Military intelligence and jumbo shrimp are the classic oxymorons that keep garden-variety morons like me awake at night. Toss in a third mindbender--"sporty SUV"--and the WTF factor does a damn fine job of counteracting jet lag.
We drove headlong into all three in the course of our first drive of the 2014 Land Rover Range Rover Sport, wending through stupendously sunny Welsh countryside and what seemed like acres and acres of sheep, coursing like an open vein of pounds sterling, cutting through active British military training fields with live ammo on our way from one epic meal to the next.
We didn't get to see any sheep wander over a landmine, so keep that Monty Python moment on the bucket list. But we did strafe a lightly used airport runway at 150 mph in the Sport, before running it through a two-foot-deep river of muck. Could you do that in a Cayenne, an X6 or an ML? Possibly. Would you ever consider it? Unlikely.
Put a Land Rover badge on it, and it seems second nature, to be this close to nature. Relatively long story short, the confusingly accurate "sporty SUV" label isn't just stuck on the Range Rover Sport--it's earned.
More Range Rover, more Sport?
Here's the even shorter story on how the Range Rover Sport's grown better: Range Rover. The first-generation car was a steel body on a frame; now it's an aluminum spin-off of last year's brand-new Range Rover, with just a few inches of height and length subtracted to suit it for a differently shaded personality. The same crash diet that shaved 700 pounds from the bigger ute nips about 800 pounds from the Sport. In performance terms, that's like kicking out four adults before hot laps.
In essence the Sport's a slice off the Range Rover, but there's plenty of influence from the smaller Evoque in its profile. It's almost pure Range Rover from the doors forward, save for a slimmer nose and winged headlamps, but the roofline picks up the Evoque's sleekness and its rounded rump. The cockpit? It's all Range Rover, with calm stretches of leather and wood devoid of the busy clusters of buttons that had cramped the Sport's style.
Two drivetrains are on tap this time, and they divide camps neatly, into nicely done and awesomely hot. A new supercharged, 340-horsepower 3.0-liter V-6 engine is the new base engine, delivering a nice 90-degree V-6 snarl and sub-7-second acceleration, in tandem with a sweet paddle-shifted ZF eight-speed automatic. The supercharged V-8 comes from a different planet entirely, one maybe with a timeshare in the American South: it barks out 510 horsepower with NASCAR authority, ripping off 5-second runs to 60 mph.
With either, the Sport's ride/handling worldview tilts firmly to sport. The bigger Range Rover specializes in coddling; the Sport's air dampers and variable-ratio steering quicken up the pace, and with the V-8's Dynamic setting, dial out much of the innate lean and scrub dictated by its height and weight. It's much closer now to the benchmarks set by the uber-utes from Germany.
At the same time, it's an incredibly capable muckraker, with either the base Torsen four-wheel-drive setup, or the more advanced dual-range system, with its active rear locking differential. With more ground clearance than ever, the Sport can extract itself from almost anything the bigger Range Rover can, and its slight size advantage might let it squeeze through where the executive-class Landie might not--say, an abandoned 747, like the one we were guided through carefully, from cargo hold to a first-class arrival through the nose.
A plus-two arrangement
The Sport's cabin has never looked better, and extra room in almost all dimensions solves one of the least happy aspects of the first-generation ute, though the second-row seat isn't quite as supportive as the Range Rover's. These are the sacrifices, folks. If you're an occasional user of a third-row seat, the Sport gives in to convention with a pair of semi-usable jump seats that fold away tidily when not in use. We suggest if you're beyond Highlights for Children, you don't try to clamber in them.
Four variations of the 2014 Range Rover Sport will be offered in the U.S.: the base $63,495 SE, with a 3.0-liter supercharged 340-horsepower V-6; the $68,495 HSE with the same engine but upgraded features; the $79,995 Range Rover Sport Supercharged, with a 510-horsepower 5.0-liter supercharged V-8; and the $93,295 Range Rover Sport Autobiography, with the same engine as the Supercharged model, but with even more equipment and its own distinctive color and trim combination.
All 2014 Range Rover Sport models come nicely equipped, including custom Meridian audio systems (three in total, ranging up to 1,700 watts and 23 speakers); advanced safety systems aided by cameras; an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment interface that frankly could use a couple of Palo Alto software geeks and a quick reskin; and of course, the latest generation of Land Rover's Terrain Response 2 traction management system.
We think the Sport's tugged and stretched its performance wrapper in the right directions.