Getting to know Wales… the easy way
The first gasp happened in the mountains on the climb out of Sennybridge, a small town located in the Brecon Beacons. A ragged landscape, broadly brush-stroked in the deepest greens and browns, strewn with sandy-coloured boulders, unfolded under a deep blue sky and opened out before us. Moments like this are memorable, especially here in Britain, as we’re often too busy getting on with our lives to appreciate the beauty this little island can sometimes offer, given the right set of circumstances.
However, since leaving our Cotswolds starting point and crossing the border into Wales while ambling along the M50 behind the wheel of Land Rover’s great white hope, the Principality which, embarrassingly, I haven’t visited nearly enough, is quietly impressing me. I know it shouldn’t be a surprise, but since I lost my international cherry back in the early 1990s, my idea of a great road trip usually meant starting in Dover and heading over – or under – the English Channel. So, my initial thoughts about Land Rover’s decision to launch the new Range Rover Sport in the UK had me sigh inwardly at thoughts of congested roads, warm beer and, er, rain.
Actually, as the roads narrow, the traffic thins out and the scenery becomes every prettier, I begin to realise I shouldn’t be worrying. Quite the opposite, in fact – as it seems we’re experiencing some of the best the UK has to offer. It’s not just about scenery, weather and traffic, of course – but driving the new Range Rover Sport brings out feelings of pride at what we’re able to achieve here in Britain when we put our minds to it. Again, my expectations might not have been as high as they might have been – since its introduction in 2005, the Range Rover Sport has been a sizeable sales success for Land Rover, but it was a bit of a compromise, being based on the Discovery 3.
Some people will also tell you that the old Sport developed something of an unfortunate image. Despite its name, it was neither sporting nor agile and, thanks to some late-life facelifting, it began to be adorned by rather unfortunate visual jewellery. Be that is it may, though, it proved popular with city dwellers and, until the arrival of the Evoque, it was the best-selling Range Rover. So, the new one is a very important addition to the portfolio. It’s one also that promises to go far better than before – because, thanks to its shared underpinnings with the L405 Range Rover, there’s been a fundamental change of direction for the Sport.
Visually, the Sport is a good effort, which combines the daring rising shoulder-line/plunging-roof of the Evoque with the top-of-the-line Range Rover’s stately stance, to tread a middle-line between the two. You could argue that it lacks true adventurism, but its two sister models have set out their stall already, leaving the classy, less blingy, Sport to slot in logically somewhere in the middle.
That ‘in-betweener’ approach to design has also taken place inside, with its sophisticated interior architecture being shared with the Evoque and Range Rover – both heavily inspired by the 2001 original. But the Sport’s car-like driving position is stuck somewhere between the Evoque’s more radically reclined front seat and the lofty imperiousness of the top Range Rover. And it works because it’s still commanding enough to have you going eyeball-to-eyeball with Transit drivers – or seeing over those hedges that line the country lanes we’ve been enjoying this morning.
The interior is a triumph of design and, for those used to Range Rovers, the Sport will have you feeling immediately at home. In my trip so far, it feels special thanks to its use of high quality materials and great colour and trim judgment. It’s stacked with equipment and much of the control set is grouped in the high centre console, based around two areas – the large centre touch screen for the gadgets and the centre rotary knob for the transmission. It works well and is logically laid out, once you’ve mastered it all. Only the engine Start button mounted high on the dash and the electric window switches on the door-tops seem out of position. And – joy – it has a traditional gear lever!
As for the all-electronic instrument pack, you’ll either love it or hate it – but there’s no denying it’s useful for displaying the Sport’s vitals in differing drive modes. The boot space is 784 litres, or 27.8cu ft, which is down from 958 litres (or 33.8cu ft) for the old model, but the upsides are a much roomier interior; and the £1500 option of a pair of electrically-operated rear seats mounted in the boot, to bring the total up to seven. That really is a big leap forward.
The first sign that the drive’s a little bit out of the ordinary on that scenic climb out of Sennybridge. We’d driven along a single track road and through a wooden gate that tells us we’re about to enter military ground. Red flags are flying and there are signs telling us of the consequences should we decide to ignore the warnings. The road we’re now driving on is off the sat nav and we’re seeing military vehicles in the valleys around us. On a hillside across one of the wider valleys, in the distance, we see a small village. The mountains are getting steeper and the road more sinuous, but the Sport feels supremely well planted in these conditions.
The first thing that grabs you is the steering. It’s a large car and heavy with it – and, although you never really forget the Sport’s bulk, you soon acclimatise to it, feeling comfortable enough to push into the corners, allowing the steering and suspension to load up and communicate exactly what’s happening below. There’s clearly been a lot of work put into into the EPAS and air suspension systems, with both providing bags of feedback in a precise and well-engineered way. The result of all this work is to give the driver the confidence to push on in an almost GTi-like way.
After two or three miles driving along this sinous route across this little used side of the Brecon Beacons, we’re summoned over to the roadside and invited – by a nice man from Land Rover – to head up a spur road to our right. He’s smiling and says ‘enjoy’ – soon we’re powering up a small gravel track.
