2011 LR4: Land Rover continues building on its success

Seven-passenger capacity meets go-anywhere capability
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, The bold LR4 makes a statement and backs it up with comfort, power and one of the world's most sophisticated all-wheel-drive systems.

When Tata Motors of India bought Land Rover from Ford in 2008, fans of the legendary all-terrain vehicles held their breaths. After all, at the time Tata was best known as the manufacturer of the cheapest car in the world. Since Ford bought Land Rover from BMW in 2000, the quality of the vehicles has improved substantially. Would the new owners commit the money necessary to keep the progress going?

Well, the revamped version of the LR4 has arrived - and it continues the upward trajectory of the last ten years. Our test vehicle was stylish, solid, comfortable, fast, roomy and agile. Priced at around $57,000 with about $8,000 worth of options, it compares favorably to most other seven-passenger luxury SUVs on the market.

Tata has shown the same commitment to Jaguar, the other formerly British brand it bought from Ford. The all-new XJ and XJL luxury sedans dazzle with style, power and sophistication. And most remarkable of all, independent testing companies show Land Rover and Jaguar products now excel in reliability, the problem that had reduced them to cult status for so long.

Viewed from any angle, the LR4 is an attention-grabber. The old-fashioned boxy styling sets it apart from the rounded contours favored by so many other manufacturers these days. But the look has been thoroughly updated with bulging fenders, a massive grill, 19-inch alloy wheels and tall rear windows that wrapped around the roof like those on the former Ford Bronco II and late-model Dodge Ramcharger.

The interior is equally distinctive, a mix Old World charm and 21st Century technology. Passengers are wrapped and cradled in fine leather with tasteful wood and chrome accents. But the entertainment, navigation and rear-view camera systems are totally modern.

On the road, the LR4 feels frisky, thanks to the 5.0-liter V8 that Tata uses in various Land Rover and Jaguar models. While two supercharged versions are available in some of them, the LR4 only comes with the normally-aspirated version that generates 375 horsepower and 375 foot pounds of torque - more than enough for any legal (and more than a few illegal) driving situations. The power is channeled through a responsive six-speed automatic transmission which includes a manual shift mode that drivers will probably use more for towing than red light races.

For a large SUV, the LR4's handling is surprisingly light. The steering is precise and the ride is soft enough to float over potholes and speed bumps. Although body roll discourages high speed cornering, it never feels too tipsy, despite the upright styling that suggests a relatively high center of gravity.

The view from the driver's seat is expansive. The windshield and side windows are huge, letting in plenty of light and offering a panoramic view of surrounding traffic or off-road terrain. The visibility helps in downtown driving, too, by making it relatively easy to track smaller cars, pedestrians and bicyclists.

Of course, Land Rovers are best known for their off-road capabilities and the new LR4 continues that tradition, too. It shares the line's remarkable go-anywhere all-wheel-drive system that can be adjusted for conditions ranging from dry pavement to snow, dirt and rocks. The console-mounted dial for adjusting the settings is easy to understand and use, a far cry from early four-wheel-drive shift systems that occasionally left drivers wondering whether they'd engaged them properly (with expensive consequences for mistakes). And the air suspension can be adjusted for off-road driving, too, a feature that most other manufacturers don't offer at any price.

While we didn't try any serious off-roading for fear of scratching the attractive Ipanema Sand paint, the LR4 handled our informal circuit of Portland's worst unpaved streets with ease, including the steep and deeply-rutted hilly ones in Southwest that we won't even attempt in a two-wheel-drive vehicle. We also drove through some of the record September downpours without needing to slow down, except for the other drivers fishtailing around us.

Tata may sell the ridiculously small Nano in India for only $2,500 or so. But when it comes to the 2011 LR4, the company has rightly decided not to tamper with a formula that is winning more and more fans around the world every day.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2011 LR4

• Manufacturer: Tata Motors.

• Class: Full-size SUV.

• Layout: Front engine, all-wheel-drive

• Style: Five-door split tailgate.

• Engine: 5.0-liter V8 (375 hp, 375 ft-lbs).

• Transmissions: 6-speed automatic with manual shift mode.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 12/17 (as tested).

• Price: Beginning at around $48,000 ($56,950 as tested).