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One of our favorite luxury SUVs gets even better with added diesel punch

Land Rover's most popular model finally gets a diesel engine option, but it was worth the wait.

Range Rover Sport maintains a regal bearing. Chris Paukert/CNET

Land Rover is just now getting around to offering diesels in its North American SUV lineup, and given that arch rivals Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche have all been players in this alt-fuel segment for years, you might think that the British auto maker would be concerned about being late to the party. It isn't, and there are a number of good reasons for this.

First off, after years of costing significantly more than gasoline, diesel is finally about as cheap as regular 87-octane unleaded nationwide, which makes the fuel's inherently superior economy that much more enticing a prospect -- especially in a vehicle whose gas engines normally suck down costlier high-octane fuel.

Secondly, Land Rover's new 3.0-liter turbocharged Td6 V-6 is a reasonably priced option -- just $1,500 more than its standard gasoline V-6. (For comparison's sake, Audi asks a further $5,100 for the soon-to-be-replaced Q7 TDI, and on the significantly less-expensive Jeep Grand Cherokee , the 3.0-liter EcoDiesel commands a $4,500 premium.)

And thirdly, as a comprehensive on- and off-road drive in its 2016 Range Rover Sport Td6 has just proven to me, it's also one heck of an engine.

The Sport's slicked-back roofline doesn't preclude a third-row seat option. Chris Paukert/CNET

By this time, the second-generation "L494" Range Rover Sport is a known quantity. It's handsome to look at, beautifully appointed, and it's so capable that it'll darn near climb a redwood if you ask it to. The aluminum-bodied SUV is also surprisingly athletic on-road, although perhaps no more than today's crop of do-anything luxury utes that includes the BMW X5 , Mercedes-Benz ML-Class, and Porsche Cayenne, among others.

In any case, the Ford-derived Td6 brings with it a predictable bounty of torque -- 440 pound-feet of the stuff from just 1,750rpm. By comparison, the identically sized supercharged gas engine delivers over 100 fewer pound-feet (332) at double the revolutions. Naturally, the horsepower edge remains in the gas engine's camp, with the diesel mustering 254 hp versus the gas' 332.

There's not be much to look at, but the 3.0-liter Td6 is a peach in every dimension. Chris Paukert/CNET

So what does all that mean?

In numerical terms, it means the 0-60 mph time of the Td6 lags ever-so-slightly behind that of the gas (7.1 seconds versus 6.9), but in practical terms, that's close enough to be imperceptible from the driver's seat. That's because the far superior low-end torque of the Td6 pushes your bum into those leather-lined seatbacks from a stop with significantly more authority, so it feels every bit is as quick.

Whatever fractions of a second you give up in 0-60 mph acceleration, you'll more than gain back by spending less time and money at the pump. The Range Rover Sport Td6 scores 22 mpg in the city and 28 mpg highway, which represents a 32% improvement over the petrol V-6's 17/23 ratings. That puts it right in the thick of the luxury diesel SUV fray. For some additional perspective, that's better efficiency than the altogether tinier Audi Q3 Quattro, which returns 20 mpg city and 28 highway from its 2.0-liter gas four cylinder. Better still, diesel models typically meet or exceed their EPA ratings in real-world usage quite easily, something that can't often be said of their gas counterparts.

Distances between fill-ups increases to a bladder-perforating 658 miles, too. That's nearly a 10 percent bump, and it likely would've been more, but engineers had to make space for the 4.76-gallon urea tank for the diesel exhaust fluid, which you'll need to fill around every 10,000 miles. (The diesel's fuel tank is 23.5 gallons, while the gas is 27.7.)

The Range Rover Sport manages to feel both luxurious and purposeful. Chris Paukert/CNET

Of course, exactly none of that cost savings and load-lugging torque would be worth a lick if turned this oh-so-civilized Land Rover into a clattery, agrarian mess.

Before I got into my test vehicle and headed out into the Spanish countryside, I attended a press briefing, during which company officials boldly proclaimed that in customer clinics, not a single person who drove the Td6 ever detected it was a diesel. That sort of PR bluster certainly isn't uncommon in this business, and after driving dozens of diesels over the years, picking an oil burner out of a crowd is pretty easy for me, whether from behind the wheel or standing next to one. Even I have to admit, though, that had I not known I was about to get behind the wheel of a Td6, I might never have second-guessed what type of fuel was combusting in the engine ahead of the windshield.

