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Driven: Range Rover in Iceland

  1. This Range Rover is not stuck. We are simply exploring extraction options. The issue is that the car is perched sideways on a loose lava scree at the bottom of what was - up until a few years ago - a glacial lake in southern Iceland… and there’s a bit of a bottomless pit five feet below.

    Well, maybe not literally bottomless, but still a yawning chasm that slews closer every time I press the accelerator, because the RR slips sideways a foot laterally for every six inches gained on these slippery lava beads. A quick calculation of the depth of the geological overbite means that even though I’m not near the actual edge, the fresh air underneath the last three feet of terra-not-terribly-firma means that before reaching more solid ground, I’ll already have crumbled into the void and have the dubious honour of being the first person in the world to write off a new Range Rover.

    Pictures: Justin Leighton

    This feature first appeared in the September issue of Top Gear magazine 

  2. Kim, the man from Land Rover, is helpfully - and somewhat nervously - standing just underneath the precipitous RR. I’m not sure what he’s aiming to do, but I don’t think he’ll be able to catch a two-and-a-half tonne SUV if I accidentally invert it. There’s some comfort in the knowledge that the drop is only about 50ft of slope, the sand is soft and I’m unlikely to die, just be seriously injured.

    Honestly? That’s not much of a comfort.

  3. Ingólfur, our Icelandic guide, equipped with a Land Rover Defender SuperTruck (basically Iceland-equipped with an extended wheelbase, beefed-up bits and foot-and-a-half-wide tyres that can be deflated to a scant few psi for floating across treacherous snow and sand) is looking thoughtful. The Defender - containing potentially helpful tow ropes - is parked an unhelpful distance away.

    Suddenly he smiles, obviously just having seen a way through this predicament. “Tom, can you just turn it around and come over here?” he says, without apparent irony. Yes, I can swap the RR around, but I’m going to do a 47-point turn, roughly within the car’s 16-foot length. Because I’m scared. Eventually, we get the car turned and crawl our way along the edges, to a place where the Range Rover has a chance of extracting itself.

  4. Which, after a couple of button pushes on the new second-generation Terrain Response system, it does. Easily. There’s a faint sense of bewilderment. The terrain is lunar, the conditions more than challenging, we didn’t even let any air out of the tyres (standard practice in these conditions) and the Range Rover has just sort of… done it. Making my whining seem deeply hyperbolic. “Excellent!” shouts Ingó, clapping his hands and smiling a slightly surprised grin. “Argle!” mumbles Kim, whose relief manifests in him deflating like a man-shaped balloon poked with a sharp stick.

    Immediately, a voice pipes up: “Let’s see if you can drive it up there!” shouts the photographer, pointing to a jagged cliff face. Everyone shuffles nervously and shrugs, unwilling to admit their nervousness. Kim stares the proverbial daggers at the merrily unconcerned photographer. And then we try anyway, and succeed in some style. Very quickly, I come to realise that this is to be the theme of the next few days. The new Range Rover is here. And it’s everything you expect. But better.

  5. So I’ve spoiled the ending a bit. But this is the newest, most revolutionary version of a car that - if you look at the past couple of years’ rock solid sales figures - wasn’t in dire need of transformation. Land Rover has simply decided that the best form of market-leading defence is attack, on all fronts; new Range Rover is supposedly lighter, faster, more efficient, more luxurious, more capable in all conditions. Better in every way. In true TopGear style, we thought we’d like to test the practice, rather than the theory, and headed here, to Iceland. The harshest, most aggressive terrain we could find. To beat the Range Rover’s bold claims to death with live volcanoes, black sand and lava rock.

    So far, though, the Range Rover has been doughtily impressive. Not being upside down and bleeding in an Icelandic Pit of Doom helps, but on the sweeping, wide roads and past few hours of on-road driving, the new car has been quietly resolute. It looks unmistakably like a Range Rover in its profile and stance - its floating roof and slab sides punctuated by vertical side gills - but all sympathetically modernised. It’s Land Rover’s Porsche 911 moment, a thorough generational overhaul that still aims to keep the car’s visual character firmly in place. Yes, there are zeitgeisty LEDs and daytime running lights, head- and tail-lights cut back into the bodywork and a myriad of contrast colour options in the brochure (you can have the roof and side gills in unmatching shades these days), but given a silhouette or a glimpse, you’ll still not mistake it for anything else. Good.

