So this is it. On a dark Tuesday evening I leave, and the moment I've been waiting for is finally here. I walk across the frosty car park, blip the remote and open the hefty door. The information screen lights up to display a large welcoming 'Land Rover' logo as I climb up into the cabin and nestle into the gloriously soft Oxford leather seat. At this point I know I really have arrived. A flick of the key (no need to hold it in the start position) and there's a muffled roar. The engine revs once on its own and then becomes almost silent. The steering wheel glides electronically into position in front of me. I turn on the lights and take a moment to appreciate the ambience before I slip the gearstick into drive.
The Range Rover was originally launched in 1970 to satisfy the growing demand for recreational 4x4 vehicles, mainly in the USA but also throughout the rest of the world. It was immediately a huge success, and demand outstripped supply for many years. It was in fact so unique at its inception that one vehicle was exhibited at the Louvre as an example of modern sculpture. The Range Rover remained largely unchanged until 1994 when it was given an unfortunate clean-sheet redesign, ended up looking like a Metrocab and also gained a horrific reputation for unreliability.
In January 2002, the third all-new Range Rover was launched at the Detroit Motor Show. The moment the first image of a headlight appeared on the website leading up to its launch, it was clear it would be a very special car. It was immediately obvious that this was no unimaginative makeover, but a well-conceived and attractive new design sprinkled with retro-touches harking back to the original model.
My first drive is little short of terrifying. I negotiate my way tentatively out of the car park to be thrust immediately into the homebound rush hour traffic of Central London. It's usually pretty easy to naturally sense where the edges of the car are, but this is so much larger and higher that it takes much more getting used to. Driving round Trafalgar Square things get worse as a bus deliberately carves me up, causing me to have to stop to let it through a gap probably large enough to comfortably fit a small house, but virtually invisible due to the parallax caused by sitting so high. As the journey goes on I began to sense the corners of the vehicle, and by the time I arrive home I am feeling remarkably calm, safe and cosseted. So much so that I set out again almost immediately. This is about to become an addiction.
The interior of our car is the perfect choice - sumptuous parchment hide with navy piping and cherry wood on the exquisitely designed dashboard. Everything is illuminated in soft green that works perfectly with the brushed steel and the classical white instruments. The dashboard is beautifully crafted with swathes of leather and two monumental columns of wood running down the centre either side of the transmission tunnel. These are matched by a wooden panel at each end of the dash and wooden trim along the tops of the door pockets. Considering the arsenal of switches and controls, the dash manages to remain surprisingly attractive and not at all intimidating. The attention to detail is beyond belief - somewhat amusing in a car that originally boasted having a 'hoseable interior'.
The seats are probably not terribly practical, and certainly not hoseable but quite lovely nonetheless. The front pair has an infinite number of adjustments that leaves you wondering whether you are deliberately choosing the uncomfortable position you have become so accustomed to in most other cars. The motors are finely engineered to move the seat gracefully in all directions with a satisfying hum. Needless to say, back pain and leg ache are things of the past. As if this were not enough the leather steering wheel has electronically adjustable rake and height, which together with the seat position and mirrors can be memorised and set to a key, so the car will adjust to each driver the moment they unlock the doors. The rear seats offer ample headroom, sufficient even for my 6'3" frame.
And of course the pièce de resistance - the heated steering wheel. It may be there as a selling point, but I can testify to the sheer pleasure of using it on a cold morning. It is accompanied by an auxiliary fuel-burning heater system that can be set on a timer to warm up the cabin of the car 30 minutes before you arrive. Heated seats front and rear, heated mirrors and a dual zone heated windscreen complete the assault on winter. Is there no end to the luxury?
My only real disappointment is the entertainment system, which is not a bespoke system, rather a generic one with the Land Rover logo slapped on the screen. Despite being wired to an amazing 12 speakers, the interface is dated, unintuitive and uninformative, and ends up as more of a distraction than an aid. And the sound quality is only mediocre, considering the cost and quantity of equipment. It comes across much too bassy with not nearly enough definition.
The CD player has a 6 disc Alpine autochanger behind the glovebox, but manages to display as little as is physically possible. Apart from which disc and track is being played no further information (such as track time, remaining time etc) whatsoever is volunteered.
