The Range Rover Sport is still the benchmark when it comes to a dynamic luxury SUV with genuine off-road credentials.
A certain, shall we say evocative, baby model in the line-up may be grabbing most of the attention at the moment, but the Range Rover Sport remains a key model for the British 4WD brand.
The Sport also pipped the Range Rover Evoque by several years as a Range Rover with a sloping roofline, if not to quite as dramatic effect.
Land Rover’s Range Rover Sport, originally released in 2005 after appearing in concept car guise as the Range Stormer in 2004, is also the vehicle most credited with turning around the marque’s ailing fortunes.
Tata Motors, the Indian conglomerate that currently owns the Jaguar Land Rover group, must be feeling like their initial $2.1 billion investment in the two home-grown English brands was a veritable bargain.
Land Rover, for one, hasn’t looked back since. It has since sold about 311,000 Range Rover Sports, and in 2011 it was their best-selling model in the range, with almost 55,000 finding new homes.
Expect that to change with the cheaper Evoque, which starts about half the price, is significantly fresher, and is already the most popular Land Rover locally so far in 2012.
An all-new Range Rover debuts in September, though the Sport is actually based on the platform of the Land Rover Discovery.
The Range Rover Sport received its first major update with the 2010 model – where the 2.7-litre TDV6, 4.4-litre V8 (naturally aspirated) and the 4.2-litre V8 supercharged were replaced by the 3.0 SDV6 and two 5.0-litre V8s one without forced induction and one supercharged.
Our 2012 Range Rover Sport 3.0 SDV6 test car is the entry-level vehicle in a six-variant line-up and is priced from $100,900 before on-road charges are added.
It gains a number of new features and available options over the 2011 model, although you’ll need a keen eye to spot any differences with the exterior.
For the first time in the Range Rover Sport’s life, there’s a powered tailgate. That might sound trivial to some, but not to seasoned owners accustomed to manually operating a cumbersome arrangement.
Unfortunately, it’s only available with the Luxury trim level up, which means you’ll need to hand over another $1400 if you choose this base-spec edition. The only other possible drawback with the new powered tailgate is that it is no longer a split design – a Range Rover trademark - that allows upper and lower glass sections to be opened separately.
There’s also an upgrade to the standard Harman Kardon sound system, which increases the number of speakers from 9 to 11 and boosts the power output from 240 watts to 380 watts.
It’s an outstanding unit that produces a truly exceptional sound, though audiophiles may not be able to resist upgrading to the premium logic-7 system from Harman Kardon with 17 speakers and a potent 825 watts.
Land Rover has also updated the entertainment system, offering the latest 7-inch screen (Evoque gets an 8-inch version) that supports several new technologies including Bluetooth music streaming, dual-view (meaning passengers can watch a DVD while the driver views the satellite navigation) and Whitefire wireless for rear seat passengers.
Outside, the biggest change is the gloss black treatment to the headlight inners and grille surround. There’s a slight change with the rear tailgate graphics, too, with a metallic-look strip that runs below the Range Rover lettering, producing a cleaner look.
Weighing in at just over 2.5 tonnes, the Range Rover Sport is still an enormously heavy vehicle compared with some of its rivals (Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTec weighs 2175kg), but its 3.0-litre V6 diesel generates 180kW and a not so inconsiderable 600Nm. That’s more than enough to pull this behemoth along at a respectable pace (0-100km/h in 9.3 seconds).
Of course, if sheer pace is your priority, then there’s always the V8 Supercharged Sport with 375kW and 625Nm. That will take you from 0-100km/h in just 6.2 seconds.
In-gear acceleration with the 3.0 SDV6 is especially strong with peak torque occurring at around 2000rpm, while cruising at the maximum legal speed on freeways and back-roads is effortless.
There’s no problem with throttle response from a standing start, either, with the twin sequential turbochargers helping to produce 500Nm from virtually idle.
It’s also relatively fuel efficient considering its size, weight and aerodynamic attributes, or lack of. Even when driving around suburbia on short trips only, the SDV6 still managed to achieve 9.5 litres per 100 kilometres, according to the trip computer.
Although CO2 emissions have been reduced from 263 grams per kilometre to 243g/km on a 9.2L/100km combined cycle, Land Rover Australia still runs Euro 4 engines in the Range Rover Sport without the assistance of a diesel particulate filter, which would conform to Euro 5 emissions regulations.
However, as well muffled as this engine is, there’s no mistaking it for anything but a diesel, particularly at idle. The diesel clatter never disappears, but mid- to high-range cruising at least eliminates much of that irritating engine note from inside the Sport’s cockpit.
