“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake. ”
Supercharged Range Rover
To a car driver deprived of his view of the road ahead, an SUV hogging the left lane is hardly a welcome sight. The longer it sits there, the more deeply the car driver ponders its often wasteful bulk, its appetite for gasoline and how brilliant it would be to confine these bloated conveyances to their own clogged stream over there on the far right. Who could possibly love an SUV? The people perched high driving them, that's who.
The vista from the bridge of the 1996 GMC Suburban we used to own was splendid, and the vehicle never failed to accommodate all we could stuff into its cavernous cabin or attach to its hitch. To Nova Scotia, it carried four people and two weeks' vacation supplies; on the way back home, we also loaded a few Maine purchases-two Adirondack chairs and a large copper heron weathervane and its roof-peak cupolas.
But the driver in me could never warm to the heaving and swaying and ponderous motivation that accompanied the Suburban's progress across the landscape. Later models are more car-like in their handling, but ours was a truck-a truck with carpet, three rows of leather seats and a big wayback area for dogs, coolers, lacrosse gear and the Christmas tree, but a truck nonetheless. The vehicle suffered two catastrophic transmission failures, although both times it at least had the decency to expire on our driveway. A 42-gallon tank encouraged its drinking problem, in the mid-teens for mpg.
How does this tale of life with an old Suburban relate to the vehicle at hand here? While not as capacious, the supercharged Range Rover has none of the performance shortcomings of the GMC behemoth I used to live with. For our GMC, SUV stood for serious utility vehicle. The Range Rover, on the other hand, excels as a high-rise sports sedan that can tackle a broad menu of tasks, from swift highway hauling for up to five people to absorbing speed bumps, from fording a streambed in Big Bend country to clambering over rhino dung and bleached bones on the plains of Africa.
Like a Rolls-Royce Phantom, the Range Rover has air suspension for a poised but silken ride on the highway but also, unlike the Roller, for absorbing punishing wilderness terrain. The Range Rover's off-road capabilities warrant a sizeable section in the owner's manual, and they will go to waste without due scrutiny of the book, which explains exactly what all the terrain switches and icons in the vehicle mean.
For example, in the center console is a "terrain response" thumbwheel with five settings: general, for typical road surfaces; grass gravel snow, for firm but slippery surfaces, including ice; mud ruts, for soft, muddy, uneven or deeply rutted ground; sand, for soft, predominantly dry, yielding, sandy ground such as dunes and desert; and rock crawl, selectable only in transfer LOW range and suitable for crossing wet or dry, solid, unyielding ground requiring extreme wheel displacement, such as clusters of boulders or rocky river beds.
The Range Rover's terrain response system is a leap from (and more intuitive than) the simple two/four-wheel/high/low-transfer selector levers in cruder off-roaders. It embraces engine management; gearbox management; intelligent differential control; the dynamic-stability, traction-control and hill descent-control systems; and the air suspension. This intelligence manifests itself as variable throttle response, ranging from cautious for slippery conditions (small effect on engine power from even large pedal movement) to boosted responsiveness-for example, for sand, where engine power is allowed to rise more quickly. It also affects ride height and gear-shift points.
I suspect that one of the more deep-seated subconscious lures of an SUV is its perceived ability to clamber through some indistinct vision of future apocalypse and whisk the family gene pool, along with the kitchen sink, to the safety of the high ground. I've seen this instinct at work in the relative tranquility of the Whole Foods parking lot. Higher gas prices are already eliminating the traditional big SUV as an option for many American families, and I for one can't say I'll mourn its extinction. Still, if one old-school vehicle is allowed to survive, I think it should be the Range Rover, for several reasons.
Yes, it is the original Chelsea Tractor, usually bought more for its whiff of wealthy landowner than for its genuinely capable off-road prowess. Regardless of one's thoughts about the people who buy such a vehicle for suburban errands, however, the vehicle itself is no poser. This swamp buggy looks like a million bucks, and with its supercharger emitting a muffled whine, it will trounce many a "sports car" on the straightaway and harangue it in the curves.
The styling is a bull's-eye: low window sills for surveying the Serengeti or hunting for a parking spot in Kensington; a tapered glasshouse and wide, hefty feet to give the vehicle a solid, stable stance missing from boxier SUVs; and an understated luxury interior of stitched leather and wood, with a headliner that appears to be made of some fine-woven woolen Her Majesty might wear to ward off the chill at Balmoral Castle. The only options (for $2,500) on our well-equipped test car were wood trim (cherry or walnut) and a rear-seat entertainment system consisting of a six-disc DVD player, two headrest displays and remote control. Standard equipment included a 710-watt Harman/Kardon Logic 7 sound system, GPS nav, fine-wire heated windscreen and Brembo front brakes with 14.2-inch rotors.
The credentials for rock-hopping, mud-slogging and wading through up to 27.6 inches of water are there for those who actually need them, but in the environment where most Range Rovers accrue their miles, these vehicles are appreciated for their effortless performance as the same 400-hp, 420-ft-lb supercharged V8 found under the hoods of Tata stablemate Jaguar's XJR and XKR propels the luxuriously appointed cabin from the apocalypse receding in the rear-view mirror. This is a heck of a good place to be when all hell breaks loose, or even if it never does.
Supercharged Range Rover stats
Engine: V8, 4.2 liters, supercharged, 32 valves
Engine output: 400 hp @ 5750 rpm; 420 lb-ft @ 3500 rpm
Transmission: six-speed automatic
Weight: curb, 5,842 lb
Power loading: 14.6 lb/hp
Drag cd: 0.39
Top speed: 130 mph
Zero to 60 mph: 7.1 sec
Fuel capacity: 27.6 gals
City/highway (EPA): 12/18 mpg
Test average: 14.3 mpg
Standard retail price (2008): $94,100
Price as tested (2008): $96,600
Chevy Tahoe Hybrid: The Incredible Thinking Hulk
If you're wincing at the cost of running a full-family vehicle that can tow your three-ton boat, GM has the Hybrid Tahoe. It's the familiar big GM SUV but with a "two-mode" hybrid gas-electric propulsion system that GM claims improves on the standard Tahoe's mpg by up to 50 percent. Over the course of a weekend earlier this year, I drove the hybrid 346 miles on open highways and in traffic and achieved 21.9 mpg, in line with GM's claim.
Like other hybrids and depending on the demands placed on it, this one moves three ways-on gas alone, on electric alone or on a combination of the two. Unlike most hybrids, the Tahoe retains a massive six-liter V8 to provide towing grunt, but this one can shut down half its cylinders when they're not needed. The transition between eight and four and back again is almost imperceptible, and a far cry from GM's failed "V8-6-4" of the early 1980s.
The Tahoe also has more brain power than your average hybrid, says GM, the better to evaluate the conundrum of how best to keep the vehicle moving for the least expenditure of energy. It conceals its machinations well, and about the only insight into its decisions and adjustments comes from the "economy" gauge in the instrument cluster. Its needle moved counter-intuitively, however, swinging left (toward empty on a gas gauge) as the gas engine cut out or I touched the brakes and gave back some energy usually lost overboard. As the Tahoe accelerated and burned more energy, the needle swung right, as if toward the F on a gas gauge. This $50,000 smart behemoth has figured out how to save gas, no doubt, but it's still working on the lingo.