The satnav is quite dreadful. Despite providing one with glorious maps with a quite amazing level of real-time detail, and even being able to work off-road, the female guide is at best moody, and at worst downright dangerous. Although well spoken as expected, she speaks in clipped, ambiguous sentences, making it almost essential to constantly look at the screen to work out what's really going on. For example, somewhere near the next turning she will announce 'right turn ahead'. Until you've got used to it, this is a completely useless and somewhat distracting instruction. Closer to the junction she will say 'in x yards, turn right' but there seems to be little consistency in exactly when she'll announce this, or indeed whether she will at all. Sometimes she gives completely incorrect instructions, on one occasion causing me to turn down a one-way road the wrong way. This was not a case of the map being out of date either. The volume is way too low - there's actually a separate setting to increase it in relation to the radio/CD, but even on its maximum setting, if the music is on quietly the voice is virtually inaudible. Finally, when the voice cuts over the music, there's no subtle fade, rather the music just cuts off and is replaced unceremoniously by the voice, which doesn't even bother to pause the CD player.
The TV is a nice added bonus, but nothing at all will work with the ignition off, which is a serious omission. The DSP is quite useless - apart from impressing passengers for a few seconds there is absolutely no other purpose. Pressing the eject button causes the whole front of the unit to glide down and out in a hugely impressive way - only to reveal a dreadful disappointment - a paltry cassette deck. Even a minidisc would have been slightly less useless. Of far more use would have been a line-in for an MP3 player. Finally there seems to be no mute button - often essential, particularly with the ridiculous number of turns necessary to change the volume.
My only other criticism is the mirrors - almost everything on the car is beautifully engineered and moves with grace and precision. The mirrors certainly don't. They have very little movement, and flap in unceremoniously in all of a second. Even a detail like this should be an event. This feels like a leftover from the 80s.
Something that strikes one about this car is the incredible amount of logic. No longer is a switch just a switch, but an intelligent part of a bigger process. In 1970 a key was a 'notched and grooved, usually metal implement that is turned to open or close a lock'. Well let me tell you, not any more. For a start it informs the car who the driver is. It can open and close the windows and sunroof, set the alarm to numerous different modes, open the boot remotely, even let the car know when its internal batteries are getting low. Putting it in the ignition prompts a satisfying click from a remote solenoid as it unlocks the steering column, and also allows the gearstick to move, which disables the TV. Assuming you have your foot on the brake. Selecting reverse activates the distance sensors and dips the passenger mirror so you can easily see the kerb when parking - so long as you have the mirror switch in the correct position. And the door mirrors automatically re-synchronise should one get knocked out of kilter. I hugely appreciate all this detail. It could so easily come across as fiddly unnecessary gimmicks, but it's been thoughtfully and subtly designed to (perish the thought) actually be useful.
The exterior of the car is every bit as attractive as the interior. At first glance, one feels decidedly overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of it. It's nearly half a metre longer than the original, which was never small anyway. Immediately it has a feeling of supreme chunkiness. Everything is incredibly solid, instantly giving a credible feeling of 'tough luxury' - the phrase Land Rover use to describe the car. Everything looks and feels as if it's been hewn from a solid lump of whatever it's made from. The chunky door handles are a far cry from the Morris Marina ones of the earlier models, and the doors themselves take a firm slam to close and thud satisfactorily. Incidentally they are now constructed entirely from aluminium to decrease weight, as is the bonnet.
The tailgate splits horizontally as on previous models, the base now being able to support the weight of two people. The upright front and simple horizontal grille are still in evidence, but the powerful bi-xenon projector headlights are brand new, and manage to give the car an aggressive, futuristic face, yet one that is unmistakably a Range Rover. The rear lights have a similar frown and although totally new, somehow bear a remarkable similarity to the look of the original car. The 'floating roof' has been carried over from the original, but the 'Brunel finish power vents' in the front wings are a new addition - perhaps to break up the extra length of the car. They apparently increase the amount of air fed to the engine, but whatever their purpose they are a successful aggressive addition.
We had the opportunity to test the Range Rover in its four most likely environments - city, motorway, country and off-road. Initially driving the car in London is terrifying as I mentioned, but one soon gets into the flow, and you actually begin to feel very special. It's rare to get a thumbs-up in anything, but several people were nothing short of mesmerised by its presence. This is a car that demands huge respect and draws attention, unusual for anything in London. However this is balanced with a very noticeable envy, dislike and disdain, particularly from the sandal-wearing green party supporters who consider anything but an F reg. Volkswagen Golf to be a potential cause of global meltdown. It's a long time since I've had a car that has provoked such diverse and profound reactions. I stopped for a chat in the snow one night with a friendly policeman, who could only offer admiration, and said that although it was probably the most capable vehicle I could be driving in these conditions, he'd be grateful if I could stick to the speed limit. Incidentally he did have a Land Rover. A secret handshake later I was on my way again.
