Land Rover's idea of a sporty SUV is quite unlike anyone else's. Expect buyers to vote for it en masse…
By John Howell / Wednesday, 7 September 2022 / Loading comments
The can be only one. No, not Highlander – Range Rover. That’s what people used to say about Range Rover in the good old days. Which turned out to be absolute poppycock, of course, because one became two, then three and then four. Who knows, there may be even more Range Rovers someday. And rather than this massive expansion diluting the brand, it’s been quite the opposite: a case of divide and conquer. Has Range Rover ever been in ruder health? Whether it’s the latest full-fat model (the L460) that was introduced earlier this year, the Evoque, Velar or Sport, they just cannot build them fast enough. The world, it seems, is still hell-bent on a Range Rover love-in.
It’s almost blind faith. There’s every chance the boys from Solihull could slap a Range Rover badge and set of 23-inch rims onto a shopping trolley, tell you it’s the new Range Rover Sport, and someone out there would still stump up the £80,325 starting price. They haven’t done that, though, and the new Sport (code-named the L461) is far from a cynical revamp. But you can have 23-inch rims if you want.
As far as the Sport is concerned it’s an all-new model, but underpinning it is pretty much everything that we’ve seen with the latest full-fat Range Rover. This is a good thing, because we rather like the current Range Rover. The MLA-Flex architecture that sits at its core was part of a huge investment programme by JLR. Many thousands of hours’ work and at least 125 registered patents later, the result is a platform that’s bang up to date. It’s 35 per cent torsionally stiffer than what’s gone before; it’s capable of running all the latest assistance systems; it’s ushered in new features, such as over-the-air software updates and rear-wheel steering; and all that combined with massively improved NVH levels. And it will see the Range Rover and this new Sport into the electrified future, with a range of plug-in hybrids that are available now, along with the full battery versions that will arrive in 2024.
Another thing that’s new for this generation of Sport is Matt Becker. The ex-Lotus and Aston dynamic’s guru is a fitting replacement for Mike Cross, who retired from JLR last year. Becker was on hand to talk us through the new Sport and some of the challenges of working for a much larger operation like JLR. The size of the team for a start. Becker told me that at its height, the engineering team at Aston numbered around 700. At JLR it’s currently knocking on the door of 10,000. He’s good for a few juicy quotes, too, because he’s a straight talker. He told me he thought simulators “were a load of b*ll*cks” until he started using them for development work at Aston, and found them “extremely helpful”. Now he’s at JLR he has access to two: one that’s 15 years old and another that’s just been finished and is state-of-the-art. On the subject of simulators, he also mentioned that Cross used to come out “as white as a sheet” after using them. They’d make him travel sick, which apparently is quite common.
After he started, Becker organised a drive of the prototype L461 to the Nürburgring. This wasn’t about doing laps of the ‘Ring, but seeing JLR’s testing facility over there, getting to know his team (he said he much prefers face-to-face meetings than Zoom calls) and he also wanted to understand the new car and its rivals better. Becker had a hand in the L460, but by the time he joined that was mostly finished. This is the first JLR project that he’s had real influence over, and after driving it to Germany he said straight away “it needed further differentiating from the Range Rover”. It needed more of a sporting identity.
That’s always been the funny thing about the Range Rover Sport. The original Sport (the L320) that arrived in 2005 was based on the Discovery platform, including its heavy monocoque body mounted on a ladder chassis. I can remember three things about that Sport: the seats were great, it looked ungainly and it really wasn’t that sporty. At best they should’ve called it the Range Rover Sportier.
So to get the third-generation Sport more in tune with its name there are a few key differences between this and the bigger car. Starting with the use of switchable-volume air springs, which replace the single-chamber springs from the bigger Range Rover. These offer greater scope to limit roll, pitch and dive, while also keeping the car pliant. The dampers are the same Bilstein twin-valve mono tubes but with new damping rates. The rear-wheel steering, which moves by up to 7.3 degrees, has also been re-calibrated but that and the active anti-roll bars aren’t standard. They are on big brother, but on the Sport you have to opt for the P530 V8 or the P510e plug-in to get them. Or you can add the £5,330 Storm Handling pack, and this also adds an electronic rear differential into the mix.
