Familiarity has bred contempt for most of our technology. You are more likely to curse your smartphone when it's slow than to fall down in wonder every time it lets you update Facebook. However, as I raced the 2014 Range Rover Sport through a series of tight turns, then clawed up a steep dirt hill, I found it easier to assume that magic, instead of some brilliant engineering work, made this SUV so capable.
At the forefront of my mind I knew Land Rover's newest SUV relied on individual air suspension at each wheel, automatically locking differentials, and a network of sensors to tackle high-speed cornering and tough off-road obstacles. But I couldn't help a sense of awe as I gripped the wheel and felt how this 5,000-pound SUV dealt with wildly different driving conditions.
Somehow, the Range Rover Sport knew how much suspension articulation to allow, which wheels needed braking pressure and precisely how much, and when locking up the center or rear differential would be useful.
Bringing myself back down to earth, I know Land Rover engineers spent a lot of time testing their programs in real-world situations, driving the Range Rover Sport over a variety of obstacles at different traction levels, tweaking settings to provide the best possible handling. Somehow, I don't see smartphone makers exhibiting this level of quality assurance dedication.
Now, you may assume after looking at the Range Rover Sport's lush interior and corresponding price tag that it couldn't possibly have true off-road chops, but you would be wrong. At a Land Rover-sponsored event, I spent all morning driving the Range Rover Sport at speed on twisty mountain roads, then, using the same Michelin Latitude Sport R20 tires, drove up and down steep tracks covered in loose, sandy dirt. This seeming pretty boy could handle itself in a real fight.
For all its demonstrated capability, the 2014 Range Rover Sport is intended to be more street-oriented than its big brother, the Range Rover. The roof of the Sport is a couple of inches lower and its overall length comes in almost 6 inches shorter than the standard Range Rover. However, its reduced dimensions don't seem to hurt it much for off-road capability.
Looking at its construction and drivetrain options, there seems little difference between the Range Rover Sport and the full-size Range Rover. Both use aluminum monocoque bodies, helping to reduce weight compared to the previous generation of each. The Range Rover Sport I drove for this review came with a supercharged 5-liter V-8 engine, the same as in the Range Rover CNET reviewed previously. Both models come with an eight-speed automatic transmission, and can be had with a supercharged V-6 engine instead of the V-8.
The V-8 produces 510 horsepower and 461 pound-feet of torque, pushing the Range Rover Sport to 60 mph in under 5 seconds, according to Land Rover. I had previously driven the V-6 version, which had more than adequate power, but prefer the V-8 for its tremendous sound. Under acceleration, it lets loose a completely satisfying deep growl.
The price to pay for that V-8 fury comes in mediocre fuel economy. The Range Rover Sport's EPA numbers are 19 mpg on the highway and only 14 mpg in the city. After a week of driving the Range Rover Sport in the city, mountains, and on the freeway, its fuel economy came in at 17.2 mpg.
Slightly mitigating the V-8's thirsty nature, Land Rover implements an idle-stop feature in the Range Rover Sport. Whenever I stopped at a red light, the engine quietly shut down, resuming combustion as soon as I lifted off the brake pedal. Idle-stop is a feature often met with dislike from car enthusiasts, but I found it worked very smoothly in the Range Rover Sport. A button on the console let me turn the feature off, but I liked that my fuel economy wasn't suffering from long stoplights.
Beyond enjoying the pure power of this engine, its tuning made the Range Rover Sport very drivable in heavy traffic. It responded directly and evenly to my gas pedal input, with enough easy modulation that I could creep forward when I wanted, or get immediate thrust when I needed it.
Land Rover sources its transmissions from ZF, and this one shifted effortlessly and seamlessly. The drive selector on the console is purely electronic, and works similarly to those in BMW models. Hold the trigger down and pull it back for Drive and push a button on top for Park; push it to the side for the Sport and manual shift modes. In automatic mode I rarely felt the shifts, and when I actuated manual gear changes using the steering-wheel paddles there was only minor lag.
In Drive, the transmission used its eight gears to keep the engine humming along at a sedate 2,000rpm until I kicked down the gas pedal. Sport mode raised the revolutions up to a steady 3,500, holding a higher engine speed when I got into heavy gas and brake pedal work.
Electric power steering was tuned for a natural feel, although heft was only nominal. It didn't take much effort to turn the wheel at low or high speeds.
When your tires are bogged down in a foot of sand or mud, being able to turn the wheel easily is a boon. For such situations, the Range Rover Sport has its Terrain Response System, which includes a dial on the console letting the driver choose a program to match the terrain. A Land Rover representative told me, as I drove up and down dirt tracks with minimal traction, that the car would figure out which program it should use when Terrain Response was left in automatic, but its off-road systems would work faster if I had the right program already dialed in.
