Off the beaten path

2006, Land Rover, Range Rover Sport HSE

There is something intrinsically satisfying about having the proper tool for a given task. Then, sometimes, a proper tool can inspire hitherto unanticipated tasks whose discovery is their own reward. Such was the case with the 2006 Range Rover Sport HSE that appeared unannounced at my doorstep on the very day when I was returning from travel out of the country.

Certainly, I had not anticipated the arrival of Land Rover's much heralded new "performance" SUV at this time. On the other hand, I was all too familiar with the task that was before me. After 15 days of hiking in England and Wales, I had 12 hours to replenish my enthusiasms before driving eight hours to Chapel Hill, N.C., with the contents of a college dormitory room in tow. Daughter Number Two had liberally packed for every possible outcome of her freshman first-year-away-from-home. The family car would have been doomed. The Range Rover Sport had materialized in response to an unuttered prayer.

Once the refrigerator, bed linens, electronics, shoes, books, cooler, desk ditties and wardrobe bags were securely slotted atop the flat-folding rear seats of the Range Rover Sport, I can safely say that we had managed to package one active teenage life into precisely 71 cubic feet of maximum cargo space. There was no room left for as much as a stray "Go Tarheels!" basketball pennant.

Judging only by surface appearances, a loaded SUV on a long-distance trek is nothing the least bit special. Indeed, that's what SUVs are supposed to do; and it'd be nice if more people bought them with this kind of errand in mind rather than for the apparent purpose of taxing the transportation infrastructure and fellow drivers' patience to the limits of conspicuous consumption.

From our perch up front, Daughter Number Two and I enjoyed a jaunty, uneventful ride for the next 550 miles. She dozed on sumptuous leather; I feasted upon six CDs' worth of tunes at a time from the Harmon Kardon Logic 7 surround-sound audio system. Together, we marveled at the accuracy of the standard DVD-based satellite navigation system that guided us to the University of North Carolina by map, with accented promptings from a very proper Jeeves.

Just two minor complaints troubled us: We could only enable random play among CD tunes one disk at a time, rather than among all six disks as a batch. Oh, bother! And the two tankfuls required to reach Chapel Hill from Nashville, representing just under 15 miles-per-gallon, cost $55 each. Moreover, that's at a price-per-gallon that we're all wistfully resigned never to see again.

Preoccupied with furnishing a new dorm room and beginning a new life, Daughter Number Two understandably failed to notice the first hints of something special about the Range Rover Sport as we proceeded to unload it. First was the very literal sigh of relief as the active, automatic air suspension adjusted to a new self-leveling ride height after 71 cubic feet and several hundreds of pounds of flotsam and jetsam had been ejected from the cargo hold.

Then, after a bittersweet parting with yet a second daughter now away from home, it was a helpful diversion to ponder this new Range Rover Sport on its own sporting merits. Uncluttered with cargo, the Sport cuts a racier silhouette than either the original full-size Range Rover or the new Land Rover LR3. Indeed, the Sport is a shortened and lightened LR3 in principle, and its athletic stance and aerodynamic rakishness give it the appearance of a sort of SUV sport-coupe, despite four doors.

For enthusiasts, it has been hard to ignore the publicity buzz in anticipation of the Sport's 2006 debut. Although available with two Jaguar-derived engines, it is the supercharged 4.2-liter V8 that has dominated most attention spans with its 390 horsepower. The Sport HSE that I drove featured a normally aspirated, twin-cam 4.4-liter V8 underhood. Its 300-hp output was plainly ample, and its manners were particularly refined. Something more than even the $13,000 price difference, however, managed to recommend the Sport HSE to my tastes.

In short, it was the ability of the Range Rover Sport to perform in genuine sporting fashion that warmed me to this SUV; and this was revealed to me through yet another unexpected circumstance. Determined to entertain myself for the eight-hour solo ride home, I turned to my Navigation Jeeves for a recommendation. Auspiciously, the DVD nav system crafted me a scenic route through the Appalachian Mountains that could hardly have been better suited to showcase this Range Rover's strengths.

In particular, the serpentine stretch of Highway 321 from Boone, N.C., to Elizabethton, Tenn., combined ascents and dives, hairpins and sweepers, acceleration blasts and hard braking to fire the emotions of any genuine enthusiast. The Sport's active suspension flattened corners as would a pedigreed sports car. Manual use of Command Shift on the six-speed auto gearbox allowed compression braking on downhills and maintenance of perfect rpm-power through long bends.

Leaving Boone, I passed a Sunday-driver just north of Valle Crucis (whose Welsh namesake I had indeed just skirted past a week before). For the next 60 miles into Tennessee, overlooking Watauga Lake and lacing through scenery imported upon the backs of the Welsh and Scots-Irish who peopled this region's hill-and-valley farms centuries ago, I was alone in an eruption of sport-driving exuberance with no traffic, either coming or going, to snap me back into here-and-now. The Range Rover Sport was in its element, and I was in a Range Rover Sport in a magical setting. For a time, at least, it no longer mattered whom I had left behind or who wouldn't be waiting for me back at home.

2006 Range Rover Sport HSE: 4-door, 5-pass.; 4.4-liter DOHC V8 w/ vvt; 4WD, 6-sp. auto w/ Command Shift; 300 hp/315 ft.-lbs.; combined EPA 14.8 mpg w/ premium; max. cargo: 71 cu. ft.; std. equipment: 4-wheel active suspension & ABS disc brakes, dual auto HVAC, DVD navigation, AM/FM/6-CD, 19-in. wheels, front/front-side/front-rear curtain airbags, leather, sunroof, Terrain Response System & Hill Descent Control; base price: $56,750; as-tested: $64,500

By Marc Stengel

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Images of the 2006, Land Rover Range Rover Sport HSE

2006 Range Rover Sport HSE
2006 Range Rover Sport HSE
2006 Range Rover Sport HSE
2006 Range Rover Sport HSE
2006 Range Rover Sport HSE
2006 Range Rover Sport HSE
2006 Range Rover Sport HSE
2006 Range Rover Sport HSE