Range Rover has been the de facto status SUV for years--long before the Mercedes, BMWs, Cadillacs and Lexuses even thought of making one. Its elegant looks, off-road capabilities, roomy interior and, frankly, high price tag are the reasons why it can be found parked in front of posh houses from Somerset to San Francisco, Monte Carlo to Manhattan. With typical British reserve, Range Rover hasn't stooped to rolling out a new model every year like much of its competition but, to be fair, recently its current iteration was beginning to look a little tired next to the glittering new SUVs coming out of Detroit and Stuttgart. Now, after going through revolving-door ownership during the 1990s, when the company was bought first by BMW and then Ford, it is finally coming out with a new model that will remind the world why the aristocratic Range Rover is still king of the SUVs. Range Rover pioneered the concept that it was possible to mate a feline silkiness with the instincts of a mountain goat to create an SUV that was both luxurious and truly rugged--as suitable for driving a head of state as it is for tackling the Serengetti. The new 2003 model continues in this tradition and actually makes it better. From its sophisticated interior--with miles of blue leather with contrasting piping (one of many interior configurations available) coating the furniture-like seats, its chrome-lipped controls or the pillars of cherry wood that hug the center console--to the fact that these quarters are not only sumptuous on-road, where the Range Rover exhibits nothing but solemn quietude, but that you can turn into the nearest pig farm and literally go play in the mud without the slightest fear you'll ever have to get out and push. That's no exaggeration. After driving the Range Rover in some of the ugliest conditions we could find in the Scottish Highlands (read snow, mud and plenty of fordable streams), we found the car's 11 inches of ground clearance (even the new Hummer H2 will only offer 9 inches), both high- and low-range transmission, differential locks, four-wheel electronic traction control and shift-on-the-fly between high and low range, more than adequate for every challenge we threw at them. To get the true dirt (so to speak) on everything this new and improved Rover will offer when it comes out in May, and what might make you hesitate--that is, if the expected $70K price tag doesn't stick in your craw--check out the sections below. Before we get inside the car, you have to know why the interior of Range Rover is as quiet as that of an S-Class Mercedes. See, interiors that excel do so because they are plugged into cars that are already great, which means cars with very stiff frames and excellent suspensions. The entirely new Range Rover gets all this thanks to its long development cycle and an alliance with BMW. Six years ago BMW owned Rover, and that's when the redesign was first hatched. And even though Ford now owns Land Rover, the BMW partnership brought Range Rover not only the superb 7 Series engine (that Land Rover gets to use for as long as it wants to), but also its famous engineering and manufacturing know-how. For example, although the body-on-frame design of the original Range Rover has been scrapped in favor of a unibody, this new chassis is 250% stiffer than the old truck--the chassis is so strong, you could hang a Range Rover from its front bumper and still hang another one off the rear bumper without the first car's frame bending. All that's just to give you an idea that they didn't have to stuff this truck with pillows to make it quiet--it started that way. And over hill, dale and mud pit the cabin never rattled once--save the time a bottle of water poked through the keyhole-shaped passenger cup-holder and fell on the floor. We expect Range Rover is retooling that single interior flaw as we speak. Otherwise we were quite impressed with every surface, switch and dial. Speaking of which, the cockpit controls are laid out with eminent logic. All the buttons and knobs are a bit large, so you can both see them and grip them easily, as is anything you might want to adjust at night--even the air vent dials glow, so you can use them without turning on a map light. As if that wasn't good enough, there is soft white cabin lighting at night that shines down discreetly, so you can find your drink in your cup-holder, your lipstick in your purse or read your watch, all without touching a single switch. All the chromed metallic trim in the car is actually made of metal, and all the soft-finished metallic trim is actually made of plastic, though every time you touch it you'd swear it's really metal. In some cars that bit of deception might be annoying--especially in cars where the "metal" trim is clearly a weak imitation of the real thing. But the execution is of such high quality in the Range Rover (that goes for everything else as well) you can't help but glory in the sleight of hand. As for the seating, both fore and aft passengers will find extreme comfort. The front seats not only tilt, raise and lower, and slide forward and back, but the shoulder portion of the seats can also be tilted forward or backward. Even the backseats have adjustable uprights, and shoulder room is comparable to a Cadillac Deville. Aft legroom is a few inches shy of what you'll find in that Caddy, or an S-Class, but it's hardly tight. Storage capacity behind those back benches isn't great, though, with only about 19 cubic feet (assuming you don't want to block the rearview). You can cram more back there if you don't mind not seeing what's behind you, and if you flip the backseats forward you get a large hold, though not a massive one. It's closer to what you get in the back of a BMW X5 than what you'll find in a Ford Explorer--but still big enough to comfortably hold a weekend's worth of luggage, several cases of wine, a brace of dead pheasants or a pair of barking dogs. The exterior of the new Range Rover is derivative of the old truck