Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Land Rover is as much an image as a conveyance. The image is that of the great outdoors — a vast savannah in Africa, say, or a mountainside in Montana — coupled with the ability to get there.

The transport has, in times past, often been rude and crude, though mainly capable and reliable in its basic purpose of transporting human beings and their cargo to otherwise inaccessible places.

In recent times, Great Britain’s Land Rover and its top-of-the-line Range Rover have become chic, with celebrities and wannabe celebrities anxious to be seen at the wheel.

Where once Land Rovers and Jeeps held the sport utility field almost exclusively, they now constitute small cadres among the multitudes.

Some counts now place the number of SUV models available in the United States at nearly 100.

In that climate, it becomes ever more important for a small and specialized, albeit iconic, nameplate to maintain its image. However, in today’s harshly competitive motor vehicle environment, that is not possible with patches and rickrack.

It takes design, engineering and, above all, competence — which can get mighty expensive.

The powers at Land Rover understand that, and that is why they have produced the LR3, as technologically advanced an on- and off-road vehicle as you are likely to find anywhere, and certainly the most highly developed Land Rover ever.

The 2005 LR3, all new, replaces the ungainly though capable Discovery in Land Rover’s limited lineup of three SUVs, which now includes the Range Rover, the LR3 and the Freelander, in descending order of cost.

As the newest member of the trinity, the LR3 boasts all of the latest computerized wizardry — especially in its off-road modes, which after all is where the Land Rover reputation resides, venues such as Fifth Avenue and Rodeo Drive notwithstanding.

The heart of the matter is Land Rover’s Terrain Response, controlled by a single rotary knob on the center console.

There are five settings: One for daily city/highway driving, plus one for slippery conditions (designated as grass/gravel/ snow) and three more for off-road slogging.

The system manages all the drive systems.

It works with an electronically controlled two-speed transfer case, which can be shifted while the LR3 is moving, and three differentials, two of which can be locked.

There’s also a hill-descent control that slows the LR3 in extremely steep downhill off-road driving.

Power comes from a new — to Land Rover — V-8 engine, linked to a slick-shifting six-speed automatic transmission. Because Ford now owns both

Jaguar and Land Rover, it was a relatively easy matter to give the LR3 a Jaguar 4.4-liter V-8 with 300 horsepower. The old 1960s-era Buick V-8 that powered the defunct Discovery is history.

In practice, once you become acquainted with the controls, all of this gee-whiz computer stuff works seamlessly.

The only question now is how reliable all this software and wiring will be in the long run.

True off-road driving is something akin to a baby crawling on its hands and knees.

Obstacles are to be crept over carefully, often at less-than-human-walking speeds, with none of those high-speed launches that are the stuff of TV commercials.

Sometimes with a professional on foot outside directing the proper path over boulders and ruts, the new LR3 is true to its heritage, which is to say it can handle just about any terrain.

One nifty feature is an electric parking brake. Stop the LR3 on a hill, reach down and flip the parking-brake lever.

You can sit there all day with your feet off the brake pedal.

When you step on the gas, the brake releases.

But the Land Rover folks have not forgotten that many of their prospective owners may do nothing more challenging than seeking out parking spots in front of upscale stores or restaurants.

So the LR3 has all the luxury accouterments you’d expect in a vehicle that costs about half a hundred thousand.

The LR3 has some of the style of its pricier sibling, the Range Rover.

It also has an unmistakable look of its own, especially from the rear, because of an asymmetrical tailgate that is shorter on one side.

It seems funky, but it turns out that it is quite useful, enhancing access to the rear cargo area as well as providing a perch for tailgating.

The test LR3 was the base SE model, which has a starting price of $44,995. (The top-line HSE starts at $49,995).

Add options such as a cold-weather package (heated front and back seats, windshield and washers), rear air conditioning, a towing kit, a heavy-duty suspension system and a third-row seat package, and the price climbs to $49,370.

The last, which includes side-curtain air bags way back, is a worthwhile option because the seats can actually handle two normal-sized humans, but getting back there takes a bit of athletic ability.

Three people can sit in the second row, though comfort is compromised by the lack of a seatback rake adjustment.

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