As courier vans go, it sure beats a battered Vauxhall Vivaro with a copy of the Daily Star tucked up against the windscreen. Waiting in the Fuchs loadbay is a box-fresh Range Rover Sport - the 510bhp supercharged V8 version, naturally - in which TopGear Rapid Courier Services Ltd will transport the very first cheese-like wheel for the 1000mph Bloodhound SSC from Germany to Scotland. A car big enough to accommodate a metre-diameter lump of aluminium, a car quick enough to keep pace with the absurd turnaround times of the Bloodhound project. The fastest delivery van in the world transporting the fastest wheel in the world. And 11 hours to make Glasgow. Best get a wiggle on.
But first to secure the cheese in the RRS’s boot. Last night, at about 10pm, I received a text message from an unknown number. It read: a couple of 500kg ratchet straps, some chocks and a LOT of bubblewrap… This wasn’t - I established in the course of a mildly embarrassing text exchange - the kinkiest booty-call SMS in history, but rather a missive from a worried Bloodhound engineer making sure I’d considered the realities of securing 220kg of slippery metal on a flat bootfloor. Clearly, I hadn’t.
A rapid shopping spree later, as a forklift drops the cheese into the back of the RRS, we ratchet and chock and bubblewrap the aluminium to within an inch of its short life, cranking down the straps until there’s not a hint of slack. “That,” I declare with the conviction of a man who doesn’t really understand physics, “is going nowhere but Glasgow.”
As are we. Out of the loadbay, down the ramp and, as we draw to a halt at Fuchs’s main security gates, decelerating to a gentle standstill from perhaps 10mph, a hideous graunching noise emanates from the Sport’s boot, the sound of a thousand tendons ripping in unison. Handbrake on, jump out, open the tailgate… and I discover the sheer weight of the cheese has, in the space of 300 yards, stretched each half-tonne ratchet strap by at least nine inches. It’s a sobering moment: had our first braking manoeuvre been from any real-road speed, that massive lump of metal would have shifted a lot further and a lot faster. Possibly through us.
“I remember someone telling me,” says photographer Wycherley, “that a box of tissues on a parcel shelf is as deadly as a brick if you have a crash at 30mph.” I sagely absorb this information. “So a 220kg lump of metal launching forward in a 150mph autobahn shunt…” The sentence tails off. We stand, looking at the wheel, nodding slowly for a while, and then dash back into Fuchs to find several more straps.
Half an hour later, cheese now secured like Frankenstein’s creature on the operating table, we finally swing out of Fuchs, and, a few minutes later, onto a gloriously empty stretch of derestricted autobahn. Couple of paddle-clicks down, hard on the throttle and, sheesh, for a big SUV with a big lump of metal in the back, this thing doesn’t half shift. In fact, it’s the quickest-accelerating Range Rover in history, getting from 0-62mph in just five seconds dead-on. Progress doesn’t let up: past the ton, and the RRS bellows towards its 155mph maximum in a maelstrom of very British noise. It’s a bombastic soundtrack: not so metal-tipped as the similarly engined V8 Jaguar F-Type, but bassy, broad and brutal enough to have you waving in apology to other drivers as you spear past.
Though we’ve done our best to ballast it with wheel-cheese, the RRS has been on a hardcore diet regime. It shares the new Range Rover’s all-aluminium chassis, technology that cost JLR billions and shaves some 400kg from the weight of its predecessor. OK, so the last-gen RRS was an inexcusable fatty, but 400kg is class-leading stuff: the lightest of the new Sports will sneak in under two tonnes.
Settling into an easy lope at 130mph - one very expensive lump of aluminium neatly ensconced within another - and Europe suddenly looks rather smaller. “At this rate, we’ll be in Glasgow for tea and haggis!” I exclaim with the confidence of someone who doesn’t really understand ‘fate’. Immediately, we hit a gigantic traffic jam. A gigantic traffic jam that, according to the Sport’s nav, stretches to somewhere in the middle of Belgium. Wycherley politely asks that I stop making such confident proclamations.
We swing off the motorway and find ourselves - as one so often does in Germany - in a stunning slice of bosky, rolling countryside that’d be jammed to the seams with caravans and tour buses were it in the UK. Here, it’s deliciously deserted.
Half an hour of dedicated, selfless research reveals the Sport to be as not-slow in the corners as it is on the ‘bahn. In the old car, you always felt you were fighting the car’s mass, but not now. In Dynamic mode, which hunkers the RRS down on its springs and instantly makes potholes six inches deeper, there’s not a whisper of roll or suggestion of understeer. It doesn’t so much disguise its sheer size as smother it under a smorgasbord of tractiontastic technology. There’s lots of clever stuff here: subtle braking of the inside wheel, centre and rear differentials, and an adaptive dynamic system that monitors and responds to its sensor readings 500 times per second, which is almost a tenth of what The Stig can manage. But the cleverest bit of all is that you don’t feel all the cleverness doing its stuff, only relentless traction and a frenzied desire to deposit all 510bhp into the road.
