In any discussion where the topic is the most capable SUVs, the merits of the Land Rover marque are sure to be a big part of the conversation. It’s also inevitable that someone will mention that the top line Range Rover has been the favorite sport-ute of British royalty since its introduction more than 30 years ago. Well, the queen’s got a brand new SUV, only unlike her old one, the 2003 Range Rover is packed full of German engineering and technology.
That’s because when the powers that be at Land Rover decided it was time to spruce up the legendary Range Rover for 2003, the revered British marque was under the care and ownership of German automaker BMW. Land Rover has since been acquired by Ford, but not before the new Range Rover’s Bavarian characteristics were firmly in place. So, to experience the Range Rover’s new continental character and its attendant lifestyle, we were invited to the Queen’s backyard, the rugged Highlands of Scotland.
Our first encounter with the new Range Rover came when our charter flight from London touched down at the Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre Kinloss, near Inverness. ARCC provides round-the-clock Search and Rescue operations for civilians anywhere on the UK mainland, and its attendant islands and seas. That’s an area of approximately 3 million square miles.
At first glance, the new Range Rover’s Germanic influences aren’t glaringly noticeable. Its right-angle profile is unmistakably Range Rover, although this new model is considerably larger than its predecessor. Wheelbase has been increased 5.3 inches to 113.4, and overall length has been stretched by a substantial 9.3 inches to 194.9. The new Range Rover is also 1.8 inches taller, and while the body itself has grown 2.6 inches wider, overall width, including the mirrors, has been reduced by 1.5 inches.
Styling cues are also a blend of old and new. A cluster of high tech-looking projector lamps flank a more modern interpretation of the horizontal grille and clamshell hood, and the bullet-style fog lamps that are integrated into the formidable bumper. New, fully functional “Brunel-finish” power vents now grace the front fenders, while at the rear, one still finds the traditional horizontally split tailgate.
Underneath the new Range Rover’s still-aluminum bodywork, Land Rover engineers have replaced traditional body on ladder-frame construction with a Freelander-style unitized steel chassis. Which pays handsome dividends in body panel fit, off-road capability, and on-road refinement. The latter of which we began to experience in earnest once we left the security of the ARCC Kinloss compound and headed for the Highlands.
In addition to its stiff chassis, even more responsible for the Range Rover’s on and off road prowess is the new fully independent suspension. MacPherson air struts are employed up front, and a double wishbone set up with air springs are used in the rear. Another important suspension feature is the self-leveling Electronic Air Suspension system. Although similar in many ways to the system used in past models, EAS now has interconnected cross-link valves at all four wheels. Allowing the spring rates to be stiffened for a more controlled on-road ride, and softened when off-road to allow for greater wheel articulation.
We found the whole package to work quite well as we carved our way up the northwest coast. The Range Rover’s highway ride is smooth and controlled, more in keeping with a luxury sedan than rugged SUV. Steering is precise, although Germanic-vague in feel, and the suspension geometry is so well laid out and balanced, that even hard cornering at speed didn’t loosen the grip of the beefy all-terrain tires mounted on 18 wheels or induce more than just a touch of understeer.
Should you push the Range Rover past reasonable limits, the Dynamic Stability Control system will reign you in. The DSC system has also been calibrated to work with the Range Rover’s permanent four-wheel drive and 4-wheel Electronic Traction Control systems so that in off-road situations, where keeping forward momentum is important, the engine intervention component of the system can be disabled via a dash mounted switch. The low range transfer case has been designed to keep you moving forward too, as it can now be engaged and disengaged on the fly when the 5-speed automatic Steptronic transmission is popped into neutral. When you do need to slow your progress, as when descending steep grades, Hill Descent Control works with the Electronic Traction control system on the large 13 inch brake discs at the corners to keep your speed in check.
After a day of navigating through a variety of off-road terrain in the Highlands, we can vouch that the new Range Rover’s added refinement on-road hasn’t diminished its off-road capability. It’s still every bit the mountain goat its heritage demands.
Putting the Range Rover in motion is now up to BMW’s 4.4 liter, DOHC, 32 valve V8 displacing 282 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. Similar to the 4.4 found in the BMW X5 SUV and 7-series sedan, in the Range Rover it has been tweaked to meet Land Rover specs, including dual throttle maps matched to on and off-road responsive needs. The 4.4 is a perfect match for the 5,379 pound Range Rover with plenty of power to move it smartly down the road. For power hungry owners of previous models who yearned for a swifter kick in the pants, your Range Rover is here.
But while we consider driving all day to be fun, it was nice to finally arrive at our headquarters for the trip, the plush, yet homey environs of Skibo Castle. Situated on the 7,500 acre Skibo Estate, Skibo Castle is best known as the summer home of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie who purchased it in 1898. With over 50 rooms, two golf courses, a shooting range, and plenty of great fishing, Carnegie created the ideal place to entertain guests that ranged from kings to commoners. We also found it an ideal place to unwind after a long day on the road.
Of course it would be nearly criminal to visit Scotland without tasting a wee dram of single malt Scotch, and just down the road from Skibo is the Glenmorangie distillery. There we were transported to sample a variety of single malts made exactly the way they were when the distillery was first licensed 150 years ago. As well as a traditional Scottish meal, including haggis, accompanied by some spirited music. You know, someone has to do this job.
Almost as plush as our living quarters is the Range Rover’s interior. Soft leather and tasteful wood accents abound, as well as a vast array of power and electronic gadgets. Including a GPS navigation system that we found greatly reduced the initial stress of driving on the “wrong” side of the pond and road. The ignition key is mounted on the console along with the Hill Descent Control and Low Range selector switches. The rear cargo hold includes a cargo cover for keeping things out of sight, and 60/40 split folding seat backs to increase its capacity.
Us commoners will have to increase our earning capacity if we want to purchase a new Range Rover when it goes on sale in June. Although at $69,995 that’s nearly the price of the current model. And it’s still cheaper by several thousand dollars than the Mercedes G500.
By adding a higher, multi-national level of refinement to its on-road ride, handling, and powertrain, while still maintaining its staunchly British reputation to tackle just about anything Mother Nature throws its way, we think the 2003 Land Rover Range Rover is more than able to champion the Land Rover marque well into the 21st century. And after conquering the Scottish Highlands, we’re more than convinced it will still be the Queen’s favorite SUV.
Engine: 4.4 Liter, Dohc, 32-valve V8
Torque: 295 Lb Feet