- The Washington Times - Friday, September 20, 2002

It's not something you'd expect inside a squarish, large sport-utility vehicle known for its world-traversing, four-wheel-drive capability.
But the 2003 Land Rover Range Rover has a beautiful dashboard, so striking with its novel wood "beams" highlighting the center console area that it would be perfectly at home inside the pages of Architectural Digest.
It's just one of many firsts in this new Land Rover flagship vehicle, which is only the third-generation Range Rover since 1970.
The 2003 model also is the first Range Rover to ride on an all-independent suspension with rack-and-pinion steering, and construction using a combined body and frame unit like cars do. It offers more power than any previous Range Rover, thanks to a BMW-built, 282-horsepower V-8.
The reason for all the updates?
The British-built Range Rover, despite a rich heritage of off-road adventures around the globe and a high-brow customer list that includes British royalty, was losing sales as the luxury SUV segment the Range Rover pioneered in the 1970s became overrun by competitors.
For example, U.S. sales of Range Rovers fell from 6,287 in 2000 to 5,771 last year. Meanwhile, Cadillac sold 31,270 of its luxury Escalade SUVs last year, up from 23,346 in 2000.
No wonder Land Rover raised the starting manufacturer's suggested retail price for the re-engineered new model by only $1,300. The price is $69,995, including destination charge. The vehicle comes with permanent four-wheel drive as a standard feature.
The 2003 Cadillac Escalade starts at $50,480 for two-wheel-drive version, and the 2003 Lincoln Navigator starts at $48,775 for its two-wheel drive.
Land Rover officials forecast Range Rover sales in the United States of about 6,000 this year, with an expectation they could reach almost 11,000 as the new-generation vehicle takes hold.
Sales of the new model started June 1.
The test 2003 model had noticeably improved fit and finish compared with earlier versions. Body gaps outside and interior trim pieces were consistent and nicely matched up throughout.
Styling outside is instantly Range Rover, with a familiar, tall, blockish body that now is some 9 inches longer and 2 inches taller than its already sizable predecessor.
But headlights and taillights have a modern touch, and the Range Rover's unit body presents a clean, uncluttered appearance compared with today's cladding-laden SUVs.
Its combined body-frame construction unit provides improved stiffness and better handling. Combined with rack-and-pinion steering, it affords a greater sense of control and more confidence on twisty mountain roads. For example, body motions for this vehicle more than 6 feet tall feel better managed than in earlier Range Rovers; steering is more precise.
Riders sit up high, getting a good view of everything in front and to the sides. There is some blocking of the view to the rear and right because of back-seat head restraints.
And yes, despite an air suspension that lowers the vehicle almost imperceptibly, the Range Rover does take a bit of a climb to get inside.
An all-independent suspension using MacPherson struts up front and a double-wishbone configuration at the back gives the Range Rover a much better ride on pavement less truckish and less bouncy than its predecessors.
Wind noise, despite the squared-off styling, is surprisingly muted.
But press on the accelerator for some aggressive power and the exhaust note is there, satisfying and confident.
This is the first time a Range Rover has a sophisticated, multivalve BMW engine. In fact, much of the engineering work for this model was done under the auspices of BMW of Germany. BMW used to own Land Rover in the 1990s before selling the company to Ford Motor Co. in 2000.
The new Range Rover's 4.4-liter, double-overhead-cam, 90-degree V-8 generates 282 horsepower and 325 foot-pounds of torque at 3,600 rpm. It made this heavy SUV move with authority during the test drive.
The company's 9-second time for the Range Rover to get from standstill to 60 mph is commendable. It compares with 10.7 seconds for an Escalade and 9.8 seconds for a Lexus LX 470.
The new gasoline engine also compares with 222 horsepower and 300 foot-pounds of torque at 2,600 rpm of the General Motors Corp.-developed, 4.6-liter V-8 found in the previous model. The new engine is mated to another first: an automatic transmission with five gears as well as a shift-for-yourself mode that doesn't require a clutch pedal.
This feature, found in many sports cars, adds an unexpected sporty touch to the Range Rover. Another new feature allows the driver to shift from high range to low while the vehicle is still in motion; previously, this was done with the vehicle stopped.
Of course, the Range Rover really shines off road, where ground clearance 11.1 inches provides ample room to straddle rocks and wayward debris without damaging mechanicals underneath.
This SUV's full-time, four-wheel-drive system keeps all wheels working aggressively in muddy conditions, and low range adds another level of keep-the-wheels-moving capability if the going gets tough.
If you come upon a hill that looks slick or steep, you can engage the Range Rover's updated, electronic Hill Descent Control (HDC), designed to keep you moving down the hill at a controlled, slow speed.
Used with the new Torsen torque-sensing center differential, HDC relies on controlled, electronic braking to manage downhill speeds off road.
In fact, with HDC on, I looked like an off-road pro heading down a hillside so steep it had me dangling from the driver's seat, held back only by the seat belt.
All I had to do was steer correctly, keeping my foot away from the brake and accelerator while HDC managed the braking and speed. It kept the vehicle controlled on the hillside.
Though large and heavy, the Range Rover went through large dips and gullies with skill.
Don't buy a 2003 model without checking out the cherry wood trim. Lighter than the burled walnut, it really highlights the center support beam appearance, adding a more contemporary look.
There are more safety features in this vehicle than any before it. They include anti-lock brakes, electronic traction control, emergency brake assist and side air bags.
Alas, despite its length, it doesn't include third-row seating, which many American families prefer these days.
Fuel economy is unimpressive for the 5,300-pound-plus vehicle; and the pricier premium unleaded fuel is required.

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