but, to our eyes, refreshed in a way that makes it seem both classical Rover and exceedingly modern. There are bits of BMW in that exterior, especially around the wheel arches, but there are also design cues that take off from Audi and even the New Mini (which just happens to be made on the same assembly line in England for, you guessed it, BMW). Still, designer Geoff Upex's goal of having the Range Rover instantly recognizable holds fast, especially given the similar cues to the previous truck such as the clamshell hood, wide grille, beefy front bumper, thin roof piece, upright door breaks and large wheel openings. Upex cleanly updated certain aspects, like the overlapping dual front headlamps in clear housings (with chrome surrounds against a field of tiny chrome quilts). In fact that's the one element that most quickly pulls the Range Rover forward into the 21st century. That, and the massive, thickly spoked 19-inch wheels (you can even get 20-inch wheels as an option) that give the vehicle its somewhat intimidating heft. And it's that combination of clean looks wedded to a taut athletic build that make this truck look so unreservedly attractive. And let's face it, when was the last time you could say that about an SUV? We know too well that very few of the 10,000 American buyers per year will want to get their Range Rovers dirty, let alone plunge their trucks headfirst into four feet of standing water down a 45-degree mud slope the way we did in Scotland. And yes, we did this repeatedly because it was so much fun--and the Range Rover just drove out the steep embankment on the other side without incident. But then it's not our job to tell buyers how to drive--just to tell them where they could go if they wanted. And, of course, why it's possible to abuse a Range Rover this way without worry. Suffice it to say, it would take a small book to explain how the Range Rover really works in an off-road situation, but here's a quick synopsis. First, the Range Rover rides on an air-adaptive suspension linked to road-sensing software. Once the software calculates that the vehicle is being driven off-road, the ride softens to allow maximum wheel travel and suspension articulation. Also, the air suspension lets the driver raise the car for off-road use and lower it considerably (about six inches) for highway travel. Off-road driving is further enhanced by "hill descent control." When we launched into our big puddle, we let go of the brakes and just steered. HDC operated the brakes at each wheel to slow the truck, and we literally crawled down to the water's edge despite being on a slope that, were we on foot, we'd slip and slide down in a millisecond. But the brakes in HDC mode are much smarter than mere feet, and respond to available grip and our steering inputs to walk the car at about 2 mph. You can also use this system in reverse in this truck, so in case you actually find a hill the Range Rover cannot climb, you can easily back your way down without danger. Still, you need to maintain forward momentum to drive off-road, and thanks to a special increased-torque output position (at low speeds) when the transmission is shifted into low range, the Range Rover has no trouble achieving plenty of muscle even with modest use of the gas. Plus there's a manu-matic electronic transmission that lets you easily select gears (in low or high range), and an electronic differential can split power front or back as needed to offset wheel slip. In all, even wheel-arc deep in muck, there was never a risk of getting stuck. And by the way, this was with standard road tires on the truck, not big-lugged mud-chewing rubber. So please, if you do get a Range Rover, go exercise it in some dirt, snow, gravel or just plunge headlong into the nearest stream. We did--with water right up to the tops of the wheels-- and came out both dry and grinning ear to ear. (We thought of stopping right there and catching a few salmon, but alas, we had more mud to chew up). Here's the bad news, right? Well, not really bad news, actually, just less than extraordinary news. See the dirty little secret of the new Range Rover is that it weighs over 6,000 pounds, and although this exempts buyers from the typical luxury tax, it saddles the BMW 4.4-liter V-8 with a lot to move around (the new 7-Series, by the way, weighs 1,500 pounds less than Range Rover and gets a 325-horsepower V-8, while Land Rover gets only 282 horses from its version of that power plant). So you can gun the Range Rover to 60 mph in a respectable nine seconds, which isn't stellar, but isn't wretched, either. More to the point, there's plenty of passing grunt (torque is a healthy 324 pound-feet and at a good low 3,600 rpm), so from about 40 mph and faster, you're confident that a quick stab of the right foot will get you there quickly. As for the ride, we'd call it stately. It's quite firm, in fact, rather than SUV lazy--which was a big problem with earlier Range Rover iterations--with excellent steering that's never quick but still precise. You can't whip through turns of course, but understeer is predictable and laying off the gas or just steering on through will usually suffice to get you past any turn you might have entered on the quick side. Although Land Rover expects to steal some buyers of upscale cars like the BMW 7 Series and the S Class Mercedes-Benz (we think they're right, by the way), it's not fair to think they'd do it on pavement performance alone. You can't run a vehicle this large in the same line that a BMW 7-Series can cut through a corner (at least not at the same pace), but neither is the Range Rover a plush American ute that will plow madly toward the nearest curb. So it's a truck after all, but an exceedingly polished, capable and--we say--sexy one. It doesn't drive like a sedan because it's not, but so what? It's the latest Range Rover, a car that a lucky few can afford and one that, if you're lucky enough to have, will make you grin madly every time you climb aboard.