Along with the different terrain programs, I could set the air suspension's ride height and engage descent control, the latter doing wonders in keeping the Range Rover Sport steady when going down hills with minimal traction.
For on-road shenanigans, this Range Rover Sport came standard with a Dynamic mode on its Terrain Response System, which lowered and stiffened the air suspension while turning normally white translucent elements on the gauges red. V-6 versions of the Range Rover Sport offer the Dynamic mode as an option.
Although I still felt its bulk, the Range Rover Sport let me push it hard on twisty mountain roads, and I only rarely came close to the limits of its traction and handling. Land Rover did not completely dial out understeer, and I found the Range Rover Sport a bit more capable off-road than pushed to the limits on paved turns. It might not beat a Corvette on the road, but it's near the top of the SUV pile for handling.
For mere tooling around, excursions up and down highways, the Range Rover Sport is nicely comfortable. Every time I nestled my head in the over-padded headrest, I let out a sigh of contentment. The on-road ride quality isn't as soft as you'd get in, say, a Mercedes-Benz S550, but it would do fine for lengthy road trips.
On those long trips, the Range Rover Sport can take up some of the driving work. This one was equipped with adaptive cruise control, which matches the speed of slower traffic up ahead and can bring the car to a full stop if needed. I found it worked very well, even gently compensating when other cars cut in front of me. Available for the Range Rover Sport, and something I would consider a necessary option given the size of the vehicle, is a blind-spot monitoring system and around-view cameras. My example was not so equipped, but still had the basic rearview camera, which helped quite a bit when parallel parking.
To make the highway miles more enjoyable, Land Rover offers a few different audio systems for the Range Rover Sport. At the top level is a Meridian-branded system with 23 speakers and 1,700 watts, but the vehicle I was driving came equipped with the midlevel system, also from Meridian, with 825 watts and 19 speakers.
I'm sure the top-level system would be very nice, but I was completely satisfied with the audio quality from the midlevel system. I played music from all the usual digital sources -- satellite radio, Bluetooth streaming, and the car's USB port -- and for each the sound came through with excellent clarity and full-frequency reproduction. As with any really good system, I was hearing notes and instruments in tracks I played that get buried in lesser systems. The 825-watt amp gave the sound a rich depth and made bass palpable in the cabin.
Land Rover even includes three different surround-sound settings: Meridian, DTS, and Dolby. Or, for more traditional audio reproduction, I could just leave it in stereo.
For cabin electronics, Land Rover keeps it simple, embedding a touch screen in the middle of the dashboard with a few soft-touch buttons to either side. The design keeps the dashboard nicely uncluttered, and the touch screen responds reasonably well to inputs.
A few functions can also be controlled through voice command. I could place calls by saying the name of a contact on my Bluetooth-paired phone, but I couldn't ask for music playback by artist or album name. When entering destinations through voice command, I had to say each part of the address separately, unlike with newer, more advanced systems which let you say the address as a single string.
The navigation system was decent for guiding me to destinations, and included live traffic, but the maps had a washed-out appearance. I had all the usual destination options, such as address, a points-of-interest database, and previous destinations, but there was no online search.
In fact, the Range Rover Sport's biggest lack is any connected features in the cabin electronics. Besides no local search, there was no integration with online music services or apps, and no ability to look up nearby fuel prices.
In many ways, the 2014 Range Rover Sport is an extraordinary vehicle. It showed incredible capability off-road and impressive handling when pushed through on-road turns. At the same time, it was well-mannered in heavy traffic and city driving. Despite the huge amount of power from the supercharged V-8 engine, I found it easy to modulate acceleration, and the automatic transmission shifted seamlessly.
Land Rover's Terrain Response System is nothing short of miraculous, letting the luxuriously appointed Range Rover Sport tackle serious off-road challenges. Unfortunately, there is no magic for fuel efficiency -- the big engine is thirsty, even with the idle-stop feature.
For cabin tech, the Range Rover Sport covered the basics, but didn't include any advanced features. I liked how the navigation worked, and the Meridian audio system, even at the midlevel tier, was a high point. The digital audio sources worked well, letting me play music from my iPhone or a USB drive. I would, however, like to see some connected options.
Of production vehicles, only Jeep competes with Land Rover for off-road capability. And when you look at luxury SUVs, Jeep can only pit the Grand Cherokee against the wider offerings of Land Rover. The 2014 Range Rover Sport makes a nice alternative for those who don't want the larger Range Rover model.
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|Model||2014 Range Rover Sport|
|Power train||Supercharged direct-injection 5-liter V-8 engine, 8-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||14 mpg city/19 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||17.2 mpg|
|Navigation||Standard flash memory-based with live traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Meridian 19-speaker, 825-watt system|
|Driver aids||Adaptive cruise control, rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$90,585|