Last year, a new Range Rover garnered high praise in this column. Most of the quirks and all of the flaws found in earlier models were corrected and it promptly became Sport Utility of the Year. It was big, comfortable, utilitarian and sucked gasoline. It also cost almost $80,000.
What Land Rover, the British parent company now owned by Ford Motor Co., needed was a less expensive sport utility that nonetheless would uphold the company's high standards. So, for 2005, it introduced an entirely new model: the LR3.
Not a catchy name, but that's about the only thing wrong with this vehicle. So good is it that it also has been named Sport Utility of the Year. And it actually replaces the disgraced Discovery, a vehicle with a sullied reputation for safety.
Land Rover sent its two top vehicles back to back for testing so this reviewer could discern the differences. Frankly, for Florida driving, the LR3 emerged the easy choice.
Begin with price. The tested Range Rover had a final sticker price of $78,750. The LR3 weighed in at $53,245. Having driven each a week, my choice would be to buy the Land Rover LR3 and spend the difference on a 2005 Ford Mustang GT convertible.
The fact is that the higher-priced Range Rover is not significantly changed for 2005. All of the corporate attention this year seems to have been focused on the new LR3. The improvements are visible even from outside the sport utility.
Note the LR3's rear window. It is big, for better rear visibility, but dips sharply down on the passenger side of the vehicle. This affords absolutely best-in-class rear visibility, very useful when parking. Also aiding parking are standard ultrasonic detectors on the rear bumper, audibly signaling proximity to any object behind the vehicle. They're like having personal radar.
That rear window is part of a split hatch. The window can be opened separately and the dip makes it easy to place or retrieve items in the cargo area. The solid tailgate can be dropped. Or the entire piece can be lifted up.
There is a sunroof for the front seats, an Alpine glass area for the second and third row or cargo area. Third row seats are an option on the LR3, by the way. I'd skip them. Most folks who do opt for them will probably keep them flat much of the time, because in daily use they block the view to the rear that Land Rover has worked so hard to improve.
There are also subtle ways to tell that the LR3 is actually more advanced than this year's Range Rover. Both use the same 4.4-liter V8 engine, but the LR3 manages two miles per gallon better fuel efficiency. How? The LR3 has a newer six-speed automatic transmission feeding power to its four wheels. The Range Rover has an older five-speed. The overdrive (sixth) gear with its lower engine rpm makes quite a difference.
Both vehicles are always in four-wheel drive mode. Both also feature the ability to shift into a low-gear mode for traversing rough terrain. And both are heavy: our LR3 weighed almost 5,700 pounds. It was rock-steady and smooth on or off road.
The fuel mileage difference might be significant for some buyers in this era of declining oil reserves and soaring crude prices. The EPA estimates it will cost $2,249 a year to keep the Range Rover running with premium gasoline; the LR3 will cost $1,688 a year to operate.
There are no compromises in safety when purchasing the LR3 over the Range Rover. Each has eight airbags: two front, two side thorax, two side curtains for head protection and a separate curtain for the third row. The LR3 has an inertia switch that senses a collision and unlocks the doors, turns off the fuel pump and turns on the hazard flashers.
The headlights, an important but often-overlooked safety factor, are bi-xenon models that project a bright white light at night. They come on automatically as needed, as do the windshield wipers. The interior rear-view mirror dims automatically, as well.
In either vehicle, a driver can sit high, with a commanding view of the road ahead. In the Range Rover, the ignition switch is on the floor near the driver's seat, much like Saab has pioneered. In the LR3, the switch is on the dash.
Both vehicles come standard with a GPS navigation system displaying a map in the center console area. The system can leave "bread crumbs" as you travel, so it can retrace a route from a wilderness you've explored.
Another way to tell the LR3 is more advanced is engine horsepower. Remember that the two sport utilities both use the same V8 engine, borrowed from Ford-owned Jaguar, but the LR3 gets 300 horsepower from it while the Range Rover must make do with 282.
Each vehicle has traction control and anti-lock brakes as standard items. Each also has sophisticated stability control, electronic brake force distribution, cornering brake control, hill descent control and emergency brake assist. Onboard computers will do their best to keep a driver from rolling one of these.
The interior of each is luxurious: leather seats, dual-zone climate control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel (heated on the Range Rover, not on the LR3) and a terrific audio system (the Range Rover's is the better of the two). Each has voice control for the navigation and audio systems. You do not have to speak in a British accent, although you'll be tempted.
Leadership at this level will probably be short-lived, no matter the automaker. Lexus, for instance, is introducing a smaller SUV with a hybrid engine setup, achieving much better fuel efficiency and being more earth-friendly. Ford has such a system already for its Escape sport utility, so perhaps we can look for a luxurious Land Rover hybrid next year.
And Mercedes-Benz is getting ready to replace the wonderful G500 sport utility.
In the meantime, this LR3 deserves to be 2005 Sport Utility of the Year.
Robert C. Bowden produces The Car Place, a Forbes Best of the Web selection, and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]