This is, in truth, an odd sort of powertrain for a big, leathery SUV. Around 5,000rpm, just as you expect the engine to start running out of puff, the supercharger wakes up and launches the serene RRS into headbanging mosh-pit territory. Though lightly disconcerting, it’s undeniably effective and a stellar match for JLR’s favourite eight-speed ZF auto, which is calibrated less aggressively here than in the same-engined F-Type. In cars packing 500bhp - not least that V8 F-Type - you tend to run out of cojones before you run out of power, but the RRS just lets you push ever harder, right until you have all four wheels squealing angrily and realise it might be tricky to phone the German AA if you’re a) jammed upside down in a woodland ditch and b) have a quarter-tonne lump of aluminium in your head.
Our dedicated, selfless research reveals more. Light the RRS may be, but it’s not small. Though 18cm shorter than the gargantuan Audi Q7, the RRS is 5cm taller and - crucially - almost 10cm wider. And 5cm wider than an Aventador. Each time a car approaches at pace from the opposite direction on these tight roads, I find myself taking involuntary gasps of breath.
Shortcut successful, wing mirrors still attached, we join an empty autobahn and crank the RRS up to a loping 130mph cruise. Minutes tumble from the satnav’s arrival time. Short of a Bentley Flying Spur or a small private aircraft, I can’t think of much that covers big distances with such little fuss. Even north of 200kph, even on the 22in wheels of our test car, there’s nary a whisper of road or wind noise, nothing to interrupt the Europop pummelling through the RRS’s 1,700-watt speakers in accordance with TG’s Big Book Of Road Trip Laws (“Commandment XXII: Thou Must Listeneth to None but the Worsteth Local Radio Station”).
Holland, Belgium and northern France: the RRS chews ‘em up and spits ‘em out like wads of tobacco. This is too easy. “We’ll be there with time to spare!” I exclaim with the confidence of a man refusing to grasp the whole ‘fate’ thing.
Into Calais, and, as we head through customs at the Channel Tunnel, it occurs to me that I have no idea what I’ll say to the customs officers if we’re stopped. “Anything in the boot? Erm, nothing much. Oh, apart from that 220kg lump of metal for… where are you taking me? And why are you wearing that glove?” But they wave us through, onto the train, where we find with relief that the cheese hasn’t escaped its moorings. An 11-year-old lad in the car behind us - who turns out to know rather more about Bloodhound that we do - almost implodes with excitement when he finds we’re smuggling the nascent wheel for Britain’s next land-speed-record car into the country (“And did you know it’s driven by a REAL FIGHTER PILOT?”).
And then flat, grey England, and yet another fuel stop. 20mpg? You’d be lucky. With mild surprise, I realise we’ve been going for seven hours. Doesn’t feel it. The RRS is a very easy place to spend time, with big comfy seats and cooling/heating gadgetry violent enough to burn your palms and freeze your buttocks simultaneously. There are flaws, however. Around Peterborough, I spend a frustrated half an hour searching for a range readout, only to discover it tucked down by the speedo and rev-counter, entirely obscured from view by the lip at the bottom of the instrument panel. OK, I’ve got the seat as low as it’ll go, but I’m not that short. Wycherley, mocking me for being a dwarf, slips behind the wheel at the next caffeine-stop and can’t see the readout either. It’s official: the RRS is heightist.
And then, somewhere outside of Leeds, everything just… stops. Not the Range Rover, the traffic. Ten minutes, 20, an hour, we sit stationary in the air-conditioned cool, and as our ETA spirals past midnight, it seems we are not going to deliver this cheese on time. And then Castle Precision will miss their deadline and the project will be compromised and when Bloodhound’s wheels disintegrate at 1,000mph, destroying the world’s most advanced car, the team will turn to each other, nod and say, “Well, that was TopGear’s fault.”
“We’re not going to make it,” I declare solemnly to co-pilot Wycherley. At which point, inevitably, the traffic vanishes and we clear the Pennines and spirit north on the M6, through the Lake District, into Scotland and, finally, through the roller-hatch of Castle Precision’s spotless warehouse, the grubby, insect-flecked RRS looking shameful against the factory’s surgical blue and white. We make it with eight minutes to spare. “Could’ve stopped for a quick coffee,” grins Wycherley sympathetically.
The cheese is forklifted from the boot, the Sport almost visibly rising on its springs, and our precious cargo vanishes into a vast, shiny contraption to be machined into wheel form. And I am left to contemplate our very fast, very large, curiously compelling delivery van.
There are plenty of SUVs that’ll seat seven at a push and cross continents at a decent lick. But the quicker versions - Merc’s ML63, for example - always feel like cooking 4x4s with sportiness injected as an afterthought. The RRS, however, seems engineered as a truly fast SUV from the start. Probably because it was. Only the Cayenne can really match the Rangey for entertaining driving, but the Porsche will only seat five and - most crucially - can’t compete with the RRS for light-footed, long-distance cruising.
Even so, do you really need a seven-seat SUV capable of 155mph and 0-62mph in five seconds, one with over half a metre of axle articulation, one that’ll wade through nearly a metre of water? Well, no. The entry RRS diesel - with its 258bhp V6 - would be more than enough for most of us. In truth, a fast estate - a BMW 535d, a Jag XF Sportbrake - offers more space, pace and farm-track-negotiating ability than most of us will ever need.
But, then again, we don’t need a land-speed-record car that’ll do 1,000mph. But, if it’s possible, why not? Both Bloodhound and the RRS are mightily impressive demonstrations of the engineering ingenuity of our modest little isle. To Britain: achieving the improbable with a lot of horsepower and even more tea!
Words: Sam Philip
Pictures: John Wycherley
This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine