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2011 Range Rover Sport HSE: King of the Roads

Top performer, on and off road
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, Classic styling, satisfying engine, go-anywhere all-wheel-drive and luxury appointment make the 2011 Range Rover Sport HSE a top pick for both on and off road driving.

Dozens of automotive writers from throughout the Pacific Northwest gathered at a small farm in rural Washington in late September. We spent two days driving more than 20 off-road vehicles along country roads and dirt trails. The event was the 16th Annual Sport Utility Competition conducted by the Northwest Automative Press Association, otherwise know as Mudfest. The goal was to pick the top Sport Utility Vehicle in a variety of categories, including 2010 SUV of the Year.

Claiming the top place was the Range Rover Sport Supercharged, a more powerful version of this week's test vehicle, the 2011 Range Rover Sport HSE. Although the supercharger boosts the engine's output from 375 horsepower to 510 horsepower, the additional ponies did not influence the group's decision. The roads were too dangerous to keep the gas pedal floored for long. And the additional power was no use on the dirt trails, which were approached at a crawl.

No, the Range Rover Supercharged won the award for being such a competent and well-balanced vehicle. The on-road ride is safe and secure. Off-road, it scrambled up and down hills and through switchbacks with grace, including portions that some of the challengers could not even attempt.

But some of the competitors were tough. The all-new Jeep Cherokee proved itself both well-made and trail ready, for example. And even the sport-oriented 2010 Mitsubishi Outlander GT managed to scamper over the toughest trail portions with ease.

None of the other vehicles carried their occupants in such luxury, however. Climbing into any version of the Range Rover is like entering a top-of-the-line Jaguar, which is not exactly a surprise, since both companies are not owned by Tata Motors of India. At the same time, who really expects such an off-road-ready vehicle as a Range Rover to feel like one of the most expensive luxury cars on the road today? From the thick carpeting to the high-quality plastics, genuine wood trim and fine leathers, the interior materials were all first-class.

The Range Rover line also shares engines with Jaguars, beginning with the normally-aspirated 5.0-liter V8 in our test vehicle. Even without the superchargers available on the most expensive models, it is a remarkably powerful engine, capable of propelling our two-and-a-half ton test vehicle quickly off the line. Freeway passing is not problem, either, thanks in part of the quick downshifts of the six-speed automatic transmission. Although a manual shift mode offers even better performance, we never felt the need to use it.

As the name implies, the Range Rover Sport HSE also handles pretty well, especially for such a large vehicle. The steering is precise and response. And the firm suspension helps reduce body roll, even when pushed through sharp turns.

Of course, Range Rovers and Land Rovers, their corporate siblings, built their reputations by handling the most severe off-road challenges. We were not able to push the Range Rover Sport even close to its limits on the trail portion of our Mudfest challenge. The all-wheel-drive system is adjustable for a wide range of conditions, from dry pavement to snow, sand and even rocky terrain. Even when the toughest portion of the trail got slippery at the end of the day, we never felt the need to shift out of the dry pavement mode. Yes, it offers that much traction for everyday driving.

For truly risky terrain, our test vehicle was equipped with the optional Vision Assistance Package that includes a series of cameras all around the vehicle. The side ones point down at the front wheels, letting drivers monitor exactly how close they are to the edge of the road or trail. Leaving the cameras on during normal around town or freeway driving is dangerously distracting, however.

At the same time, the Range Rover Sport is one of the most traditional-looking SUVs on the road today. The box-on-box styling harkens back to the days when the company was still British-owned. Of all the Mudfest test vehicles, only the Jeep Wrangler looked more old school. Despite the large air dam, flush headlights and large wheels, the Range Rover Sport maintains the purpose-built look of early off-road vehicles. There's simply no mistaking it for anything else.

Figuring out where the Range Rover Sport line fits into the Land Rover-Range Rover offerings is a little tricky. Although it look like the full-size (non-Sport) Range Rover, the Range Rover Sport (HSE and Supercharged) is actually the smallest vehicle the company currently offers. It is based on the Land Rover LR4, but is even smaller than that model. The sloping rear end of the Range Rover Sport precludes the third row of seats available in the boxier LR 4. At the same time, the Range Rover Sport is more expensive than the LR4. On the other hand, the Range Rover Sport is, well, sportier and more fun to drive than the LR4.

The Range Rover Sport HSE begins at around $60,000, which is reasonable, given its capabilities. Our test vehicle included almost $9,000 worth of options, including a luxury interior and premium audi package. Even without them and the supercharged engine, it would have likely won this year's Mudfest because of it's true go-anywhere nature.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2011 Range Rover Sport HSE.

• Manufacturer: Tata Motors.

• Class: Premium full-size SUV.

• Layout: Front engine, all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five-door liftback.

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

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

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 13/18.

• Price: Beginning at approximately $60,000 ($69,495 as tested).