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The Independent Culture
P J O'ROURKE once wrote that people drove utility vehicles only so they could haul themselves out of the woods after mishaps caused by driving with one hand while opening a can of beer with the other. Motoring ethics have changed a lot since then - and so has the off-roader. When the Range Rover was introduced, 25 years ago, it gave the first intimation that a machine from Land Rover wasn't only for farmers or colonial policemen with turn-ups in their shorts. Since that time, the Range Rover and a growing battalion of rivals have become increasingly sophisticated and expensive.

With its latest and most radical incarnation, at a development cost of £300m, Range Rover has gone all the way. The 4.6 HSE costs nearly £44,000 - which is either foolishness, or a confident statement that it thinks it now belongs in the serene world of Mercedes, Jaguar and Lexus.

At first you wouldn't think this was the biggest revamp the Range Rover has had in a quarter-century. It's a little more rounded at the corners, maybe, but the boxy shape, bonnet and front end design, and the split tailgate, are all trademarks. With conservative customers, there have to be severe limits on innovation. The improvements are in size and space, engine clout, interior design and comfort, handling and ride. In these departments, the Range Rover has improved on its already class-leading standards. The 4.6, which comes only in a petrol-driven, auto-gearbox version, is a superb machine on and off the road, though the high build means you can't be too exuberant about cornering - even with computerised- suspension and traction control.

Rear visibility is restricted on this type of vehicle, too, though wing mirrors that automatically dip to scan the near curb when reverse is selected are a big help. Can I make a suggestion, though? A loud bleeper that sounded when these machines were reversing, as buses have, would be a good idea.

The ride is smooth, however, and the engine effortlessly willing. The off-road gear selection is a snap to use, and the cabin layout a huge improvement on previous models. Fuel economy, of course, isn't a strong point, and the cheaper models in this range - still featuring the same standard, intelligent suspension set-up but with lower specs and smaller engines - can knock upwards of £12,000 off the price, and cost a lot less to run.

I'm still not convinced about the sense of these pantechnicons for everyday town-centre use, or certain that a Mercedes S-Class user would throw it in for one of these. But the new Range Rover is certainly a great deal of automobile. Of some of the rivals, you can add that they're also a great deal of automobile for the money, which can't be said of this Solihull celebrity.

GOING PLACES: Refined and powerful 4.6-litre V8 engine, giving 277ft/lbs of torque at 3,000 revs per minute, 0-60mph in 10.5sec, 50-70mph overtaking burst in 6.4sec in kickdown (automatic gearbox only available on 4.6). Full-time four-wheel drive, low-range gear ratios for hauling easily selected with H-layout automatic shift. As smooth on motorways as it is imperious in a field.

STAYING ALIVE: Very substantial bodywork, standard anti-lock braking system and anti-skid traction control. Twin front-seat airbags. Secure handling for such a high-built vehicle, though roll still noticeably influences cornering policy. Steering feel excellent, brakes smooth. Extensive adjustment of steering position and seating, the latter electronically controlled.

BANGS PER BUCK: Very good all-in spec, but very high price too. Central locking, alarm, power steering, stereo, computerised warning systems, split folding rear seat, air conditioning, sunroof, cruise control, leather seats. Only a year's warranty, however, and it's only a five-seater. Price: £43,950.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Spacious, comfortable, good climate control, commanding driving position, and vast load-swallowing boot.

STAR QUALITY: Limo-threatening luxury and comfort. High safety standards. Go-anywhere practicality. Space. Prestige.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: High price. Dated exterior. Bulky feel, despite suspension innovation. Poor fuel consumption.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Mitsubishi Shogun 3.5 V6 (£35,499): seven-seater, very advanced technology, but stodgier on the road, and noisy; Toyota Landcruiser VX (£32,529): three-row seating, great turbo-diesel engine, clumsy on twisters; Jeep Grand Cherokee (£28,383): good value, well-equipped, quick, but not very spacious, and less effective off-road.