I have to admit I always considered park distance control (PDC) was for girls, and quietly sneered at anyone that would choose it for their car. I now realise I was utterly mistaken. Parking the Range Rover without doing a considerable amount of costly damage to at least two other vehicles on every single occasion would be almost impossible were it not for PDC. In fact it makes parking even easier than in a much smaller vehicle without it. Once you know you still have 20cm or so even when it's telling you you've collided, parking is absolutely effortless. Combined with the helpful 'kerb view' dipping mirror, parking is almost a pleasure. And of course the in-forwards technique is perfectly viable - you hardly even notice the pavement as you mount it and descend to get the car perfectly parked in one simple manoeuvre.
A minute annoyance is that a few of the controls are confusingly labelled, notably the suspension height control and the display in the centre console around the gearstick department. It would simply be a matter of labelling everything slightly better, but one gets used to it soon enough anyway.
Having spent several days in the car's most natural habitat, we ventured out to the lanes of Oxfordshire at the weekend. The motorway drive was not particularly enjoyable - at 70 there is an annoying resonance from the engine, and a degree of wind noise, but I'm confident the resonance would disappear at higher speeds. Heavy acceleration produces a magnificent growl, but kickdown is rather too ambitious, often dropping two gears and sending the revs towards the red line. This seems somewhat unnecessary as it only has to change up again, and peak torque occurs at 3600rpm anyhow. It does sound rather lovely though.
The gearbox is silky-smooth, and copes effortlessly with the engine. As well as normal automatic mode, there is the choice of Steptronic and Sport modes. Pushing the stick over to the left while in drive will engage Sport mode, and nudging it back or forwards will invoke manual. Manual works fine until you kickdown at which point it is inhibited, and will only change when it decides. Sport mode is fun - it changes gear at far higher revs which works well in giving the car a more taut and, yes, sporty feeling. This is likely to have a detrimental effect on the already poor fuel economy though. A high/low ratio selector engages lower gear ratios for off-roading and can be switched while on the move. Different throttle maps are used for each ratio.
Once in the country lanes you are treated to a truly rewarding experience. Wafting along at upper-hedge level in the full knowledge that the fields are just begging you to explore them is an absolute delight. Bumpy roads are soaked up by the suspension and the car feels suddenly at home. Until you take it off road and realise this is really what it's all about.
It's a tragedy that so few people will ever experience this. Taking the car off-road for the first time is a sensation of enlightenment and pure exhilaration. Admittedly we didn't stretch it to anywhere near its limits, but it coped effortlessly with some low-level wading, negotiating a bank and a field, and a jaunt along Southsea beach. Sadly we exercised rather too much caution for our naïve fear of getting stuck, but off-roading is a large and very realistic part of what it's all about. I can think of little better than returning to a dinner party in London on a Sunday evening with the immaculate blue paintwork lagged in hard earned mud. Of all the off-roaders (save perhaps the Defender), this is the one that is designed to perform. There's something gloriously decadent about ploughing through rutted muddy fields in the height of leather swathed opulence with a hint of Mozart flowing from the twelve speakers.
The handling, considering the size of the vehicle, is extremely adequate. It will always be a compromise, as the suspension has to cope with a broad spectrum of different terrains. The car is substantially stiffer than the previous model due to the fact it now has a monocoque chassis as opposed to its predecessor's box-section chassis with separate body. If provoked, the car can be caused to roll quite disturbingly, and it does lean considerably round corners, but the ride offers a good combination of firm when cornering, and forgiving when negotiating numerous London potholes and speed bumps. The car uses Electronic Air Suspension (EAS) with interlinked air springs and for the first time, fully independent suspension. The EAS automatically readjusts the suspension settings to level the vehicle according to terrain or load. This is usually imperceptible, but you do occasionally catch it pushing the front up or down now and then.
On its 'crawl' setting, the car handles incredibly well, but sadly does everything it can to get out of this mode, reverting to normal height at 25mph. Admittedly one does feel far more regal on the normal setting. Some of our road testers felt that the driving experience was somewhat remote and dulled, but this hadn't occurred to me until they mentioned it. I feel that if the drive was any more sensitised, it could well become harsh - Land Rover have had to reach a compromise between two very different types of vehicles and I'm convinced they've found the optimum point.
