For the Earth's upper crust By Andrew Bornhop • Photos by Ron Perry How times change. When the Range Rover first hit the U.S. in 1987, this posh sport-utility vehicle didn't just refine the genre, it was alone in creating one. Now, however, as the Land Rover company is well into its first year of selling this third-generation Range Rover in America, legions of competitors are available. Among them: the Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Navigator from the U.S., the Lexus LX 470 from Japan, and the BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz ML430 from Germany, soon to be joined by the Volkswagen Touareg and Porsche Cayenne. Indeed, the choices in opulent SUVs are numerous and growing, which begs the question: Does the new Range Rover have what it takes to fight off this heady competition? Based on our two-week test of a Giverny Green Micatallic Range Rover HSE (the only trim level available), we're convinced it does. Before delving into the reasons, a short history lesson is essential to understanding the all-new 2003 Range Rover. In 1994, BMW — led at the time by Bernd Pischetsrieder (an Anglophile who's now the head of VW) — purchased Rover and began developing a new Range Rover, one that would eschew the live axles and body-on-frame construction of the previous model in favor of a unit-body chassis with independent suspension, all while incorporating BMW's proven hardware and expertise. However, a couple of years before it went on sale last summer, BMW sold Land Rover to Ford, which chose to continue developing and building the BMW-based Range Rover rather than pursue an all-new model of its own design, which would have taken much longer. As such, there's more BMW than you might expect in this new Solihull, England-built Range Rover, in everything from its 4-cam 4.4-liter V-8 engine and 5-speed automatic transmission to its instruments, interior switches and the Bavarian company's not particularly user-friendly stereo/navigation system screen. Nevertheless, it was a wise decision to go this route because the 2003 Range Rover wins our praise on a multitude of fronts — in its style, in its robust structure, in its power, in its suspension tuning and in its exquisitely appointed interior, which has no rival in elegance and is far more spacious than before. Also, as you'd expect of any luxurious BMW, ahem, Range Rover, stability control and traction control are standard, as is cornering brake control, Commandshift manual shift capability and a full complement of front, side and head-protection airbags. This is not to say the Range Rover is a raised AWD 7 Series with a boxy body. It's not. It's a true off-road machine, a full-time all-wheel-driver with a torque-sensing center differential, a 2-speed shift-on-the-fly transfer case, independent front and rear air suspension and a stout unit-body chassis wearing a body that manages to look thoroughly modern while maintaining the classic Range Rover greenhouse. Compared with the model it replaces, the new Range Rover is significantly larger — 9.3 in. longer, 1.8 in. taller and 5.3 in. more wheelbase. This translates to a much more spacious interior, with enough head room in front and back to please even our long-torsoed Engineering Editor, with similarly generous leg room. What's more, it's not unreasonable to have adults ride three abreast on the Range Rover's wide back seat. Just as impressive, a full-size spare tire (a 255/55R-19!) fits inside the Range Rover, beneath the floor panel of the beautifully carpeted cargo bay, which is roomier than that of the BMW X5 and accessible via a clamshell-style 2-piece split rear hatch. Despite its aluminum doors, fenders and hood, the Range Rover weighs a portly 5650 lb., some 900 lb. heavier than the last one we tested. In spite of the heft, the smooth 282-bhp V-8 (whose growl just makes it through the firewall) feels up to the task, propelling the Range Rover to 60 mph in 8.9 seconds and the quarter mile in a respectable 16.8 seconds at 81.5 mph. And come stopping time, monstrous brake rotors of more than 13-in. diameter are on duty behind those large 19-in. alloy wheels, bringing the Range Rover to drama-free stops from 60 and 80 mph in 132 ft. and 238 ft., respectively — good overall performances aided by 4-channel ABS. With the Range Rover's numerous neat little exterior details, show-car-like appearance (enhanced by the jewel-like xenon headlamps) and $73,165 as-tested price, people might be reluctant to take this vehicle off-road. They shouldn't be, however, because this is where the Range Rover truly shines. Aided by its cockpit-adjustable ride height and low-range gearing that automatically recalibrates the electronic throttle for added driver control, the Range Rover slogs through the rough stuff with aplomb, its short front and rear overhangs helping to create excellent approach and departure angles. In off-road situations, the suspension — whose automatically leveling air springs work in conjunction with MacPherson struts in front and unequal-length control arms in back — employs "crosslink" valves front and rear, which make the independent suspension behave more like a live-axle arrangement. When off-road driving is sensed, the crosslink valves open to let the action of one front wheel affect the other. For instance, when one wheel is pushed up into a fenderwell by a berm, the air in that spring is displaced and directed to the other front wheel, where it actually pushes that tire down and into the dirt for better traction — which is what used to occur with the previous Range Rover's live axles. It works very well, front and rear, and Land Rover says the new Range Rover's 10.7 in. of front travel and 13.0 in. of rear travel are improvements over the previous model. And with the suspension at its highest setting, the Range Rover can safely cross a stream 20 in. deep. Engineers raised the air intake for that purpose, and also modified the oilpan to keep the powerplant from starving for oil at the extreme off-road angles a Range Rover can experience. One such situation is in climbing, where — almost against intuition — it's important to not let off the throttle when the driver starts to sense wheelspin. The reason for maintaining throttle is simple: Range Rover's traction control uses automatic brake intervention to slow a spinning wheel, which through normal open-differential action, automatically sends power to the opposite wheel, which presumably has traction. If the driver lets off the gas, there won't be any power going to any of the wheels, and the vehicle will simply stop in its tracks. And when it comes time to go down the steep hill you just climbed, the easiest, safest and simplest way to do it is to engage Hill Descent Control via a small paddle on the center console near the ignition key, and then keep off the brakes (that's right, stay off the brakes) as the powertrain keeps the Range Rover creeping down the hill at a safe snail's pace. Most people, however, never bother going off-road, and are likely to be far more interested in the Range Rover's on-road behavior. In a word, it's excellent. Sure, it's a large and heavy vehicle, but it has natural-effort rack-and-pinion steering, decent power and excellent ride quality that's on the slightly firm side. In corners, the body leans but by no means as much as in the previous Range Rover. Moderate understeer limits the cornering grip to an underwhelming 0.68g on our 200-ft.-diameter skidpad. And while we're complaining, the center rear headrest significantly restricts the view aft from the rearview mirror. Also, the fuel economy during its stay at R&T was a thirsty 12.1 mpg. Most people who can afford a Range Rover, I suspect, won't be that concerned about mileage. Rather, they're looking for an automobile with character, which the new Range Rover has in spades. Its handsome interior has been inspired by luxury yachts, and its high in-command seating position is complemented by a charming dose of British/Safari heritage that has been refined to the point where items such as window switches — a sore point on the previous Range Rover — are now intuitive to use. And even though the bulk of new Range Rovers won't be driven off-road, owners like to know their vehicle can do so, with ease, confidence and composure. For some final sage words to help summarize Land Rover's 2003 Range Rover HSE, I turn to my two bosses: Editor-in-Chief Thos L. Bryant: "The biggest difference I notice compared with earlier models is the excellent ride control and stability around town. Range Rovers have always been great off-road, but tippy and loose feeling on the pavement. This new one feels taut, dare I say agile." My wife Patty: "It looks expensive, but worth every penny."