Motoring / The Independent Road Test: A steep price to pay for some country cachet: The luxurious new Range Rover is even further removed from its origins, says Brett Fraser

OVER THE years, the specification, price and aspirations of the Range Rover have been climbing steadily. Its tremendous off-road ability apart, all links with the farmyard Land Rover have been cast aside with the acquisition of the trappings of the well-heeled car about town: wood, leather, Wilton carpets, automatic transmission, electric-powered this, that and everything. The name Range Rover now appears on buyers' shortlists alongside the Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz. And often it tops the list - not just in Britain, but all over the world.

But it is now in danger of getting too big for its boots. When the latest round of revisions are announced at the Birmingham Motor Show later this month, the top model will cost close on pounds 40,000. That's an awful lot of money for a car which, despite all the changes, isn't so far removed, mechanically, from the original model.

Its rivals, however, are every bit the Nineties luxury cruisers you'd expect for 40 grand. They're whisper-quiet, sports-car fast, and as solidly built as St Paul's Cathedral - all things that the Range Rover isn't. Ah, but can they drive up the side of mountains? Of course not, but then most Range Rovers never even go near a molehill. And if you treat it as a road car, its act starts to look ragged around the edges.

But let's not undersell the story of the Range Rover, because there are few more heartwarming examples of a country boy doing well in the city. In June 1970, it was born into the highly respected Land Rover family whose reputation for ruggedness, practicality, adaptability and a keen sense of adventure were already well established. But the family was always ill at ease when asked to travel too far from a farm or far-flung jungle track; they could not cope with urban life.

From day one, however, the young Range Rover was designed to be less rural. True, its early role was to serve 'gentlemen' farmers, landowners, and the horse racing fraternity. But the fact that it was expensive (at pounds 2,000) and initially hard to get hold of, gave it an instantaneous cachet, not just with monied country folk but city dwellers, too.

Two decades ago, 'luxury' was not what it is today: the interior was swathed in vinyl, the floor mats were rubber, and you had to wind the windows by hand. But all mod cons are incorporated in the new king of the hill, the Vogue LSE model. It is unique in the Range Rover line-up in having a longer wheelbase (108in against 100in for the standard model), the extra inches allowing rear passengers more room to stretch their legs, and more luggage space.

Also unique to the LSE is a new 4.2-litre 200bhp derivative of the 3.9-litre V8 which continues to power lesser models. It goes some way towards making the big off- roader a more convincing on-road rival to a 4.0-litre Jaguar or S-class Mercedes. The bigger capacity engine accelerates like it means it, without the thrashy wheezings that accompany the 3.9's exertions. In the crucial middle rev- ranges, the overtaking band, the extra oomph is most keenly felt, and most greatly appreciated.

Just as important, it brings a relaxed gait and peacefulness to motorway cruising, which is aided by substantial improvements in the sound-proofing throughout the car. But by decreasing engine and road noise levels, the car's wind- noise problem - caused by bodywork which has the aerodynamic refinement of a shoebox - is left with the stage to itself.

More worthy of star billing is a sophisticated electronic air suspension (EAS), which replaces conventional steel coil springs with air-filled rubber diaphragms. The technicalities of the system are worth an essay of their own, so here we'll stick to the effects, for they help to make the LSEthe best, most desirable Range Rover yet.

Most of its functions are masterminded by a computer, but it allows some human intervention through the buttons on the centre console. There are five height settings: 'Standard', the same as on conventionally sprung models; above 50mph, the system automatically drops 20mm, and adopts 'Low Profile', to aid aerodynamics and stability; 'High Profile' (manual selection only) raises the suspension 40mm, for off-road work; if that's still not enough, 'Extended Profile' provides a further 30mm elevation. At rest only, the suspension can be dropped 60mm below standard height, into 'Access Mode', making getting in and out easier.

As well as improving the Range Rover's practicality and providing a new toy with which to impress the neighbours, EAS enhances the ride quality, most noticeably off-road. (An optional extra to boost its off-road capability is electronic traction control.)

Inside, the timber has changed from walnut to poplar, and there's more of it. The LSE has gorgeous soft leather upholstery, which distracts you from thinking about the seat cushions, front and rear, which are too short.

For the money - indeed for far less - there are better luxury cars than the Range Rover. But I suspect the typical Range Rover buyer won't care. The car's great off-road potential, though perhaps never exploited, compensates for all other failings. Besides, it's a national treasure, a local hero. And it sells.

SPECIFICATIONS

Range Rover Vogue LSE, pounds 39,995. Engine: 4.2-litres, V8, fuel-injected. Power: 200bhp at 4,850 rpm. Four-speed automatic transmission, permanent four-wheel drive. Variable-rate air-sprung suspension system. Performance: top speed of lllmph; 0-60mph in 9.9 seconds. Average fuel consumption: 13-20mpg on unleaded petrol.

COMPARISONS

BMW 740i, pounds 43,950

Recently in receipt of a brand new V8 engine, the 7-series is vastly quicker than the Range Rover, and more refined. Not as spacious but its seats are more comfortable.

Jaguar 4.0 Sovereign, pounds 38,300

The strong, silent type. Just as luxurious as the LSE, rides more serenely, performs more ably. Needs more space in the rear, and a bigger boot.

Mercedes-Benz 300SE pounds 43,060

Nobody builds 'em like Benz does. Dynamically superior to the Range Rover on all counts (except off-road). Short on soul, big on bulk.

(Photograph omitted)

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