On the launch I tried a spread of engines, starting with the same P530 V8. I drove this last week in the full-sized Range Rover. In that, the conclusion was “nice but not really necessary”. Well, it’s the same here, too. Nice, because it has 530hp, so it’s easily the most determined of all the engines available – hitting 0-62mph in just 4.5 seconds. And it revs out with a proper crescendo, while delivering this lovely, refined, off-beat V8 woofle. There are some slight driveability issues, though. It’s a little light on pull-away torque, and once then once you’re past that it has a tendency to flare a bit as the boost comes in, leading to some slow-speed lurching. You’ll also struggle to hit 20mpg, which is why it feels unnecessary, especially when there are many excellent alternatives. These include…
If you’re wedded to the idea of petrol, then how about the P400 as a more sensible bet? For a start, the mild hybrid tech makes it less snatchy at low revs, so if you’re stuck in traffic or pulling away from junctions, you’ll actually find the take-off can be smoother. And it sounds nearly as smooth all the way to the red line, too, just with a pleasing six-cylinder howl and some turbocharged rush as the revs climb to maximum. I wouldn’t say it’s the most exciting power delivery, because it’s quite linear and doesn’t finish with a flourish, but it’s undoubtedly quick (0-62mph in 5.7 seconds) and more wallet-friendly, too. Officially, it’ll hit 30mpg.
But the mild hybrid diesels are, to me, still the obvious choice. And I say that with the caveat that I didn’t get to drive the D300, which was the only diesel on the launch, but I know how good it is from my previous experience. And the more powerful D350, which was just superb in the Sport’s bigger brother and unlikely to be anything less than that here. So much so, I wouldn’t bet against it being the pick of the range. It offers supreme driveability for a start, thanks to its easily accessed 516lb ft of torque. And it delivers sub-six-second acceleration, smooth six-cylinder tones and 35mpg officially. What’s not to love?
Well, maybe that it is a diesel, I suppose. That is a shame but it’s the way it is, which brings us to the plug-ins. If you want to have the cheapest company car tax then this is the only way until the BEV arrives. There’s no real compromise, though. Having tried the most powerful P510e, it’s an excellent alternative to DERV to be fair. The engine and transmission work seamlessly together 99 per cent of the time (it’s a bit stepped if you floor it in EV mode and then the engine comes in at maximum attack) and it’s beautifully quiet in dignified while driving on the electric motor. And it’ll do that for 70 miles on the WLTP cycle (around 50 miles in reality) with a 0 to 80 per cent 50kW DC charging time of under an hour. It’s not boring, either, because there’s the same delectable six-cylinder note as the P400 when the petrol engine is running, only here the power delivery is more engaging. It has all the low-end flexibility you need plus it builds in intensity all the way to the limiter on the way to chalking up 62mph in 5.4 seconds.
What about the Sport’s handling? Well, it still doesn’t feel up there with a Cayenne on ultimate country road pace that’s for sure. Talking to Becker, this was never the deal, though. Instead, it was to create a package that, much as always, still offers a luxury car feel – with a comfortable ride – but more added capability if you decide to press on. And the ability to head far off-road, naturally, which we did and we’ll get onto in a bit.
The Sport’s re-tuned rear-wheel steering is more aggressive than it is on the Range Rover. Sometimes, but not always, you can feel it moving the car from the rear as you turn into a bend at speed – rather than just when you’re in town and it’s helping you around tight turns. Overall, the Sport’s steering feels slower than a Cayenne’s, though, and there’s none of the Cayenne’s tactility in terms of the surface being mapped at your fingertips. It makes it remote, sure, yet along a snaking Spanish mountain road you can tease the Sport along easily and with a light touch because it’s quite accurate.
There’s a decent sense of connection around the centre in the P400 and P510e. The P530 V8, just as it was with the full-size Range Rover, takes a few more degrees before you feel the weight build. And when it does it ramps up quite quickly – noticeably more than it does in the Range Rover – and it’s not the most natural sensation. Rather than a typical mid-bend holding torque, it feels more like it’s trying to return the wheel to centre. It’s not poor by any means, just not completely natural.
The main thing is it’s still a big car. You feel this in its width on a narrow road and the way it pushes on turns. However, it’s far more stable than the big Range Rover. It doesn’t lean to anywhere near the same degree so, while it’s not a car you hustle for pleasure, it’s still a car that you can hustle to get somewhere in a hurry. If you want. It has enough grip and good manners to be effective, just not incisive.
The brakes, like the steering, have been given more bite, too. Again, for some reason, I didn’t gel with the V8’s, which seemed a bit snatchy. The pedal was easier to meter in the other versions I tried, with more progression on light to mid-duty stops. Really hit the pedal hard and it goes a bit wooden but the stopping power is effective.
As I said, all the cars I was given were dripping in handling aids, so I cannot tell you what a standard Sport is like on, say passive roll bars and without rear-wheel steer. That assessment will have to wait for another day. I can tell you that the versions I tried rode well, though. It’s firmer than the regular Range Rover, which you feel over sharp compressions, but in the main there’s no jolt. No jerks. Indeed, over one section of really poor road, which was broken down to an almost cobblestone effect, it damped it out really well. And it still has just enough of the float – that last bit of elasticity over long-wave undulations – to give the ride a real plush, luxurious feel. When you feel it, you say to yourself “Oh, that was nice”, because it is.
