Land Rover is surely a company that could rest on their laurels. With a long history of producing rugged SUVs before that term even existed, the brand could sell incredibly well based on just their name; “Land Rover” means you’ve arrived, and that you could easily run other poseur SUVs off the road. Their models offer off-road prowess and SUV finery that virtually no other manufacturer can boast. We should know — we scrambled up canyon rocks in the new flagship Range Rover in street tires last year. But then, that all-new aluminum-bodied beast wasn’t enough for Land Rover. They’ve spiffed up their biggest seller, the Range Rover Sport, and we had the chance to drive it through one of Chicago’s snowiest winters see how it performed off the clean tarmac.
MORE BEHIND THE WHEEL: 2013 Land Rover Range Rover | Taking On the Trans-America Trail in the Land Rover LR4 | 2013 Land Rover LR4 Overland Journal Edition
Unlike the previous generation, the new RR Sport is a brand new car. The old RR Sport was actually based on the LR4, with steel frame underpinnings and interior and exterior styling from the Range Rover. The Sport slots in just below the Range Rover and just above the LR4, but its leanings are unlike those two cars in that it’s first and foremost intended as a driver’s car. It achieves this through a lower stance and a focus on more aggressive handling. The name of the game for 2014 is improving those two characteristics via a diet of aluminum for weight loss in a path very similar to the Land Rover flagship’s last year. This equates to shedding about 800 pounds, which is like kicking two adult male silverback gorillas out of the cargo section. But does more than pick up the lightened load from the Range Rover: the Sport also benefits by borrowing the eight-speed ZF automatic tranny, electrically-assisted rack-and pinion steering, huge vented brake discs and the independent suspension from the top-ender.
Land Rover saw fit to borrow the baby brother Evoque’s styling cues for the new Sport, making it sleeker and lower than the last car. The difference is noticeable, and the execution is excellent, lending the Sport a look much like a big cat preparing to pounce. The one drawback in stealing duds from your smaller sibling is that you might just get mistaken for him, which could be the case here for untrained observers. Regardless, though, the RR Sport is an SUV to be seen in, and many of its customers will buy it for this very reason, failing to ever drive it on anything more aggressive than the gravel road to the winery.
Step inside and you’ll find a refined interior that doesn’t deviate much from its big brother. Supportive leather seats, good visibility and driving position despite the feeling of sitting up high, and an airy feel all make for an inviting cabin. The look is clean without approaching the realm of ornate — sporty, just like its namesake. On their quest to remove a preponderance of buttons, LR added an eight-inch touchscreen on the center stack that cleans things up by taking on more functions. This system is not always intuitive, but it creates an interior that’s less fussy and more refined. The extra seven (yes, seven) inches of wheelbase result in a roomier cabin, especially for the second row passengers. There’s now even an option to have third row seats, though only your shortest friends would be relegated there.
The RR Sport is an SUV to be seen in, and many of its customers will buy it for this very reason, failing to ever drive it on anything more aggressive than the gravel road to the winery.
Our HSE had the “base” engine, though the 340 hp it emits feels anything but bottom-rung. Despite having two cylinders and 35 horsepower fewer than the previous base engine, the new RR Sport feels quicker — because it is. Supercharging makes up for the drop down to six cylinders, allowing the new engine to shave 0.3 seconds off the sprint to 60 (6.9). More importantly, the car feels more manageable and responsive. Opt for the 5.0-liter V8 in the Supercharged version and you get a big 510 hp that gets to 60 in 5.0 seconds. The V6 was more than lively enough for us while weaving through traffic like a sports car on stilts; the V8 will likely help you get more familiar with local law enforcement.
Despite the Sport’s driver enthusiast focus, there’s no question that Land Rover refuses to compromise on their vehicle’s trail capabilities. Consistent with this mentality, the Range Rover Sport can be outfitted with the new Terrain Response 2 all-wheel-drive system, which analyzes the terrain ahead and automatically chooses one of five settings (general, grass/gravel/snow, mud/ruts, sand, or rock crawl). It proved more capable than we could ever hope to utilize: in street tires it pushed through eight inches of snow and over frozen chunks of plow ice like a mountain goat with a schedule to keep.
On dry pavement the Sport is a hunkering beast. The air-suspension system offers four different ride heights, and active roll control and torque vectoring by braking keeps everything in check when speeds are quick and cornering is hard. The new aluminum unibody manages to keep the car incredibly well composed and quiet for a peaceful ride. That the RR Sport can outperform some sports cars and handles better than an SUV ever should, all the while cosseting its inhabitants, equates to a stellar achievement by the folks at Land Rover.
The only disappointment we came across in the RR Sport was that Chicago has no mountains. We took some liberties in a local home improvement store parking lot and conquered a few rather large mounds of snow and ice; the RR Sport barely sneezed. Yes, this excellence on and off-road comes at a cost, but it’s well worth it if you have the coin. Land Rover plans their changes carefully, and they’ve made all the right moves with the new Range Rover Sport. Based on their peaking sales numbers, we don’t have to guess that it’s paid off for them.