A powerful stance - New 2010 Range Rover
Pity the plight of car design studio bosses. These days, they jump ship with all the alacrity of nits at a thrash metal concert and such alarming frequency that they invariably find themselves turning up at car launches fighting to keep a straight face whilst garnering both compliments and castigation for new models in which their creative input was precisely zero.
This, of course, cuts both ways. With one Ian Callum already installed at Jaguar, for instance, his replacement Henrik Fisker was able to soak up the plaudits for the former's almost entirely pretty Aston Martin DB9, when all he actually did was award the poor thing tail lights modelled on a guffawing glove puppet. By contrast, it seems inevitable that current Land Rover design supremo Gerry McGovern will have scarpered long before the world discovers that no one over the age of fourteen will be able to sit in the back of his impending, reverse Tardis LRX without having all their hair rubbed off on the roof lining.
Happily though, ever since somebody, somewhere decided that the general public has the attention span of hot-buttered toast, treats cars like white goods and expects a favourite model to be face-lifted every 28 minutes, there is at least a fighting chance that the man responsible will actually have to accompany his latest creation to the launch pad. Such is the case with the new, 2010 Range Rover, and it's a pity McGovern saw fit not to break cover at its launch, because I really, really wanted a word…
To date, the best thing about a Range Rover has been that it combines battle cruiser-imperious boulevard behaviour and leap-tall-buildings- at-a-single-bound off-road capability (even if most owners would never contemplate the latter for fear of scuffing the paintwork or giving the shitzhu undue cause for queasiness) with a relatively discrete, dignified and gently aristocratic couture. This, given the huge car's status as the world's fastest maisonette, is no mean feat.
But then Land Rover set about devaluing the brand with the irritatingly successful Range Rover Sport; a mongrel disguising Discovery underpinnings beneath gently brash detailing and marketing-lie badging. And, worse, having decided we're all too stupid to identify a member of the family unless it shares a sibling's features, has now visited many of the upstart Sport's styling indignities on the head of the clan.
Externally, this equates to a new hooter featuring too much bright metal and a grille modelled on the blades of a chop-anything shopping channel kitchen appliance, pointlessly noodled front wing engine-bay vents and tail lamps that wouldn't look out of place on a chain round aNew York rapper's neck.
On board, the elegance and quality of the current model's dashboard architecture just about survives a further surfeit of metal-highlight mayhem. Switchgear has apparently been simplified, though there still appears to be a button for every day of the year, whilst all-new electrics imbue both instrument binnacle and centre console touch-screen with their own party tricks…
The driver's instrument binnacle is now something called a Thin Film Transistor (TFT) screen, which replaces conventional analogue dials with, erm, facsimile analogue dials made hard to read by unwarranted glare. The clever centre console touch screen cunningly contrives to offer driver and front passenger different images on the same screen in the manner of a saucy Margate tilt 'n' strip postcard, so the driver can view the sat nav while the front passenger watches a movie. Sadly, however, the absence of a headphone socket means the driver will still discover who framed Roger Rabbit, whether he wants to or not.
Beneath the McGovern face-lift glitz, though, there still lurks an absolutely fabulous car. Sitting so high you're always a little astonished to arrive behind the wheel without the aid of a ladder, the Range Rover's as immediately and immensely comfortable as it always was.
A new5.0 litre supercharged V8 imbues this flagship, £79,995 Autobiography with appropriate urgency; 510bhp and 461lb.ft of torque ganging up to fling over 2.5 tonnes of leather upholstered luxury to 60mph in a whisker under 6 seconds, and on to some 140mph. Engine room noises off have been nicely modulated to the point where, even under full throttle, all that urgency is communicated merely in the manner of a butler poking his head discreetly round the door to announce: 'Ahem, milord… Sixty miles per hour will shortly be served. Will there be anything else?'
More impressive yet, is the effortless insouciance with which this vast machine goes about its business at cruising speeds. At 60mph, the power plant is barely ticking over, in near silence, at under 2000rpm. Though the steering still feels bobble hat-woolly and deliberately sneeze-friendly for a car of this weight, the introduction of adaptive suspension has improved handling perceptibly, though efforts to carry real speed through corners do still feel somewhat like chucking the living room around; not something to be done on a regular basis for fear of upsetting that coffee table flower arrangement.
And off road, where most Range Rover owners fear to tread, the car remains little short of remarkable. A quiet sigh of disappointment at the prospect of thumping indolently round yet another car launch off-road course painstakingly tailored rock-by-divot-by-puddle to vaguely impress without once inducing even the slightest whiff of failure dies on my lips as we round the first bend in the dirt track to be confronted by a dead end. It must be a dead end, because the rock face with which we're confronted climbs, I swear, in giant slabbed steps like the sides of the Great Pyramid at Giza.
But protestations of a wrong turning fall on stony ground, and my passenger seat guide leaps out to guide me straight up the face.This, with him standing above me signalling steering and throttle inputs, proves almost ludicrously painless. Simply dial in the 'Rock Crawl' programme on Land Rover's clever Terrain Response control knob, and the car automatically adjusts brake, traction control and throttle mappings to facilitate the stately, gently ponderous progress of a large tortoise climbing a slope of corrugated iron. Slow, but unstoppable.
That driver's instrument TFT screen finally earns its keep too, automatically nudging the speedo aside to reveal a wealth of real-time, undercarriage and steering angle information. The latter may sound somewhat pointless in this car's Chelsea heartland but, after a little frantic helm hauling, it is actually embarrassingly easy to drive through deep mud inadvertently carrying a full turn of steering lock.Not conducive to smooth progress.
Also new to the Range Rover off-road arsenal are five cameras mounted around the body, which combine to relay 360 degree footage of the car's immediate surroundings to the centre console screen in the manner of the split screen passages of the original Thomas Crown Affair, helping drivers keep a weather eye for malicious boulders and other obstacles traditionally too close to the car to be visible. Touch any image on the screen and it leaps to preeminence. Touch two simultaneously, and they share wide-screen honours…
In short, everything has been done to ensure the Range Rover remains hilariously easy to use in environments where only an idiot would risk major damage to an £80,000 car. Despite my misgivings over the direction the revised styling has taken, the Range Rover remains an extraordinary and – mulling over the lack of alternatives in this price bracket – unique proposition. So, let's hope those in the design studio don't lose sight of the dignity inherent in that peerless DNA. After all, who wants Ranulph Fiennes disguised as Robbie Williams?
Nul points to the felt-tip fairies, then, but for plush rush with hush and astonishing off road ability, full marks to the engineers.