turns driver to passenger.

But that is what technology is doing these days. A soup can of letters - HDC, ABS, EBD, DSC - makes us all better drivers than we might really be.

You've seen HDC and its efficacy on steep descent. You know about ABS (anti-lock brakes, in this case of four discs). In the Range Rover ABS is enhanced by electronic brake assist, which makes sure that braking power is retained even if the driver has slacked off the initial effort.

EBD (Electronic Brake force Distribution) maintains an optimum balance between rear and front wheel braking.

DSC (Dynamic Stability Control) is Ford's system that uses a timely application of braking and restoring power to individual wheels to keep a vehicle from swapping ends even if overdriven. Some similar systems come into evidence so early a lot of the fun of driving is tempered. Not here. This just holds your course for you (say while maneuvering on icy roads), quashes fish-tailing and keeps you from looking really stupid.

The traction control system, which is used by DSC in maintaining directional stability, has a side benefit important to off-roading; it diminishes wheel spin and lessens damage to the surface.

Although serious off-roaders were distressed to learn that Range Rover had gone to independent suspension - important to the on-road ride but usually deleterious to off-road operation - were surprised and pleased to discover the change had no ill-effects. This thanks to the extreme new monocoque body stiffness and the ingenious new Crosslink air suspension. Constant monitoring of wheel position can send leveling instructions back and forth from right to left wheel. Whatever it does it smooths the rugged off road and assists the Range Rover in conquering some tough terrain.

The new Range Rover is a five-place vehicle. The rage for third-row seating did not flare up until it was well into development. Perhaps later.