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.
ORIGINS OF OFF-ROADING
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.
A nagging mystery is the source of the name, Jeep. Most historians believe it's a corruption of the military's original straightforward designation, General Purpose Vehicle, though others suggest it was a tip of the hat to Eugene the Jeep, a character in the long-popular Popeye comic strip. Whatever its origins, returning GIs hungered for the rugged Jeeps that they grudgingly grew to love overseas, and Willys responded with the no-nonsense CJ, an equally no-nonsense abbreviation for the military-style Civilian Jeep.
In Britain, brothers Spencer and Maurice Wilks also sensed an opportunity. Working for the English car company Rover, they designed an equally simple, yet rugged vehicle that quickly caught on with soldiers, sportsmen and farmers alike. The Land Rover soon became the vehicle of choice in the remnants of the once-vast British empire, and today the marque is sold in more than 140 countries around the world.
EVOLUTION AND REVOLUTION
In the years immediately after the war, the typical sport-utility vehicle was a rough and rugged machine. As with the original Jeep, the focus was on four-wheel-drive, rather than frills. Then, in the mid-1980s, the proverbial paradigm shift occurred. Maybe it was the return of cheap gasoline or the demise of the full-size passenger car. But by the millions, American motorists began trading in their sedans, coupes and station wagons for pickups, SUVs and vans. This year, light trucks are expected to account for a bit more than half the American automotive market, and utes have become the icon of the American suburb.
There's certainly a fashion element helping to drive the SUV's appeal, says Strategic Vision's Dan Gorrell. The sport-utility vehicle is a hip way to express one's active, go-anywhere lifestyle. Even if you don't go anywhere very often, the ute still offers some practical advantages. Studies show that women, in particular, enjoy the higher, so-called command seating they provide. And if you live in the Snowbelt, it's easy to get hooked on all-wheel-drive. Meanwhile, sport-utes have become an increasingly popular alternative for minivan owners desperate to shake the "soccer mom" image.
Then again, it could be argued that the sport-utility vehicle is evolving into the next-generation minivan. Third-row seating is the year's hottest SUV option, offered on everything from the LR3 to the upcoming Jeep Commander. It's hard to decide what to call the latest update of General Motors' people movers. The Buick Terraza, for one, has a sport-ute's nose, ride height and stance, with the interior flexibility and sliding doors of a minivan.
In moving from Discovery to LR3, Land Rover keeps pace with a significant shift in SUV design. Today's buyers want all the frills, as well as four-wheel-drive: heated leather seats, cup holders, navigation computers, rear DVD entertainment systems with audiophile-quality sound. And on-road handling has become as, if not more, important than off-road capabilities.
WHO NEEDS IT?
While Land Rover owners may be out there blazing new trails, industry data show that, on the whole, fewer than one in ten of today's sport-ute owners ever traverse anything rougher than a gravel road. So that raises a fundamental question: who really needs an SUV? That's an issue a lot of folks are debating these days. Let's face it, you're carrying a lot of extra weight with all the added hardware required by a true off-roader, and the more weight you add, the fewer miles per gallon your vehicle will deliver. Critics contend that SUVs can be deadly in crashes, especially when they ram a conventional passenger car. Sport utes also have an increased tendency to roll over. Environmentalists have long bemoaned the SUV's flatulent emissions of CO2, a gas linked to global warming. And with petroleum prices soaring to record levels, the tree huggers are quickly gaining allies. In some parts of the country, it's beginning to be hip to hate the sport-utility vehicle. The question is whether this shift in attitude will have an impact at the showroom.
After more than a decade of steady gains, SUV sales tumbled in July and again in August. Ford's midsize Explorer, the segment bellwether, posted a roughly 15 percent decline during the first eight months of the year, a slump also experienced by many of the most popular utes, both import and domestic. So has sport-ute fever peaked? Industry leaders, like the GM car czar Bob Lutz, firmly declare no, and insist that once fuel prices stabilize, buyers will be back en masse.
Yet it's likely that many of tomorrow's SUV buyers will be looking for a different sort of vehicle than the ones that long dominated the sales charts. The sport-utility vehicle is undergoing a significant, if seemingly subtle, transformation.
At first glance, Ford's new Freestyle would appear to be just another addition to the automaker's ever-expanding lineup of sport-utes. But under the skin, it has a lot more in common with the 2005 Ford Five Hundred sedan than the aging Explorer. Freestyle is one of the many new products coming to market that fall into the nebulous group called, for lack of a better term, crossovers. Roughly half of the SUVs reaching showrooms over the last 12 months fit into that category. The vast majority are initially indistinguishable from conventional truck-based utes, but they ride on platforms derived from or shared with passenger cars.
The Cadillac SRX shares the same platform as Caddy's new STS sedan. A unibody design, rather than the body-on-frame of the division's big Escalade, allows the crossover to deliver some of the best of both worlds. The SRX boasts an SUV's rugged looks, command seating and all-wheel-drive. Yet it's lighter and more fuel-efficient than a comparable truck-based ute.
Also known as soft-roaders, crossovers may sacrifice some of their off-road abilities, but they're usually better on the highway, and less expensive as well. When it comes to affordability, "the soft-roader is the only way to go," says Chrysler Group's design director, Trevor Creed. That's why, Creed allows, "you can make the assumption" that Jeep will be adding a crossover to its lineup "within the next couple years."
Don't write off the conventional sport-utility vehicle. Despite rising oil prices and the best efforts of Greenpeace, it's not going to go away. Jeep just launched a new version of its big Grand Cherokee and will soon add the three-row Commander to its fleet. But in the future, the Chrysler division is likely to cover all the bases, with truck-based "Trail Rated" SUVs, as well as new soft-roaders. Toyota and its high-line Lexus division almost evenly split their offerings between the two types of SUVs, while Ford and General Motors are scaling up a new crop of crossovers to balance out their more traditional SUV entries.
Both Land Rover and Hummer will continue to target the seriously hard-core off-roader, though as the Range Rover and new LR3 underscore, there's no longer any reason to sacrifice creature comforts when you head for the hills.
The rain dies down and a brilliant summer sun begins to poke through the clouds as we reach the end of the long highlands pass. That fire is beginning to sound especially attractive right about now, though for the moment, we'll have to settle for seat heaters. We slip a disc into the CD changer and crank the audio up loud enough to rattle the LR3's windows. Why rush? We've got all the creature comforts we could ask for, and access to anywhere we might possibly want to go.
Paul A. Eisenstein publishes an automobile magazine on the Internet at www.TheCarConnection.com.