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The Land Rover Comes Over

With its new LR3, the venerable British marque joins the ranks of posh off-roaders. It's not the only change in an SUV market segment that's seeing more flux than it has in a decade
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Bill Murray, Nov/Dec 2004

Shouldn't it be a little warmer on this, the longest day of the year? And a little bit sunnier? Well, maybe not at the harsh and barren northern tip of the British Isles. Here, summer is a relative term, and the day brings a steady assault of storm clouds that march, broodingly, across the sky. Gale winds gust across fen and field, the drizzle driven into our faces like wet pinpricks.

We've paused for a moment in the town of Tongue, an otherwise forgettable hamlet that appears to exist solely to elicit the naughty, knowing grins of those passing through. Our destination is Ackergill Tower, an ancient citadel that once guarded the waters to the south of the Orkney Islands. There's a fire waiting, we're told, some haggis, and an ancient bottle of Scotch—make that whisky, when you're talking to the locals. And we'll certainly need it by the time we get there.

Our windshield wipers slap futilely as we head back out on the one-lane tarmac that passes for a highway. If you take the low road, it's about 50 miles and you'll get there in a wee bit more than an hour. But we, laddie, we're bound and determined to take the high road. If there is one. About halfway to the village of John O'Groats, it's beginning to look a bit doubtful.

We crest a steep hill, its crown swept to bare rock by the harsh wind, cautiously navigating a path nearly invisible but for the faint tire tracks crushed into the heather. The terrain seems cold and cruel, at first. Yet slowly, we begin to comprehend what William Wallace, that most stubborn of Scottish warriors, fought the English for. The vicious sky cracks open, ever so slightly, painting a chiaroscuro light across the grand tableau of lakes and hills. And impossible cliffs. Nudging forward, the SUV hovers like the coyote in a Warner Bros. cartoon, briefly defying gravity but poised for the fall to follow. We summon up the nerve to tap the throttle and with a gentle grunt, our LR3 effortlessly glides down the hill, holding a steady three miles an hour all the way to the bottom.

The LR3 is the latest addition to the Land Rover lineup and the reason for our trek to Scotland. It's the long-awaited replacement for the aging Discovery, a proud and immensely capable sport-utility vehicle, but one that was quite short on refinement and creature comforts. At first glance, the LR3 has a lot in common with the automaker's flagship Range Rover. But it is, in fact, the first Land Rover product developed entirely under the auspices of Ford Motor Co., which acquired the SUV maker from BMW for $2.9 billion in 2000. It was a risky investment—more than a few have declared it foolhardy—so there's a lot riding on the LR3, which will continue to be called Discovery outside the United States. "It's the center of gravity for the brand," explains Sally Eastwood, Land Rover's North American vice president of marketing, its success essential if the British marque is to evolve from a niche player into something closer to the profitable mainstream.

The new ute is roomy, with seating for up to seven. And it's as refined and well-appointed as any vehicle in its segment. This new Land Rover is the sort of SUV you could take to the campground, hose down and then drive to opening night at the opera. But while the LR3 is significantly better mannered on the road than the old Discovery, it doesn't sacrifice any of the off-road capabilities. Quite the contrary. The 300-horsepower, Jaguar-derived, 4.4-liter V-8 has plenty of passing power, and with 315 foot-pounds of torque, the LR3 has also got the muscle to pull itself out of a mud bog. Like the far more pricey Range Rover, the LR3 features such niceties as Hill Descent Control, a system that permits you to nose your way down even the steepest knoll at a safe speed, without having to ride your brakes and pray.

"This is the most advanced vehicle we've ever produced at Land Rover," boasts Pete Richings, one of the project's development managers. Nothing justifies that claim more than a sophisticated new feature that Land Rover has christened Terrain Response. By simply rotating a chunky knob on the center console, a driver can instantly set up the LR3 up for a wide range of off-road driving conditions, from "Mud and Ruts" to "Sand." Each of the five modes is designed to optimize all the various electromechanical controls built into the new SUV. Normally, you'd have to dial in the settings for the air suspension, differential, brakes and chassis controls individually. Terrain Response even handles throttle response and shifts. Think of it as the SUV owner's equivalent of CliffsNotes for off-roading.

During a three-day adventure, we had the chance to put each of the various modes against the roughest conditions that Scotland could toss at us, slogging through deep ruts, scrambling across surf-smoothed boulders and fording streams deeper than two feet. There are certainly some obstacles the new LR3 can't overcome, but you'd have to work hard to find them.

Thanks to vehicles like the LR3, off-roading has become an increasingly popular sport in recent years. A study by the California market research firm Strategic Vision suggests that as many as 40 percent of all Land Rover owners will hit the trail at some point or another. The roots of off-roading probably go back to the days of the covered wagon, as settlers struck out for points west. No one is quite sure when the first trail-rated motor vehicle first hit the dirt, though in the early years, demand was largely driven by military need. Back In 1916, General John "Black Jack" Pershing launched a chase for the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa using a primitive four-wheeler built for him by the Wisconsin firm FWD. It bore more than a passing resemblance to a motorized Conestoga.

As it became increasingly clear that the United States might be drawn into the Second World War, the War Department sought out a go-anywhere vehicle for America's increasingly automated army. It handed a lucrative contract to the Willys-Overland Co. for the stripped-down four-wheel-drive vehicle later made famous in countless "Willy and Joe" cartoons penned by the late Bill Mauldin. But the good humor only underscored the vehicle's skill at assaulting hilly European and jungle-covered Asian battlefields.

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