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Range Rover SDV8 Autobiography - First Drive

The fourth generation model has to live up with taking over from the best SUV you could buy, says David Wilkins. But do the radical changes make this one even better?

Engine: 4.4-litre turbo-charged diesel V8

Transmission: eight-speed automatic with permanent four-wheel drive, low range option and lockable central and (optionally) rear differentials combined with Land Rover Terrain Response system

Power: 339 PS at 3,500 rpm

Torque: 700 Nm between 1,750 and 3,000 rpm

Fuel consumption (combined cycle): 32.5 mpg

CO2 emissions: 229 g/km

Top speed: 135 mph

Acceleration (0-62 mph): 6.5 seconds

Price: £94,695 (prices for the new Range Rover start at £71,295)

Just how good is the new Range Rover? The old one, even in the tenth year of its life, was already just about the best SUV you could buy, and the latest-fourth generation model surely inherits that title, thanks to a series of upgrades that make it more effective than ever when the going gets rough.

But the new model is also a serious contender for another, completely different, title. With drastically improved on-road performance and a new emphasis on improving the lot of rear seat passengers, the latest Range Rover is good enough to challenge the world’s best luxury saloons on their own terms as well.

If that doesn’t sound like a monumental achievement, it’s only because past generations of Land Rover’s flagship model have already done so much to bridge the yawning gap between the previously separate worlds of rugged 4x4s on the one hand and top-end passenger cars on the other. Before the first Range Rover came along, the notion that the Land Rover, an untrimmed, ultra-basic, super-slow, leaf-sprung hard-core off-roader might one day spawn a rival for Rolls, Bentley and Jaguar would have seemed ludicrous. Imagine the Kia Picanto, for example, combining its credentials as one of the nippiest urban runabouts with a secondary role as a bit of a Ferrari basher on the high-speed driving front as well, and you have an idea of the stretch involved.

So just what is it that makes the new Range Rover special? After all, a quick initial look at the new car’s exterior suggests a high degree of continuity with the old one, rather than any radical breakthrough. The continuity thing is certainly important; you don’t lightly mess with the sort of success that Land Rover has been having with the Range Rover line since 1970 but the more you look at the new one, the more you realise that Land Rover’s talented designers under the leadership of Gerry McGovern have moved things on quite a bit. The nose is much rounder and the windscreen pillars are more sportily raked. The new car is less barrel-sided, while the wheels are pushed out more towards the corners, and they appear to fill the wheel-arches more fully.

But the under-the-skin changes are enormous. First there is a new all-aluminium body structure, the world’s first for an SUV. That chops an enormous 350 Kg off the weight of the latest car when it’s fitted with upgraded versions of the engines carried over from the old one, the 339 PS 4.4-litre SDV8 diesel and the 510 PS supercharged 5.0-litre V8 petrol. But the reduction in body weight also gave Land Rover the opportunity to offer an additional smaller engine option, the 258 PS 3.0-litre TDV6 diesel, while roughly maintaining the performance of the old TDV8. The adoption of the smaller, lighter engine takes the total weight saving on the base car to a whopping 420 Kg.

And a new, automatic version of Land Rover’s Terrain Response system makes it even easier to tackle the most difficult off-road conditions. Sensors detect the nature of the terrain and the system tweaks parameters such as ride height, engine mapping and so on without any intervention from the driver. It’s still possible to select the settings for conditions such as snow or mud manually but the automatic system works very well. Another new feature, a clever, vertically arranged funnel-like system of air intakes hidden away at the level of the bonnet shut-line, increases the new car’s maximum wading depth to a staggering 900mm. Those are just two additions to the Range Rover’s already formidable arsenal of off-road kit, which, combined, help the new model maintain its edge over the rest of the SUV pack.

But the biggest improvements have been made in the areas of on-road performance and passenger comfort, particularly for those occupying the rear seats. The new model’s drastically reduced weight means it feels far more agile than the old – although you never forget you’re driving something pretty tall – and it accelerates much more zippily as well. On the move, it feels quieter than just about anything else on the market; I sampled the two diesel engine options, which are expected to account for the bulk of sales in European markets, the 3.0-litre TDV6 and the 4.4-litre TDV8, and, thanks in part to exceptionally long gearing, both were almost silent motorway cruisers. The smooth V8 doesn’t sound or (enormous torque apart) feel like a diesel at all – if anything, it’s more like a good petrol V8. The V6 has a slightly growlier but also rather appealing engine note. Of course it’s a shade slower than the V8 – it takes 7.4 seconds to get to 60 mph as opposed to 6.5 seconds - but if you never tried the larger engine you wouldn’t miss it. The supercharged petrol, aimed mainly at non-European markets, nudges into supercar territory, with an artificially limited top speed of 155 mph and a 0-60 mph time of 5.1 seconds.

Sound insulation in the new car is exceptional; very little noise makes it into the cabin from the outside, and on the move, wind noise is very low indeed, thanks to aerodynamic tweaks and acoustic laminated glass. A modest stretch to the wheelbase means that rear seat passengers have much more legroom than before, and tweaks to the car’s packaging mean that their seating position is more comfortable as well. The cabin ambience matches just about anything this side of a Rolls or a Bentley; the dash design is recognisably an evolution of the old but has been tidied up considerably, with fewer visible buttons. Finally, the Range Rover’s SUV background gives it one unbeatable advantage in the battle against more conventionally laid out super-saloons – its raised ride height and low beltline gives its passengers a much more commanding and interesting view of their surroundings.

Land Rover has also worked hard to minimise this car’s environmental impact, a traditional point of criticism for SUVs. The combination of the big reduction in weight and the adoption of the smaller diesel means the base car delivers 37.7 mpg and 196g/km in terms of CO2 emissions, great figures for such a big and capable car. There’s more to come on the drive-train front as well, with Land Rover promising a hybrid for next year that’s planned to achieve 45 mpg and 169g/km.

Half of the aluminium in the new car’s body is recycled, and because the body shell is mainly riveted and bonded rather than welded, far less energy is used in its production. Even the leather trim, from traditional Scottish supplier Bridge of Weir, is produced using a low carbon process. And don’t forget that a car as durable, desirable and timeless in its look as the new Range Rover is likely to be cherished long after its less versatile and appealing four-wheeled contemporaries have been sent to the scrap heap – that can help the planet too.

So if the new Range Rover is the most desirable SUV you can buy, and has managed to lay at least one hand on the trophy for best luxury saloon as well, does that make it the best car in the world? That’s an impossible question to answer but it probably has a greater breadth of capabilities than just about anything else on four wheels.