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Land Rover Range Rover Gets Even Bigger for 2003

By Joe Wiesenfelder

The Midwest Automotive Media Association's fall road rallye on October 4 allowed journalists to test drive new 2003 models. Here are some first impressions of the 2003 Land Rover Range Rover by Vehicle Profiler Joe Wiesenfelder.

2003 Land Rover Range Rover
($71,865 with destination charge)
LINCOLNSHIRE, Ill. — It’s easy to think of the luxury sport utility vehicle as a new phenomenon, but Land Rover has built its flagship Range Rover for 32 years and sold it in this country since 1987. The 2003 model is the second complete redesign and third generation. It’s also completely sold out for the year and — let’s face it — too expensive for the likes of you and me. But it features some interesting technical innovations, and Land Rover communications manager Bill Baker was on hand with some interesting anecdotes, so let’s lean back, fire up the heated steering wheel and play “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

Though it’s a bit longer and taller, the new Range Rover looks quite a bit like the previous generation if you don’t know what to look for. The key differences are probably the multi-reflector headlights and the vents on the side of the front fenders. I’m simply not a fan of the Discovery, and I think the Freelander came to our shores about four years too late to gain any ground, but the Range Rover is something of a phenomenon. Its interior design and materials are gorgeous, and you can’t help but feel stately peering over the boxy vehicle’s hood, which Baker pointed out is “the largest single stamped aluminum automotive part in the world.”

Land Rover is now owned by Ford Motor Company, but you may recall that BMW owned it for a spell in the late ’90s. As the new Mini Cooper proves, worse things can happen to a British make than to have BMW own it, and even though the time was brief, BMW and Land Rover engineers managed to do some nifty things that are reflected in the 2003 Model. “It’s a unibody, but it’s a unibody that has a chassis welded to it, and then subframes for the front and rear suspensions and differentials — very heavy duty,” Baker assured me. “The torsional rigidity is one of the stiffest in the world.”

The design came about after Land Rover demonstrated for its German owners a dynamic snatch recovery, whereby one offroad vehicle dislodges another, bogged vehicle by attaching a semi-elastic nylon strap to it, frame to frame, and using a running start to yank it free. “Their eyes got big because they’d intended to base this model on the same platform as the X5, and the X5 won’t take that kind of recovery,” Baker said. “Now you could, if you wanted to, lift this vehicle by its front recovery hook and hang three X5s off the back recovery hook — it’s that strong.”

Sadly, there were no cranes or X5s around, because I would have taken him up on it.

The Range Rover is now powered by a 4.4-liter BMW V-8. It’s the middle of three engines offered on the X5, but it underwent some modification for this use, particularly its oil system. The Range Rover is fully offroad capable — is in fact claimed (like several other SUVs) to be the most capable vehicle in the world — where the X5 is more about onroad performance. The oil pan and other components were redesigned because, as Baker explained it, the Range Rover is required in its verification stage to sit facing up a 45-degree hill, engine idling, for two hours without overheating — in Dubai. It also has to be able to navigate a 40-degree side slope, for which lubrication can be challenging.

Previous Range Rovers and current Discoverys have always utilized solid-axle, non-independent suspensions, front and rear — what you might call no-wheel independent suspension. Though they’re widely pooh-poohed for their onroad performance, solid axles have real advantages on uneven terrain. When the suspension is fully compressed on one side — say, climbing over a rock — the axle’s weight and tendency to pivot on the differential pushes the opposite wheel downward so it’s more likely to contact the ground. With independent suspensions, this doesn’t happen, and the opposite wheel is more likely to stay in the air.

Land Rover’s solution involves the air springs, a feature that was standard on the previous model. In the 2003, the left and right air bladders are cross-linked, so when one is compressed, air transfers to the opposite one, which pushes that wheel down and levels the body. Land Rover took it a step further with pneumatic actuators that raise and lower the front and rear differentials. The previous model’s selectable ride height would raise the body off the axle, improving its ground clearance and increasing the approach and departure angles, but would leave the axle clearance the same. The 2003 raises the differentials as well, and the minimum ground clearance along with it, a full 2 inches to 11.1 inches.

The air springs also automatically lower the vehicle 0.8 inch when the vehicle hits highway speed, for better stability and aerodynamics. As before, there’s a selectable access mode that lowers the body 2 inches from the default height for ease of entry. What’s different now is that a button on the driver’s door triggers this mode at slow speeds when you’re parking or pulling over to load or unload yourself or passengers. The previous model required the SUV to be stopped with the transmission in Park and the driver’s foot off the brake. The system also allows you to lock into this low mode for creeping into or out of a low-ceilinged parking structure.

Some manufacturers swear by locking differentials, but Land Rover does completely without them. Its four-wheel drive is a permanent system with a Torsen (torque-sensing) center differential that shifts torque between the front and rear axles. The rest is handled by standard four-wheel ABS-based traction control. Naturally there’s a dual-range transfer case, which has another new trick: It can be shifted from low to high gear on the fly. To engage low, one must stop, put the transmission in neutral and flick a switch on the center console. At up to 30 mph, one can then flick the switch and momentarily pop the transmission from drive to neutral and back, and the transfer case shifts up, presumably before you lose much momentum. Baker said this is especially handy for people who are pulling, say, a boat trailer up a ramp and don’t want to stop and lose traction while shifting from four-low to four-high.

Land Rover’s Hill Descent Control, which made its debut on the Freelander compact SUV, uses the ABS to maintain control on steep downhill grades. In the Range Rover, it operates in high gear.

So, did I drive this truck? Of course I did. The drivetrain is impressive, and sounds pretty good too. The system is designed for climbing and pulling torque, not top-end speed, but it’s rather quick. Land Rover cites the zero-to-60 mph time as 9 seconds. The five-speed transmission operates exactly like BMW automatics, though Land Rover calls the clutchless-manual mode CommandShift. Sliding the gear selector into the sequential-shifting gate activates a fully automatic sport mode with higher shift points. Once you press the lever up or down, it goes into manual mode and stays in whatever gear you choose until you return the lever to the primary Drive position.

If it makes you feel any better, this paragon of luxury and capability isn’t perfect. It exhibits body roll — quite a bit, actually — and it’s not as quiet as I would like. It includes a cassette player behind the LCD screen, but the six-CD changer is a magazine type located in the upper section of the glove compartment, out of the driver’s reach. Also, the GPS-based navigation system uses CD-ROMs rather than a DVD. Please! Even the commonfolk have DVD navigation!

Oh, who am I kidding. If I had the money and wanted one of the claimed world’s most capable vehicles — which arguably include the Hummer H1 and Mercedes-Benz G500 — the Range Rover wins, hands-down. Baker said a rabid consumer recently paid someone $15,000 for his place on the Range Rover waiting list. Add that to the sticker price and whatever markup the dealers are inevitably adding, and you’re probably still in line with the price of the Hummer H1. Or you could just get in line for 2004.

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My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....
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