Land Rover is a little late to the PHEV party but with its unique blend of luxury and genuine off-road prowess, it promises to bring new appeal to the luxury SUV segment.
Initially, the thought of a full-size Range Rover plug-in hybrid (PHEV) - with a four-cylinder petrol engine - didn’t make any sense at all. I just couldn’t get my head around it. Then, something strange happened. I was creeping through heinous LA traffic in silence behind the wheel of the 2018 Range Rover PHEV (albeit in pre-production prototype form), and the serenity of the cabin started to make me think there might not actually be anything that is more ‘Range Rover’ than the silence afforded by a PHEV powertrain.
What exactly does pre-production prototype mean in terms of the driving experience? According to Land Rover, these vehicles are 95 per cent of what the final production car will be, but that five per cent that needs to be finished off, will make a real difference.
For example, everything works, including the satellite navigation and electronics, but aspects like the suspension tune, throttle calibration, and transition from electric to petrol propulsion haven’t yet been fully dialled in. A feeling of effortlessness, especially in the transition between the two drive modes is non-negotiable according to Land Rover engineers. A Range Rover is, after all, the pinnacle of luxury within the group.
For example, the hybrid system obviously adds a fair wedge of extra weight to the Range Rover, and the suspension system has needed to be re-engineered to compensate for that.
We drove both Range Rover and Range Rover Sport variants of the PHEV after the Los Angeles motor show, and as you’d expect, the driving experience is effectively identical, with only the Sport’s ride firmer than that of the Range Rover to really separate the two. There will be some calibration differences when you flick the Sport into ‘Dynamic’ mode too. Here, we’ll concentrate on the Range Rover specifically.
The PHEV models will go on sale in Australia in mid 2018 while the rest of the range kicks off from March 2018. As a guide, the Range Rover PHEV will start from around $190,000 placing it just above the entry level diesel in the range. Read our pricing breakdown for more details.
Don’t make the mistake of looking at the photos and thinking the changes for 2018 are a few styling tweaks. We know, having driven the PHEV extensively both on and off-road, that there is something a lot more wide-ranging that’s taken place beneath the skin.
The Range Rover’s cabin has been updated, where the most significant changes outside the hybrid drivetrain have taken place. As always, the focus is on comfort and luxury. The flagship model now gets dual-screen infotainment like that of the Velar, which is feature packed and high quality but can take some time to master.
Second-row passengers get new seats with more adjustability, although super luxurious leg room would dictate that you buy a long wheelbase Range Rover. There is more than enough legroom for adults though across all three positions. There’s more storage than before too, but the pervading sense of quality is the main feature and remains the reason most buyers opt for the Range Rover badge.
The Range Rover is powered by a 2.0-litre Ingenium petrol engine, which produces 221kW and 400Nm, and an electric motor, which generates 85kW. Land Rover quotes the combined outputs as 297kW and 640Nm. Power is sent to all four wheels through an eight-speed automatic gearbox, developed in conjunction with gearbox manufacturer, ZF.
Claimed fuel use is 2.8L/100km, but as always, that includes the first 50km or so on electric power alone. Once you deplete the battery reserves, you’ll see the fuel use rise to what you’d expect from a conventional petrol engine.
According to Land Rover, the PHEV can run on electric power alone for up to 51km and, with a fast charger, you’ll be able to recharge the 13.1kWh lithium-ion battery back to full capacity in 2 hours 45 minutes. A standard plug at home will take seven and a half hours.
Something interesting happened with the system too when we got to the off-road course. Following a lengthy slog out of Los Angeles to get out to the off-road ranch, the battery had dropped down to two per cent. The course was split into two parts and with low-range selected and hill-descent control activated for the first half, the battery had regenerated back up to 12 per cent by the halfway mark, allowing me to tackle the second part of the off-road course in pure EV - and therefore silence. More on that in a minute.
