New Range Rovers don’t come along very often, which perhaps explains the complex, three-part media introduction for only the third all-new Range Rover since The Original of 1970. This time around, the company is looking to boost its profitability with the new model and is targeting luxury car buyers in the United States in particular. Deputy Editor Graeme Roberts reviews Land Rover‘s new flagship.
First the great and the good were assembled alongside selected media in London for an initial look-see at static models, a gleeful I-was-in-on-the-beginning-and-the-end speech by Ford Premier Automotive Group chief Wolfgang Reitzle and even an appearance by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Next came a day at Land Rover’s Gaydon, Warwickshire, HQ in the English Midlands for a detailed technical preview and static walk-around led by design Director Geoff Upex and engineering launch manager David Sneath. Included was a trip to the Solihull factory on the outskirts of Birmingham to see the first production models (left-hand drive as it happened) inching along a re-jigged assembly line ramping up v-e-r-y slowly.
And, finally, while the rest of the motor industry was skiving off to warmer, drier, southern European climes for various new car launches, Land Rover flew journalists to Scotland’s Skibo Castle, near Inverness, finally allowing their £1 billion development investment to be tested pretty much to the full on near-deserted tarmac and some pretty evil off-road courses during weather that included snow, driving rain and gales.
Despite our best efforts, we could not get a new Rangie stuck, nor did ours fail to climb any incline we pointed it at. Even when the much-lauded Hill Descent Control system apparently failed, to the accompaniment of furrowed brows from the Land Rover engineers in the back at the time, the big SUV simply lunged down a bank, sploshed through four feet of muddy water, shook itself and took advantage of the unintended extra momentum to take the 90-degree turn and scrabble half-way up the opposite side before we’d again found the accelerator pedal.
Reitzle’s pride in the finished product is understandable as he helped launch the project on its way while running BMW’s then-UK offshoot, Rover and Land Rover. After being ousted from the German firm, how he must have enjoyed having the project return to his oversight in time to supervise the finishing touches, when BMW sold Land Rover to his new employers, Ford, in 2000.
Land Rover doesn’t pretend to ignore the BMW input in a project that produced what can genuinely be called an all-new Range Rover. The new model was conceived in ’96 under BMW ownership and much of the development was done by BMW engineers though the design work was mostly done at Gaydon.
Said Sneath: “It was a combination of BMW’s engineering expertise and processes combined with Land Rover’s SUV know-how.”
Hours of toil have produced a superb looking vehicle that is now a monocoque construction with a body 250 percent stiffer than its predecessor, featuring aluminium doors made by a pioneering new process. This is bolted on to a new electronically-controlled air suspension that can sense the terrain it’s on and adjust settings to suit, allowing up to 11 inches of ground clearance or dropping low enough to allow the Queen Mother to exit with dignity.
From an interior, apparently modelled on the latest furniture and home entertainment system designs, that’s available in three finishes, with three types of upholstery in six colours.
And powered by BMW 4.4-litre V8 petrol or three-litre turbodiesel engines coupled to five-speed automatic transmissions with dual-range transfer gearboxes.
Parochial British journalists were quick to ask when Land Rover would ditch the BMW engines in favour of Ford units. The official answer is that Ford engines will possibly be used when the model line comes up for major revision (which history shows has never happened; Range Rovers tend to evolve very slowly until an all-new one appears).
Out of earshot of their PR minders, the engineers said that would be over their dead bodies: “We’ve engineered the whole vehicle around the BMW motors; you can’t just stuff another powerplant in and hope that all the NVH issues and so on will be OK,” one said. “Anyway, BMW is happy to keep supplying us as long as we want, so what’s the problem?” he added.
Unsurprisingly, as the BMW saloons they hail from are not routinely asked to slither up steep muddy slopes or ford waterways, Land Rover has made a few changes to the German engines.
The main criteria was the ability to climb 45-degree slopes vertically and traverse them at a 30-degree angle, ford water up to a half metre deep and keep dust and slurry out.