A small part of that is because many modern direct-injected gasoline engines have picked up annoying auditory ticks (blame their high-pressure fuel systems), but the main reason is that Land Rover has cultivated an incredibly refined diesel mill. This engine has been on sale for some time now in the UK in the £61,950 base RRS, but it's been exhaustively tuned for US driving styles and fuel standards.

InControl Touch is better than it used to be, but still behind the curve. Chris Paukert/CNET

Firing up my US-spec test vehicle, I observed absolutely no "wet dog shake" upon cold startup (admittedly "cold" is a relative term in late-summer Barcelona), and the only time I detected that the engines in our vehicles were diesels at all was first thing in the morning, when I was standing around as some of the other journalists at our press event began piling into their testers and driving away. Even then, I had to make a point of listening closely. Said another way, the idea that most people will never notice that they're in the presence of a diesel is completely believable.

Credit goes not just to the diesel's unique engine block, whose compacted-graphite construction is exceedingly stiff, but also to the model-specific engine mounts, generous sound deadening in the firewall, and the acoustically laminated glass.

On the open road, the engine is impressively quiet, as it doesn't need many revs to maintain even high freeway speeds. There's plenty of juice in reserve for passing on single-lane B-roads, too, and turbo lag is notable by its absence -- there's almost no gap between calling for more throttle and receiving more thrust. The only time you really detect there's a diesel under hood is if you're calling for high revs for some reason -- like all diesels, it just doesn't have them. Power taps out at around 4,000rpm, just shy of the 4,800rpm redline.

This being a Land Rover, off-road ability remains paramount (even if most owners never do much more than hop a curb or endure some muddy two-track road on a winery tour). With all that low-end torque available from just off idle, the Td6 is ideally suited to the rough stuff.

Like a vacuum's carpet dial, Terrain Response 2 preps the RRS for any scenario. Chris Paukert/CNET

To that end, Land Rover officials guided our group to Les Comes, about 90 minutes outside of Barcelona in the rugged Catalonian countryside. Land Rover keeps one of its Experience Centres here in the shadow of a 10th-century estate, and it was here where we picked our way down precipitous, rock-strewn descents and up shockingly vertical stone climbs that trained spotters had trouble clambering up and down on their hands and feet.

We used Land Rover's new All-Terrain Progress Control feature on several occasions, and it's a remarkable piece of technology that allows one to pick one's speed and then just automatically "billy goat" one's way up inclines, as if being pulled by some invisible tractor beam. If you're familiar with the now-common Hill Descent Control feature for downward gradients, it functions similarly, albeit when going in the other direction.

(The whole vehicle is so overwhelmingly competent in such scenarios that if anything, off-roading proves to be almost too easy, somewhat dulling the sense of accomplishment I might've felt traversing the course in a lesser machine.)

Pro Tip: Lower the air suspension before loading unwieldy objects. Chris Paukert/CNET

On the in-car technology front, the Range Rover Sport continues to be a midpack performer. The model has not yet received the company's much-improved new InControl Touch Pro infotainment suite, and it lacks some of the high-end features of its rivals, including Google-Street-View-like destination imagery, a finger-swipe gesture recognition pad, and so on (never mind Apple CarPlay or Android Auto compatibility). On the other hand, the system is snappier and better-looking than earlier iterations, and the available Meridian audio systems sound fantastic.

LR has upped its game in recent years when it comes to advanced safety tech, and now the RRS can be had with adaptive cruise with emergency auto-brake, lane-departure warning, self-park (perpendicular and parallel), as well as a 360-degree camera system that is unexpectedly helpful in off-road situations, too.

Gauges are a mix of analog and digital, with good readability for both. Chris Paukert/CNET

For many years now, there's been a somewhat blind tendency among many American car reviewers to recommend diesels over their gasoline-powered equivalents. Yet even when I've really liked a diesel's performance, the usual price premium for such an engine -- as well as the historically higher cost of fuel -- has often kept me from giving them the nod to friends. That's absolutely not the case here. Not only is the Td6 far more efficient, it's so refined that it's at least as good to drive -- if not better -- than the gas V6, particularly when the extra low-end torque is factored in. Even if diesel fuel prices start to escalate somewhat, the $1,500 premium the Td6 costs will be worth it, especially since the residual value of diesel SUVs is often significantly higher than their gas counterparts come resale time.

The 2016 Range Rover Sport Td6 arrives mid-fall carrying a US base price of $67,445 delivered, and it's not posh enough for you, Land Rover will be happy to park a Range Rover Td6 in your driveway from $87,445.

Land Rover may be late to the American diesel party, but by no means will it be playing catch-up.

The Td6's efficiency and civility helps take the $ting out of care and feeding. Chris Paukert/CNET

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