THE OLD Range Rover was designed as an off-roader that could double as a luxury car. The new Range Rover is a luxury car that can serve as an off-roader. And never before has there been such an awesomely competent 4x4 machine.

How do you replace an icon? For that is what the Range Rover has become. For 24 years it has stood as the supreme automotive blend of rusticity, royalty and urban refinement. Land Rover's designers decided that such was the following and fashionableness of the old Range Rover that the new one had to imitate it. The upshot is that it is still boxy, still upright, still with a beltline parallel to the road.

It looks good enough from most angles, if nothing like as distinctive in 1994 as the original did back in 1970. The rear view is the only eyesore: those tail-lamps look as though they belong to another vehicle.

Technically, only the air-sprung suspension has been carried over. There is still a big separate chassis, but it is now lighter. Solid (lighter) axles are still used front and rear - they improve strength and wheel articulation compared with car-like independent suspension. The engines are aluminium V8s either of 4.0 or 4.6 litres. They are heavily modified: stronger, smoother, more frugal, cleaner.

A BMW turbodiesel is a new addition, but economy is still not the strong point of the petrol Range Rovers. I managed just over 15mpg in a top-of-the-range 4.6 HSE. The diesel should get nearer 25mpg.

Inside, the improvements are more obvious. The dash is now as good as in most luxury cars: well laid-out, nicely sculpted and well finished (all novelties for a Range Rover). There are lashings of wood and quality hides plus a terrific stereo. The seats are more car-like and more comfortable. Rear legroom is much improved, entry and exit to the back seat much easier.

Further in keeping with the regal image, the Range Rover lowers itself to passengers climbing in or out - an upshot of the air suspension's automatic ride height adjustment. When you move away, the vehicle lifts itself up into that typically dominant driving position. Go a bit quicker, as on a motorway, and it curtsies again, but this time to keep a sharper grip on the road and improve the aerodynamics. A little tell-tale light display on the dash keeps you informed of where you are, relative to terra firma.

And should you be that most unusual Range Rover owner and venture off the tarmac, you can use the air suspension to raise the vehicle even further above the ruts.

More important, the new Range Rover is astonishingly good on the tarmac - for a 4x4. Body roll is well countered, the ride is good (only deep transverse ridges jar) and wind, road and mechanical groans and whistles are much better suppressed than before. It is a much sharper, tidier handling vehicle than the old Range Rover, and not all that far behind the best luxury mainstream cars in on-road composure.

Land Rover had two main benchmarks when developing the new model: the BMW 7-series on- road, and the Mercedes G-wagen turbodiesel off it. The fact that the company has succeeded at neither is as irrelevant as it would be impossible. One vehicle simply is not capable of serving up such disparate abilities.

But in the process of trying, Land Rover is simply getting on with it, and in the process has made the best 4x4 even better.

SPECIFICATIONS

Range Rover 4.6 HSE pounds 43,950. V8 engine, 4.6 litres, 225bhp. Top speed 119mph, 0-60mph in 10.2 seconds. Average fuel consumption 15.3mpg. (Prices start at pounds 31,950 for both the base turbodiesel and 4.0-litre V8 models).

COMPARISONS

Jeep Grand Cherokee pounds 27,995. Very car-like on the road, pretty good off-road. Not as sophisticated or well made as the new Range Rover, but a bargain. Left-hand drive only.

Mitsubishi Shogun 3500 V6 pounds 35,199. One of the best 4x4s on tarmac, but outclassed when the going gets tough. Far too pricey for what is.

Toyota Landcruiser 4.2TD VX pounds 38,050. Nearest thing to a Range Rover off-road, but it serves up nothing like the Range Rover's on-road refinement.

(Photograph omitted)

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