The hybrid system has a couple of clever modes you can use to manipulate what it does with battery power and when. One is the ‘Save’ function, where you can prevent the battery charge dropping below a certain point to save it for later, and ‘Predictive Energy Optimisation’ allows you to put a destination into the satellite navigation and the vehicle will get there in the most economical fashion it can.
Around town, in EV mode, the Range Rover is beautifully quiet as you’d expect. And that silence actually enhances the feeling of luxury - something so important to this high-end SUV segment. In fact, the PHEV immediately makes more sense than you’d ever have thought from the outset. When the petrol engine powers up, there’s the slightest shudder, something we’re told should be sorted by the time production variants arrive.
The other pre-production issue we noticed was some some shunting though the driveline - at a variety of speeds - either on the run or when the petrol engine took over from the electric motor. It was also a factor when the Range Rover was crawling along in traffic. Again, engineers told us that this will be gone by the time the PHEV arrives in showrooms. It’s hard not to take them at their word either, given quiet luxury is a specific part of the Range Rover design brief.
On the highway, and in fact anytime when the four-cylinder engine takes over, it has enough power to get the job done, but obviously isn’t striking any hammer blows like a turbo-diesel or supercharged petrol V8. To be fair though, savage power delivery and a head thumping slab of torque isn’t what this Range Rover is about. With a look to the future, and the ability to access short commutes without using any fuel at all, it’s all about smart technology not outright power.
The four-cylinder engine therefore, tools along nicely, only feels like it has to work if you really stand on the throttle pedal, and aside from the occasional driveline issue seemed to be teamed beautifully to the eight-speed gearbox. I still prefer my full-size (and heavy) SUVs with a meatier engine, but that’s beside the point. This petrol-electric combination will make a lot of sense for any Range Rover buyer who spends most of their time crawling around town.
It was when we headed up into the hills and into the dusty stuff, that things got even more interesting. No matter how often I do it, I’ll never tire of the unique way in which a Range Rover (or Sport for that matter) can transition from the lap of luxury on-road, to the gnarliest off-road trails without batting an eyelid. Wheel articulation, ground clearance, poise, grip and forward progress are all as good as it gets from a standard four-wheel drive regardless of manufacturer. Range Rover owners are hardly going to put a beat down on their $200k SUV, but that doesn’t deter from the reality that they can if they want to.
The PHEV is the first 4x4 that works in low range with electric drive too. You can use any of the drive modes - grass/gravel/snow/mud and ruts and it’s pretty impressive that you can access the Range Rover’s off-road potential in full electric mode. Both Range Rover and Sport have the same working water fording ratings as the ‘normal’ variants too, however, Land Rover doesn’t advise deep water fording in pure EV mode. The engineers found that with the engine off, a deeper water fording will floor the exhaust system if the petrol engine isn’t running. If you raise the suspension to its highest setting though, which you’d do for a water crossing, the petrol engine comes to life automatically.
Hill-descent control works beautifully, aided by the smooth way in which the electric motor delivers its drive, and there’s something very strange about rock crawling and picking your way around a challenging off-road course in silence. Suddenly you can hear every scrabble, every rock that is flicked up by a tyre, every time a part of the undercarriage touches down. It’s an entirely new experience for anyone who does any off-road driving.
And, like it did around town, the Range Rover PHEV made plenty of sense off-road too. There’s potential for the electric drive system to make off-road progress even easier and smoother given the limitless way engineers can manage the power delivery and the smoothness of the way drive is applied. Think about the times a sharp throttle pedal has been a massive pain in the arse off-road. Engineers can tune that out of a vehicle powered by an electric motor.
Range Rover might have been later to the PHEV party than other manufacturers but there’s something deliberate about the way in which it has finally entered the segment. The Range Rover makes much more sense as a PHEV than I ever thought it would, and I look forward to testing the full production model with everything dialled in as we expect it to be. What Land Rover has done, is offer up yet another variant to capture the attention of the luxury SUV buyer, and given it will be one of the more affordable in the range, that’s sure to be a broad group.