While the larger Range Rover gets the svelte ZF eight-speed automatic transmission, the Range Rover Sport in Australia makes do with an equally smooth-shifting six-speed unit (UK versions are equipped with the eight-speed version).
The eight-speed transmission, EU5 engine diesel engine and trademark DriveSelect rotary shifter were only made available to punitive tax markets such as Europe, where strict CO2 emissions guidelines are in place. The eight-speed auto shifts up more quickly than the six-speed unit, thereby using lower revs and in theory, less fuel. However, expect to see all three technologies on the next generation Range Rover Sport.
In the interest of keeping the price down on this base model, the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters have been omitted from the standard inventory. If you want them, you’ll need to hand over an additional $430, or alternatively choose the ‘luxury’ spec, which also brings 20-inch alloy wheels and a host of other equipment upgrades as well as a price jump to $113,900.
What really stands out for the Range Rover Sport is it’s exceptional ride quality. Fitted across the ‘Sport’ range is air suspension on all four corners, which provide a thoroughly sublime ride as far as large SUV standards go.
We deliberately sought out the worst maintained roads and the largest potholes, but none of that upset the Sport’s road manners. The suspension simply absorbs the bumps and cushions the journey impeccably.
Similar praise must go to the Sport’s chassis dynamics, which all but eliminate body roll on turn-in. It’s by no means the benchmark (that position goes to the significantly lighter and more agile BMW X5, as well as its sloped-roofed relative the X6) but there’s a decent level of composure with the Sport, even when pushed hard through some more challenging bends.
There’s also plenty of grip from the not-so-wide 255/50-series tyres working in concert with the full-time four-wheel-drive system.
The variable ratio steering rack provides light steering at low speeds, making the Range Rover Sport a breeze to navigate around car parks, but weights up nicely at freeway speeds.
It’s also relatively quick to respond to driver inputs, which will inspire a degree of confidence for those behind the wheel.
With one of the best-designed driving positions in its class and enough hand-stitched leather to cover several sofas, it’s hard not to feel special inside the Range Rover Sport. The front seats are especially comfortable and provide excellent lower-back support.
It’s difficult to find any hard surfaces inside the Sport’s cockpit and that includes the door trim. Apart from the walnut and polished aluminium inlays mentioned, everything else is soft touch, even the glovebox.
There’s no clutter on the centre stack, either, with only essential switchgear such as the climate control air-conditioning dials and some function switches.
The audio system controls can also be accessed on the steering wheel and Bluetooth pairing is quick and intuitive.
Space is also a feature, with a generous amount of room between the driver and front passenger and sufficient space for three adult passengers in the second row, at least for short hops.
Luggage space is cavernous with 958 litres available behind the rear seat row. Fold these seats forward (they fold completely flat) and that space more than doubles in volume to 2013 litres.
The level of safety kit on board the Range Rover Sport is extensive. Apart from all the usual active and passive safety features including dynamic stability control, six airbags and four-channel all-terrain anti-lock braking with emergency brake assist, the Sport is also fitted with an understeer control system that will automatically slow the vehicle if the driver takes a bend too fast.
It’s triggered by steering inputs and works in conjunction with the roll stability control system, which in the event of a possible rollover, applies brake pressure to a specific wheel or wheels, thereby widening the turning radius.
Sadly, you don’t often see a dirty Range Rover Sport these days; its role is almost exclusively that of an urban-based sports tourer. That’s a real shame, because the Sport is one of the most accomplished off-road vehicles in the segment, able to negotiate difficult terrain including rivers up to 700mm in depth.
The Sport is also armed with a host of off-road wizardry, including Land Rover’s proven Terrain Response system where drivers are able to select between five different programs (general driving; grass/gravel/snow; mud and ruts; sand and rock crawl).
For soft sand, the system offers ‘sand launch control’, which allows a limited degree of wheelspin to prevent the tyres from digging in and potentially bogging.
Along with ‘hill decent control’, which regulates the downhill speed, there’s also gradient release control that inhibits the initial rate of acceleration on steep declines.
It’s all very worthwhile technology for those more serious off-road adventures in the Range Rover Sport.
Despite strong competition from rivals such as the Audi Q7, BMW X5, Mercedes-Benz ML-Class and Porsche Cayenne, the Range Rover Sport continues to do remarkably well for a model that has been around since 2005.
With an all-new Range Rover model due in 2013, we can expect the new-generation Range Rover Sport to launch around 2014, with the benefit of a significant focus on weight reduction across the entire Land Rover range.