  6. The genealogical familiarity of the styling is a slight red herring, though. Underneath, the Range Rover has become something altogether more technological than a poshed-up workhorse, and from the very first corner, bump or burst of acceleration, you realise that the changes are deep and thorough. This RR has a spanking new all-aluminium basic structure that will become the basis for all future Range Rover products. Jaguar Land Rover has chucked a billion quid at the development of a monocoque that features sticking and riveting variously pressed, cast, extruded and rolled aluminium bits to create bones 39 per cent lighter (180kg) than the current Rangie’s steel basics.

    An example? The entire side of the new RR is stamped from a single aluminium panel, reducing the need for joints and welding, and making it stronger as a result. The doors are aluminium, as are the front and rear subframes, final drive units, brake calipers, intrusion beams and various other strategic elements. About the only things that aren’t aluminium are the reinforced SMC plastic panels used in the upper portion of the split tailgate. In a lot of ways, the extensive use of ally means that modern Range Rovers are more like a contemporary Jaguar XJ than anything that has gone before in the Land Rover range - and that’s not a bad thing.

  7. So here come some figures, but bear with me, because this stuff is important. For a start, if you reduce weight, you up efficiency and punch for your engineering pound. So the new car will be available for the first time with a stop/start-equipped TDV6 3.0-litre diesel with similar power to the outgoing TDV8 (255bhp and 442lb ft), in a car that weighs 420kg less. So a V6 that delivers the same speed as that previous V8 (60mph in 7.4secs), but with startlingly better efficiency. Some 37.7mpg and 196g/km CO2 from a Range Rover? That’s an appreciable benefit. And there’s a diesel hybrid on the way in 2013 that should make 169g/km possible - less than a 2.0-litre VW Golf GTI.

    The 4.4-litre SDV8 diesel remains (the one we have here), but upped to 335bhp and 516lb ft to give a 0-60mph time of 6.5secs - but, more pertinently, equipped with the kind of smooth, lusty torque from below 2,000rpm that we’d find hard to resist. It makes a long-legged lope across Iceland comically easy and provides decent range from the big tank. And of course, there’s a 5.0-litre V8 petrol with a supercharger that chucks out over 500bhp and hits 60mph in 5.1 seconds. But that feels slightly bonkers for a car so relaxing to drive.

  8. Relaxing is a good word for it. Launching into uphill bends around yet another jaw-dropping volcanic landscape that leaks steam like the country has a series of burst pipes, the Range Rover still feels like a Range Rover, just fitter. A younger, more alert version of itself. The steering is more precise and sensitive, but still a little remote, the attitude flatter and more controlled but still with plenty of absorbency. The ZF eight-speed ‘box is so good you don’t even notice it. It’s not a pointlessly Nür-honed BMW X5, and is the better for it, feeling like whoever engineered this really knows - and understands intuitively - what a Range Rover should feel like, rather than simply aiming for the fastest way around the corner.

    Of course, the air suspension has anti-roll and active lean functions and all sorts of clever stuff ferreting away under the waterline, but the biggest compliment you can give this car is that it doesn’t feel like it. I drove it quite fast for a while using the gearbox paddles and everything and then just… lost interest. It’s not that it can’t do tyre-screeching, it’s just that the Range Rover still isn’t that sort of car. Thank God. So I settled back, turned up the brilliantly ridiculous 28-speaker Meridian stereo and looked for somewhere to make the Range Rover really uncomfortable.

  9. Which is a lava sand beach, as it turns out. Things have got sticky, and we’ve managed to fox the Terrain Response’s Auto setting, so the Rangie has very gently chewed its way through the top surface and scuffed onto its aerodynamic belly. The RR may have been on a diet, but it’s still a heavy car on road tyres and 20-inch rims trying to float on pebbles that have the same grip coefficient as greasy marbles. Oh, and the tide’s coming in. Unwilling to have come so far and resort to a tow, I flip idly through the various Terrain Response menus for grass, gravel, snow, sand and the like, and then resort to the time-honoured off-road tradition of rocking back and forth for a bit, sticking the car in low-range, turning off the traction control and then progressively booting the crap out of it.