As safety is now such a selling point, one would expect the Range Rover to come well equipped, and of course it doesn't disappoint. (*)ABS, EBA (Emergency Brake Assist), EBD (Electronic Brakeforce Distribution), DSC (Dynamic Stability Control), ETC (Electronic Traction Control) and HDC (Hill Descent Control) all help to keep the car steady under adverse conditions, and should they not manage to prevent an accident, eight airbags are poised to explode from every direction. Of course the sheer size and height of the vehicle are also useful should an accident occur - by the law of averages one is more likely to hit something smaller.
The brakes are excellent - as they bring you to a halt from excessive speeds you get the feeling they're doing a lot more work than they let on. The pedal is quite light, but nevertheless very effective, and the ABS, while still feeling a little agricultural is very effective. We didn't have a chance to try HDC on the limits, but it worked admirably on a steep hill - you can feel it pulsing individual brakes to control the speed of the car.
Tyre pressure monitors warn the driver if any of the tyre pressures fall below a certain limit, rain sensing wipers keep the screen clear without driver intervention and high security deadlocking locks and a comprehensive alarm (which takes up 11 pages of instructions in the handbook) all help to ensure the car stays in tip-top condition.
So overall how good is it? Yes - much better than you could ever imagine. Although it may be bettered on the road by the BMW X5, it is still a Range Rover through and through, true to the original brief and does not unashamedly shirk its off-road abilities to improve its handling down the King's Road. If the mood takes you, you can quite realistically scale unthinkable inclines and have a huge amount of fun in the Range Rover. There's also something else - an essence of Britishness - that the BMW could never manage in its wildest dreams. Somewhat ironic as this started life as a BMW. And after all, X5s are as common as anything now. The new Range Rover is still a relatively exclusive sight. Take advantage of this while you can - a car this good can not remain rare for very long at all.
*(A brief explanation should you be interested - ABS pulses the brakes on individual wheels should one or more lock up during braking. EBA temporarily increases braking power under emergency braking. EBD dynamically alters the front/rear brake distribution. DSC can override both the engine and brakes to improve stability if it considers the car to be going out of control. ETC brakes individual wheels should they start to spin which redistributes the torque and recovers traction. Finally HDC can take control of the car during a steep off-road hill descent. It manages this by braking individual wheels to maintain a low speed and prevent the vehicle from sliding.)
It may seem difficult to choose from the plethora of SUVs, HRVs, LAVs, CRVs, SAVs and SRVs available on the market these days, but the Range Rover was the first, and is still the best. Its closest competitors are the BMW X5, the Porsche Cayenne, the VW Touareg and the Mercedes-Benz M-Class.
Our first item on the Range Rover
Not really what it's about, but nevertheless very capable. 0-60 in 9 seconds isn't bad for something of this weight. There's always a reassuring amount of torque should you require it.
The engine feels and sounds great, but kickdown is rather over-ambitious. The gearchange is always silky-smooth.
Not the best handling 4x4 on the road, but its off-road capabilities more than redeem this. The ride is firm yet forgiving, and unless provoked it will never misbehave. Speed bumps are particularly enjoyable.
Only one star for its ability to annoy green party voters. Fuel consumption is nothing short of appalling - over a week we averaged under 13mpg. But then who cares. If you can afford a Range Rover, the fuel consumption is going to be very low down on the list of priorities.
The feedback whilst driving may be a little numbed, but not enough to affect the experience. The new monocoque chassis improves rigidity and obliterates any squeaks or rattles. The high driving position is wonderful.
The look is called 'tough luxury' and it lives up to it. Retro touches are carried off very successfully, the lights give it a pleasantly aggressive expression and the 'Brunel finish' vents continue this theme on the side of the car. 19" wheels finish off the look nicely. It's still a Range Rover through and through.
Very, very close to perfection. The build quality is superb, materials are of excellent quality and the design is perfectly executed. The seats are quite possibly the best of any non-performance car. The only faults are a relatively small glovebox, bad labelling in the gear selection area and slightly unintuitive heater controls, all of which pale into insignificance after a few days' driving.
With ABS, EBA, EBD, DSC and HDC it'll take a lot to go wrong, but even if you do the chances are you'll come off a lot better than whatever you hit. There are eight airbags just to make sure.
The Range Rover has to be awarded 6/5 for equipment, but then loses one star for the poor entertainment system. It's hard to think of anything apart from more entertainment kit and multi-media screens that could be added.
Road test: 2002 Range Rover V8 Vogue
Story and images by Adam Jefferson