It's a Keeper

By Hannah Wallace December 31, 2003

I have good news. And it's not that I saved a ton of money on my insurance. No. The good news is that the 2004 Range Rover is the finest sport utility money can buy.

A few years ago, I didn't feel that way. In fact, in a video featuring my review back then, I pounded my hands on the steering wheel and demanded that Ford (owners of Land Rover) fix the many flaws in the Range Rover I had tested.

Range Rovers, I said then, didn't have quirks; they had flaws.

No longer.

Every flaw that demoted the older Range Rover to an also-ran among top-money sport utilities has been corrected. What we have today is a comfortable, safe, utilitarian vehicle. By most considerations, it has no competitor.

Its styling has new touches, but the whole remains recognizable as a Range Rover, with squared off sides and extremities. The headlights and taillights are new, however, looking something like aftermarket add-on products. The light produced by those headlights is a brilliant, light-up-the-night white.

Inside, the 2004 Range Rover is vastly different from older models. The wood trim on dash and doors is matched in quality only by Jaguar craftsmen, which is to say it's the best in the world. Leather is boldly stitched, and, watch out, the steering wheel is heated for winter comfort.

Power window switches have been moved from the old location on the center console to the doors, where they belong. As might be expected, operation is one-touch down and up for all four windows. They reverse direction automatically if an obstacle is encountered. But the rear windows stop short of opening fully, a potential problem for Beauregard the Wonder Dog if he likes to hang his head out of a window.

The Range Rover is a tall vehicle, not meant as a performance handler. A driver must climb up slightly to reach the driver's seat, but the view from there is commanding in all directions. Instruments are clean and easily read, day or night. There are enough switches to delight a Boeing 747 pilot, including ones that raise or lower the vehicle, an aid in ascending or descending steep slopes.

This vehicle's forte is off road, you understand.

If the owner's manor is deep in the woods, reachable only via a one-lane path that frequently floods, well, no problem for the Range Rover. This sport utility is four-wheel-drive, all the time. The V-8 under the long hood produces enough horsepower (282) and torque to keep the Range Rover competitive with lesser vehicles. But it extracts a significant fuel mileage penalty-as if Range Rover owners would care. The EPA estimates are 12 miles per gallon in the city and 16 on the highway. An on-board computer showed that with careful use of the throttle, I returned 16.1 mpg overall, 14.1 in city driving.

Safety features are first-rate. For those in the front, there are air bags for chests, sides and heads. In the rear, air bags protect heads. The inside rear view mirror is photochromatic, meaning it dims when bright lights approach from the rear. Both outside mirrors tilt down when the Range Rover is backing up, and an ultrasonic detector on the rear bumper emits warning beeps to assist in parking. With the touch of a single button, both outside mirrors will fold inward, so the Range Rover can navigate that narrow opening between the trees.

An on-board computer and navigation system are standard. The navigation system is based on the GPS system, as all are, but this one even keeps track of the Range Rover off road. I'm still waiting for a system that memorizes each change of direction, however, so the vehicle could venture deep into the Everglades, then return to civilization without a problem by retracing the route. Be first, Range Rover.

The audio system is one of the world's best. It's a 570-watt, 15-speaker Harmon/Kardon Logic 7 Surround Sound model that produces superb fidelity at any volume. The trueness of sound is likely more important to monied ears than the earth-shaking bass favored by the young set doomed to deafness in their 40s.

And, speaking of money, we might as well get to the bottom line. You want the best? This one sells for $77,250.

Auto writers drive so many vehicles over the years that most are gladly returned at the end of testing. Only a few are what we call "keepers." This is one of them. If this veteran auto tester could have a garage of cars, the Range Rover would be in there. A few years ago, I wouldn't have kept one if it were won in a lottery. The change in Range Rover is so dramatic, the vehicle so improved, that if this special vehicle meets your needs, you owe it to yourself to test drive one.

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