Forty years ago, the plan was beautiful: take the first Range Rover to Morocco to show off its dune-stalking, terrain-conquering prowess and bedazzle the world's press. A popular uprising has a way of changing history and itineraries--like so (sweeps arm across desk)--so the launch was scrubbed.
Fast-forward to 2013 and there's a new Range Rover, and this time we were among the bedazzled-to-be that charted a path for Morocco, to hook up with the global first drive. After a year of seeing Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Algeria break out in unrest and outright revolution, the omens were dark. Only this time, the problem wasn't civil, it was meteorological. Perfectly timed for our American-media wave, Morocco was hit by unseasonable monsoons and an almost unfathomable gale.
Wait...isn't this the Sahara Desert?
Not quite, and Morocco isn't quite the outpost to nowhere you might conjure up from an old Encyclopedia Britannica. It's been a nation as long as America, but only independent in its latest form since the 1950s. It's physically stunning, rimmed with Atlantic sand and capped with some of west Africa's highest mountains in the Atlas range. Think Arizona and New Mexico, only doubled. It's a monarchy with a foot planted in Islam and a hand extended to the West, with 30 million people today, a number that's growing rapidly.
Cooler yet, just three hours and change from London by plane, Morocco was a popular refuge in the Sixties and Seventies for rock stars looking for a place to tune in, and drop out. Morrison made a pilgrimage here. So did Hendrix. And of course, so did Zeppelin. From touchdown, you know why--it's Kashmir for day trippers. And now, we're finally here.
And it's already raining.
The Range Rover would be the vehicle you'd want in your corner when the skies curdle. So while we'd planned to scud across sand dunes and kick up roostertails of video delight, baked by late October sun, we're stalking drizzle and making muddy new trails from the moment we press the start button. Forty years ago we might have been carving new paths up the hillsides that are rapidly being compromised as we head out for a 400-kilometer drive down the shore to Essaouira, then inland over the mountains to the metropolis of Marrakesh. As it turns out, we'd be doing the same thing this time.
Back then, we'd have been cutting the trail in a more rudimentary country-estate wagon that wouldn't be in its element until it was rolling around in the elements. Today, we're cruising in the $135,000 Range Rover Supercharged Autobiography, a leather-lined, wood-empaneled piece of art, sharing an Unhappy Meal with Adele through 29 speakers and 1,700 watts of digitally processed sound on the way to a hotel with the word "Palace" in its name, and a wading pool associated with almost every room.
The Range Rover has to blend into both worlds, and the latest one does. It's less a dramatic U-turn down the SUV road than a gentle pull at the edges of the envelope. The details have been buffed down just to hints in places--the grille's the smallest one on a Range Rover this side of the Evoque. The floating glass almost breaks free entirely of the slim roof pillars. The rugged archetypes are almost completely filed down, even more so in the striking cockpit where semi-aniline leather on the headliner and twin LCD screens represents the most weatherproof version you can buy. Shift levers? Try rotary knobs for the transmission, or try the paddles. Off-road driving mode? There's a knob for that, too--but for a little more, the Range Rover will even take care of that decision for you. It's a quiet riot of leather and veneer and chrome that, minus a steering wheel, would make one fantastic executive suite.