The lack of road noise is another aspect that justifies the Sport’s ever-grander price tag – the P530 First Edition is a whopping £116,190. At times it really is deathly quiet if you’re in a car fitted with the noise cancelling tech. This comes with the top-end stereo. It uses six microphones located in the front and rear wheel arches to sample unwanted noise, then play ‘anti-noise’ through speakers in the front and rear headrests. As I say, it works brilliantly, and even without that system the Sport still doesn’t produce much rumble unless the surface is really coarse. Wind noise, on the other hand, can get a little gusty. In truth, is only because everything else is so quiet that it’s a problem.
So yes, it’s beaten on-road by a Cayenne, or an X5 for that matter, but off-road – well, there’s simply no contest. The Sport now comes with Terrain Response 2 that has Adaptive Off-Road Cruise Control (an evolution of All Terrain Progress Control), offering pre-set speeds to allow the driver to focus on steering, as well as Configurable Terrain Response and even a Wade Mode for the perfect bow wave to keep you going through water up to 900mm deep. And the crucial stats are a maximum ground clearance of 281mm, a maximum articulation of 546mm, an approach angle of 33 degrees, a breakover angle of 26.9 degrees and a departure angle of 30 degrees. All of those numbers take a small tumble if you opt for a Dynamic model (with sportier bumpers) or a PHEV (with more vulnerable batteries). It all means it’ll do things off-road that seemed inconceivable prior to tackling them. I am talking genuinely, bottom-clenching descents over loose ground and transitions; things that even had the Sport’s wheel articulation at full stretch and rocking with two of them off the ground, but it managed it all. Everything. With a bit of expert guidance, it must be said – for me, not the car.
Inside, the Sport is very much like the bigger Range Rover. The driving position is superb, as are the seats, which support you effortlessly for hour after hour, and I’ve now done many hours at the wheel. The materials look smart, too, and there’s a huge array of options to spec it how you wish – including multiple variations of veneers and vegan or natural leathers. Press and prod the interior and it’s very well put together, too, and most of the switchgear is lifted straight from the bigger model. The difference is mainly around the centre console, which is a floating design that sets the climate control buttons – notice the word buttons, not icons – at a shallower angle than the ‘proper’ Range Rover. You don’t feel short-changed, that’s for sure. Reliability? Well, we’ll have to see, but nothing dropped off during our miles together.
Other similarities with the bigger car include the Pivi Pro infotainment, which, as I mentioned, comes with over-the-air updates now as well as standard Amazon Alexa. It’s operated through the same, centrally mounted 13.1-inch central curved touchscreen, running the same software as the Range Rover. It really is the same, which means it works well. The menus need some acclimatising to, but they’re not unfathomable for long, and when you press an icon the response time is usually swift. It also looks sharp – literally, as in the definition (including the 13.7-inch driver display) and metaphorically, as in the graphics. The slot for the 15-watt wireless charger is my only gripe – it’s just under the infotainment screen and deep, so it swallows your phone and makes it easy to walk off and forget it.
Because the Sport has the same wheelbase as the larger car, it’s just as large inside, too. Makes sense, doesn’t it? This means that if you’re like me (tall and gangly) you’ll have plenty of head and legroom in the front, and because it’s so wide, loads of space to spread out sideways as well. In the rear, I can fit behind myself (as in my driving position) with a slither of knee room to spare. Other ‘normal’ people with ‘normal’ legs keep telling me I am in fact a freak and it’s ridiculously spacious. As is the boot, which won’t have trouble swallowing luggage for five.
So the Range Rover Sport, then… After all these years, the truth is it’s still not that sporty, it still has nice seats and it looks way better than the original. And all that’s fine. It never was trying to be a full-bore rival to the Cayenne and it still isn’t. It’s a car you can pick up the pace in and not fall off the road – just forget all about lap times. Those are for the nouveau brigade of high-end SUVs. This is doing sport the Range Rover way: by not being terribly sporty at all, but rather quiet and comfy and well mannered. And why change? It’s a formula that’s worked very well so far. So I reckon the other thing that won’t change is the sales. Land Rover will sell bucket loads of them, and deserve to as well.
Specification | 2023 Range Rover Sport P400
Engine: 2,996cc, straight-six, turbocharged, mild hybrid
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 400 @ 5,500-6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 406 @ 2,000-5,000rpm
0-62mph: 5.7 seconds
Top speed: 150mph
Weight: 2,310kg (DIN)
MPG: 30.1 (WLTP)
CO2: 213g/km (WLTP)
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