Despite the change of surface, there seems to be little difference in the traction available to us and the Sport just digs in, supercharged V8 now bellowing as it gets its first opportunity to really open up. The track is open and sweeps majestically between the trees and it’s here that the balance and poise of the Sport really impress – in the faster, more open, bends it feels neutral and easily controlled. The track begins to tighten, the corners get more challenging and the Sport becomes a bit more of a handful. Braking hard and turning in for hairpins, it feels stable – but, at the first one, our entry speed is a little too high and we miss our exit by a country mile, understeering towards the shrubbery on the outside of the corner. By applying a little more lock and giving it a bit more throttle, the Sport just digs in and rounds the bend. Impressive…
Sadly, our impromptu rally stage ends all too quickly and we feed back out on to the beautiful mountain roads that are casting their spell on me. What becomes evident very quickly in this amazing backdrop is that, with its excellent ride quality and comfortable seats, the Sport is a car that’s painless and rather fun to spend time in if you do want to crack on.
The Supercharged V8 certainly helps with that. With 510bhp and an epic bass-rich soundtrack, it’s easy to love. But it’s hard – if not impossible – to justify in the UK, thanks to its prodigious appetite for petrol and high taxation, even if it’s considerably more efficient than its predecessor. In terms of acceleration and maximum speed, it’s up there with its rivals, 60mph from zero in 5.5 seconds, will run to 100mph, and back to zero again in 17, and tops out at a limited 155mph.
We’re back on the B-roads and pushing on through hilly countryside on sinuous little roads that really do have the Sport – and us – at ease. Whenever the traffic clears, we cruise on at the car’s natural pace – which, thanks to all of that body control and high seating position, is effortlessly quick. It’s no surprise to learn later that these are the roads that JLR’s Chassis Engineers fine-tune the suspension set-ups of their cars. That might explain why so many cars developed in the UK possess high levels of dynamic prowess.
It’s good news, also, to hear that the Nürburgring Nordschleife is reserved for distance and validation work – we’re all getting tired by cars tuned at that place, even if it keeps swathes of Chiropractors in business across the world.
The use of the Range Rover’s underpinnings really do make a massive difference to the Sport’s on-road performance. With its short and long arm front suspension with height-adjustable air springs with a similarly sprung multi-link rear, it’s a complex set-up. The lower-specification models make do with passive damping and anti-roll bars but, higher up the range, there’s electronic active control. Our trip to Wales proved that all of this works well – even better than I expected – and that I need to return in my own time, on my own terms. There, I said it – Wales is great and its roads are even better!
Sadly, our trip across the border is all too short and, within hours of arriving, we’re looping back into England and towards Land Rover’s favourite off-road venue, Eastnor Castle. It’s here that we’re going to learn whether the Sport cuts it as an off-roader as well as it does on the black stuff. Its technical specification certainly points in that direction. The ultra-sophisticated computer-controlled air suspension set-up is also available with an optional two-speed transfer box for ultra-low crawler gears, electronic terrain response, along with the fully adaptive suspension and a torque vectoring system. Very little, it seems, will stop a fully-optioned Sport in its tracks.
We drive into the castle’s grounds and, instead of heading towards the beautiful stately home, we’re directed towards a small, muddy road access road around the perimeter field, where it looks like we’re going green laning. You can leave it in Auto mode and, as the going gets more arduous, which it does, the more the Sport’s electronic systems intervene and compensate – although the test has been devised convincingly by Land Rover, the way the Sport tackles our rutted hills, steep inclines and even a redirected stream are truly impressive.
The All Terrain Response system allocates torque to the wheel with the most traction, allowing car to continue moving, even if three wheels are spinning. Then there’s the air suspension with its huge amount of travel, which under central control, will drop into the deepest ruts in order to maintain contact with the ground. The Sport drives supremely well on road, with a delicacy and balance that’s as welcome as it is surprising. But to be able to combine this with the car’s undoubted off-road ability is a truly staggering achievement.
Then there’s the ability to climb the steepest, most slippery gradients. Basically, as a driver, you plant the throttle going up and the electronics pull you up; while going down the other side, take your feet off and let the latest version of Hill Descent Control to take you down without having to do anything but steer. Using the drive mode controls in the centre console allows the driver to fine tune the transmission’s and suspension’s electronic settings but, for most of the time, Auto will be all you’ll need to get through, even in the most demanding conditions. Finally, mention should be made of the Sport’s 850mm wading depth and the camera-based monitoring system that you can use in the centre-screen – all very impressive stuff.
And it’s this that really sets the Sport apart from its most immediate rivals. Yes, it drives supremely well on road, with a delicacy and balance that’s as welcome as it is surprising. But to be able to combine this with the car’s undoubted off-road ability is a truly staggering achievement. Add this to its superbly-appointed, beautifully-designed interior and you end up with a great product from a company that’s on a high at the moment.
My drive has been brief, but very revealing. I’ve learned that Wales is a great place to hone suspension set-ups and is due some more attention from me – but, far more importantly, its roads have helped shape the Range Rover Sport into the brilliant machine it is. Some will say it’s going to end up being bought by drivers who won’t ever explore the mountains this car can climb, or ford the streams we know it can, but to just know it can, is something its affluent owners should appreciate at every opportunity.
Criticisms? You could say it’s not quite sporting enough, although that leaves the door open for a supercharged R version in the future, and it’s far from cheap when optioned up. But otherwise, it’s a brilliant effort – just how good was probably the reason for my second big surprise of the day…