    Much to everyone’s surprise, yet again, the Range Rover pops out of its self-dug hole and chomps on through the loose top surface of the beach.

  10. It looks a bit bizarre, with the wheels moving at an entirely unrelated speed to the actual forward motion of the car, but there’s a relentlessness to the Range Rover; when you point it at something, there’s a fair chance it’ll make it out the other side. My confidence, after this temporary setback, is again rock-solid. So much so that the speeds gently increase to the point where a definite vibration is strumming merrily up through the steering wheel. I wonder why, and then realise that I’m doing 60mph across what amounts to a lightly ploughed rock field.

    I’m barely feeling it. The wheels are taking a bit of a battering, and there are some ominous clonks from underneath the car as fist-sized rocks bounce off the undercarriage, but if there’s a vehicle that can maintain its composure like this while being beaten with loose geography, then I’ve yet to find it. Eventually, we park inside a seaside basalt cave, take some pictures, and I start to grill Ingó about something even more challenging.

  11. It’s starting to feel like I need to push this damn car to the limit, just to see what’ll stop it. We try driving across a river to test the 900mm wading height. Which is apparently a bit of an easy one for a Range Rover. So I try driving up a river and manage to get water over the bonnet, and the Range Rover to float. At which point I panic a little bit and apply more and more throttle, in an attempt to paddle back to solid ground. The Range Rover, using some sort of sensor I didn’t even know it had, senses the dangle and pushes its own wheels even further down into the water and finds grip at roughly the same point as the speedo is reading about 80mph.

    Whereupon we exit the river, like some sort of military landing craft, at speed, towing a large amount of water. I try climbing up some rocks and simply drive over them. I try jumping over 40ft high black sand dunes, but can’t overcome the suspension travel and soft surface enough to make the car airborne, and just resort to hammering up the side of said dune with a whole turn of opposite lock, laughing like a cretin. In between bouts of off-road madness, we simply drive up and out onto the road and act like a Bentley. I’m now in full evangelical mode, and convinced that given enough of a run-up, I could drive the car back to Europe without a boat.

  12. At this point, Ingó and I are plotting another trip to Iceland, to the western part of the island, to some places he regards as very serious off-road. He shows me some pictures. It’s basically Mars with snow.

    We drive up a cliff, past signage that becomes increasingly hysterical about the severity of the climb, to find that the Range Rover - surprise, surprise - manages to clamber its way to the top without feeling like it’s really trying. The photographer jumps out of the car and promptly falls over, having no sense of the severity of the slope from inside the car. There’s a data screen buried in the Terrain Response that shows exactly what the car is doing - activating diff locks and the various acronyms (HDC, GRC, HSA, DSC, ETC and RSC to name but six, and I’m pretty sure the last one has nothing to do with Shakespeare), but you look at it from inside the car with a kind of detached wonder. As the sun boils its way into the Norwegian Sea, I pop open the now fully electric split tailgate, arrange myself a little picnic on the back of the RR, ponder a view usually only seen by the kind of hikers that carry ropes and crampons, and come to an important conclusion.

  13. This is not a revolution of the soul of a Range Rover, because it didn’t need it. And to have reinvented the basic premise would have been to miss the point of valuable heritage. What it is, is a Range Rover at the very top of its game. Then again, the Range Rover isn’t really an SUV any more. It’s become something else. Admittedly, the faintly ludicrous off-road ability it possesses if driven sympathetically is nice to have in reserve, but, in reality, the new RR is now in serious competition with high-end limousines for comfort and ability on-road, too.

    With a panoramic roof and the extra rear legroom, proper luxury, rock-solid image and stoutly un-vomit-inducing ride characteristics, emerging markets like China are going to consume this car as fast as LR can roll them out the door. I can see people launching themselves out of BMW 7-Series and Mercedes S-Class as fast as their chubby little Captain of Industry legs can carry them. I can see Bentley owners looking at the 5.0-litre V8 and wondering whether they really need a Flying Spur. And best of all? The absolute evidence of new Range Rover achievement? I can see current Range Rover owners simply saying, “Yes, please” and ordering another.

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