So a unique sump and baffle system keeps the oil pump from running dry, the air intake is tucked up under the right hand front wing, drive belts and pulleys are strengthened and their bearings better sealed, engine seals and dust clips are uprated and various orifices left open on the passenger cars are plugged with closure plates. The alternator is fully sealed, too. BMW, sensibly, has adopted most of the durability changes for its own engines to simplify manufacture and parts inventory.
Remapped software gives the all-aluminium 4.4-litre petrol V8 a different set of power and torque figures from the car engine and its 210kW (282bhp) of power at 5,400 rpm can launch a SUV the shape, with the aerodynamics, of a block of flats to 100km/h (62mph) in just over nine seconds. It’s not quite in the same league as the 7-series, which can manage the sprint about two seconds quicker, but it’s still impressively fast, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Top speed is 130mph (208km/h) which should – just – keep the autobahn-storming Germans happy.
Land Rover makes more of the 100 percent boost in torque over the old Buick-derived 4.6 V8 to a stump-pulling 440Nm (325lb-ft) at 3,600rpm with 80 percent of that available from 1,500 to 5,500rpm. Towing 3.5-tonne braked trailers (think two-horse trailer or a big boat) will not be a problem.
The previous generation Range Rover used a 2.5-litre BMW turbodiesel and the new SUV gets an uprated three-litre version of the iron block, alloy head straight six with variable nozzle turbocharger. For its new home, this engine, acclaimed in BMWs, gets similar sump and sealing changes as the V8 along with relocated turbo and EGR systems.
Power is 130kW (177bhp) at 4,000rpm and torque is 390Nm (288 lb-ft) at 2,000rpm; 30 and 45 percent respectively up on the old 2.5.
That noted, after two days of blasting the petrol V8 about northern Scotland, the quick up-the-road-and-back we sneaked in a diesel purloined from a colleague during a coffee stop left the impression one will do most of one’s Range Rover on-road diesel motoring with the accelerator ground firmly into the carpet, a fact reflected in the 13.6-second factory claim for the 100km/h sprint. Top speed is 111mph or 179 km/h.
Fast it ain’t, but it is refined with only a faint deep grumble at low speeds announcing the presence of an oil-burning motor. Payback time comes at refuel time, though, when the diesel’s 25mpg (11.3 litres/100km) on the European combined cycle will burn through slightly less of its well-heeled owner’s cash than the petrol’s 17.4mpg (16.2 litres/100km). That won’t matter a jot in the USA or the Middle East where petrol is so cheap that Land Rover won’t even offer the diesel but it means a lot over here in six-bucks-a-gallon land and even more in countries like France, Spain and Italy where diesel is significantly cheaper than petrol.
Both engines come with two electronic throttle maps that vary according to whether you’re on-road (flex big toe, reel in horizon) or off (gentle rise of revs to avoid loss of traction and embarrassing slither back to foot of steep muddy bank).
Manual transmission was dropped on the old model for the 1999 model year so both engines drive only through a five-speed automatic (different ratios for petrol and diesel) with Steptronic manual override to a two-speed, chain drive transfer box with torque-sensing centre diff. Manual was considered but the potential sales just didn’t justify the development investment and additional production complexity.
At this point, the engineers start talking about a brace of electronic nannies using enough acronyms to make even a Japanese engineer smile: DSC for Dynamic Stability Control, the Bosch-developed system which encompasses four-wheel traction control, anti-lock brakes, HDC Hill Descent Control, EBD Electronic Brake Force Distribution and EBA Emergency Brake Assistance.
No you can’t switch it all off and drive by the seat of the pants like we did in the old days. With the exception of the engine power reduction bit of DSC when off-road so momentum can be maintained in mud or on sand.
HDC has gradually migrated upwards from the Freelander and works in forward or reverse, using the anti-lock system individually at each wheel to inch the Range Rover down an incline. It works a treat though we did experience that one occasion when the electronics briefly went on strike leading to a more rapid than intended 45-degree plunge into some deep water.
Swapping from high to low ratio or vice versa can now be done on the move and all this works in conjunction with an uprated EAS Electronic Air suspension system which, as before, gives automatic load-levelling but now has interconnected cross-link valves for all four wheels allowing a stiffer spring rate on-road and a softer ride off-road.
Access all areas
As before there are High (off-road) Normal (standard), cruise (lower) and Access (bump stop) ride height settings with the difference being that you can now dial-in Access from anywhere below 100km/h (62mph) so the vehicle is lowered by the time you stop.
The other difference is that monocoque construction means that raising the Range Rover off-road also elevates the diffs and inner ends of the suspension, increasing overall ground clearance.
Land Rover says the new steel monocoque body, with 32,500Nm per degree of torsional and bending stiffness, benefits off-road ability and on-road refinement and handling. It also guarantees excellent panel fit, something for which previous Range Rovers have not been renowned.
Not broken, don’t fix
When it came to styling, the key message from current owners was effectively: “Don’t mess with it. We like our sharp angles, floating roof (body colour on black pillars) castellated wrap-over bonnet and split tailgate strong enough to hold two adults.”
So the new car is distinctly evolutionary, switching back to round lights, albeit in square frames, with only huge vertical side vents (that really do extract air from the engine bay) and massive new wheels pushing the styling envelope. The complexity and quality finish of the headlamp assembly are a credit to Automotive Lighting’s Czech plant and the rear lamps – bright red brake LEDs shining out of a multi-faceted amber lens with a circle of flashing indicator light – are simply ingenious.
Out of sight are three new subframes for front and rear suspension and central transfer ‘box and enough strength to survive up to 54kN of snatch recovery load – when you yoink your stuck Rangie out of mud porridge with another one.
We’ve seen aluminium front wings and bonnet (USA: read hood) on a Range Rover before but the all-aluminium doors, including the side impact beams, are a class first. Land Rover is very proud of the new casting and extrusion methods used to make these, including window frames bought in from BMW. A new stamping plant at Solihull makes most of the rest with the bonnet being Europe’s largest aluminium automotive industry pressing.
Leaving the best bit to last, we finally open the door and survey the all-new interior. In two decades of covering this business, I’ve all too often experienced the disappointment of opening the door of a well-styled car to encounter a sea of mediocre plastic finished in battleship grey – take a bow Japan and Korea.
The Range Rover is one of the few to elicit a universal “wow”.
Particularly in the cherrywood option, the cabin combines an ultra-modern Swedish furniture/compact music centre look with traditional materials – leather and wood – that British car makers always seem to use to best advantage. It’s a far cry from the naff plastics and Heath Robinson heater and separate air-con of all but the last original Rangies but don’t say “BMW bits” in the hearing of Land Rover design director Geoff Upex. Or, considering the dashboard’s symmetry, “easy conversion to left-hand drive”.
Regarding the former, anyone familiar with a 7-series and Land Rover’s stated aim to steer potential buyers of such top-notch sedans into their luxury SUV, will recognise the quality look ‘n’ feel of the BMW-like cabin componentry but the chunky switchgear is in fact bespoke and some is quite original, though it comes mostly from the same supplier. Ditto, the wide-screen TV/sat-nav/trip computer/stereo display which operates just like the BMW original but has been “redesigned” (restyled) for its UK application. As to the symmetry, that is simply the style of the day, Upex says. And it doesn’t make left-hook build any easier, he quickly adds.
Innovation along the likes of a BMW I-drive “joy-knob” may be absent but the chunky controls easily operated with chubby, gloved fingers, console-mounted ignition key, clear dials that really look like automotive dials and not a posh watch, soft ‘theatre’ lighting of front and rear console controls and the superb look and feel of every item give this interior an instant 10 out of 10. The only gripe so far seems to be that smaller water bottles too easily fall out of the clever keyhole-shaped pop-out cupholder on the passenger’s side. This is itself clever use of symmetry: it plugs an identically-shaped hole that, on the driver’s side, houses the headlight switch.
Clever variations of seat panel and piping colours, dashtop and a choice of cherry, walnut or foundry (metallic look) dash endcaps and centre console supporting ‘pillars’ gives plenty of scope for individual choice.
In Britain, the ‘base’ SE Td6 diesel and V8 petrol models have standard power-adjust leather seats, leather rim steering wheel, automatic air conditioning, cruise control and six-speaker audio with single CD. Standard safety features include eight airbags, including rear passenger seat head airbags, and a tyre pressure monitor.
The HSE models add seat adjustment memory linked to the steering column and auto-dim door mirrors, cherry wood or walnut facia trim (the silver ‘Foundry’ finish is the base trim), upgraded 11-speaker audio, glovebox-mounted CD autochanger, rain sensing windscreen wipers, park distance control and bi-xenon headlamps.
Top-spec Vogue models have Oxford leather ‘Comfort’ front seats, heated rear seats and heated steering wheel rim, 12-speaker audio with Digital Sound Processing (DSP), that widescreen TV and satellite navigation system, trip computer, electric sun roof, rear seat ski bag and dual blade sun visors.
All the design work and a three-year, 1.5 million-mile global test programme will be for nought if the latest Range Rover doesn’t improve on its predecessors’ less-than-spotless reliability record –British buyers and journalists are a bit more indulgent over this than their US counterparts.
So Land Rovers has to date spent almost £200 million specifically on the new Range Rover project at Solihull. Principal improvements directly linked to the new vehicle include a £60 million stamping plant – a first for Land Rover, which has previously relied on outside suppliers for all its body panels.
The plant, opened officially in December 2000 and staffed by around 120 people, contains the largest press in terms of bed size in Europe. The five station, 8,300 tonne crossbar transfer press was manufactured by Müller Weingarten and is capable of handling aluminium and steel blanks between 1370mm and 4500mm wide. At its peak, it will produce 58,000 steel or aluminium panels per week. Press change over takes less than 10 minutes.
Alongside the new press is a £4 million try-out press, on which new tools and maintenance work can be carried out to ensure minimum downtime and disruption during routine maintenance.
Seemingly in return for BMW’s extruded Range Rover aluminium door frames, the new press also churns out body panels for the Germans’ UK-built Mini with stamping time split 50/50 between the two models. The press will also produce panels for future Land Rovers, though existing models will continue to source panels from current suppliers.
Body assembly is much more automated
Some £80 million was invested into a new body-in-white facility for the Range Rover and the heavily automated plant is equipped with 123 robots providing 6,350 welds for each vehicle – automation within the plant is currently running at 73 percent, a step change for Land Rover where, historically, products have largely been built by hand. Employing 344 employees on a two-shift system, the plant can produce 10 Range Rover bodies an hour.
Some modifications had to be made to the paint facility to account for the extra size of the new Range Rover’s ‘envelope’ – it is thought to be the largest unibody construction in the motoring world – and its greater weight.
A revised cavity wax booth dedicated to the Range Rover was also added to the paint shop, allowing Land Rover to offer an extended corrosion warranty on the vehicle, up to six years for anti-perforation cover and three years cosmetic cover. In all, a further £15 million has been invested in the paint shop.
The final piece of the new Range Rover build jigsaw was a £40 million investment at South Works, where the new model is assembled. It’s the oldest part of the plant but a comprehensive rebuilding exercise means it is now claimed to be the match of anything in Europe.
Because the new Range Rover is a unibody construction, the plant had to be comprehensively upgraded to accommodate new overhead lines carrying the vehicles to the different stations. As well as a completely new floor, the roof of the building was changed and strengthened to hold the overhead lines.
Among the special ergonomic features of the line are a number of tilt slings which allow the body to be rotated to facilitate access to the under floor area. Pre-assembled cockpits and wiring harness assemblies also ease assembly.
Just-in-time stock control for sequenced parts runs at between one to four hours and between four to 18 hours for non-sequenced parts. The majority of parts suppliers are UK-based. More than 660 employees working in two shifts produce 10 vehicles an hour – annual production is expected to peak at 35,000 units.
Land Rover says the capital investment plus an extensive staff training problem ensured quality control of the vehicle at launch was ahead of the stringent targets set during development, and a match for the finest luxury vehicles in the world.
The first year in owners’ hands will prove the quality and reliability claims. In a year from now, if the only complaint is still that small bottles slip out of that key-shaped cupholder, we’ll know if the Solihull boffins have succeeded.