History still means a lot in legendary SUV line
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT The Range Rover Sport continues into 2011 with legendary looks and quality improvements that have won parent company Land Rover awards for reliability.

Automotive writers are a fickle bunch.

Just last September, members of the Northwest Automotive Press Association gathered in rural southern Washington for the organization's 16th Annual Sport Utility Vehicle Competition, otherwise known as Mudfest. After testing 20 vehicles submitted by various manufacturers, the 2010 Range Rover Supercharged was named SUV of the Year.

The group held its 2011 competition in rural Washington in late March. This time the new Jeep Grand Cherokee was named SUV of the Year.

The funny thing is, virtually identical version of the same vehicles competed last year, too. So why the different result?

Maybe it was because a few different members showed up. Maybe it was because the test tracks outside Vancouver and Snoqualmie varied from one another. Or maybe after six more months, the new Grand Cherokee just seems fresher than the Range Rover Sport, which debuted six years ago - an eternity in the fast-changing SUV world these days.

For Range Rover fans, the lack of change is a good thing. The vehicle was developed when Ford owned land Rover, the parent company. It was sold to Tata Motors of India in 2008. But despite making the cheapest car in the world, Tata has maintained the high standards that Ford infused into the former British icon. The 2011 Range Rover still boasts a rock sold ride, luxurious interior, programmable all-wheel-drive system and powerful 5.0-liter V8. It produces 375 horsepower in normally aspirated form or 510 horsepower in the supercharged version.

But, as the 2011 Mudfest results show, Jeep has changed with the times and learned from competitors like land Rover, too. The new Cherokee is also well built, with a firm suspension and available 360-horsepower HEMI V8. It is also comes with an programmable all-wheel-drive system that easily adjusts for dry pavement, heavy rain and snow, sand and rocky terrain.

But the Range Rover still has many virtues, and you don't need to go off road to find them. I drove a new one up I-5 from Portland to just outside Snoqualmie for this year's Mudfest. It poured rain the entire time, greatly reducing visibility. The freeway was packed with large, fast-moving tractor-trailers that threw up sheets of water in their wakes, making it even harder to see.

Despite the conditions, I felt safe and secure in the Range Rover Sport. The ride was stable at all times. The all-wheel-drive system kept me glued to the freeway. The base V8 had plenty of power for me to pass long lines of tractor-trailers on steep hills. And the soft but supportive front bucket seat left me feeling relaxed at the end of the trip.

Another plus is the Range Rover Sport's distinctive styling. Updated this year with a more aerodynamic front end revised taillamps and a new rear bumper, it is still instantly recognizable as the most recent addition to the long Rover line. Just seeing it in a parking lot is enough to bring a smile to your face. In contrast the new Jeep Cherokee is so conservatively styled that it fades into the background (although the coming SRT8 version with its larger air dam and massive five spoke wheels should overcome that).

All Rover models now include the company's patented Terrain Response system, which first debuted on the discontinued Discovery It allows the driver to adjust the chassis and transmission settings to different terrains. Five settings are available through a rotary knob on the center console. They include: general driving; grass, gravel, snow; mud and ruts; sand; and rock crawl.

The system works by manipulating suspension ride height, engine management, throttle mapping, transfer case ranges, transmission settings, and electronic driving aids, including electronic traction control (ETC), dynamic stability control (DSC) and hill descent control (HDC). Range Rover Sports are also equipped with a standard electronically-operated differential system that locks, unlocks and allocates torque through a multi-plate clutch pack located in the transfer case. A rear electroncially-operated differential is also available.

The result allows the Range Rover Sport to go just about anywhere. Although most owners will never come close to using their vehicle at its limits, the fact that such technology is available to the buying public is remarkable.

It comes at a price, of course. The 2011 Range Rover Sport starts at around $60,000. Our test model with the premium audio and luxury interior packages topped $67,000. For those on a tighter budget, the smaller LR2 offers the same off-road abilities started at under $36,000.

Other 2011 Mudfest winners are: Kia Sportage turbocharged, Best Affordable SUV; Ford Explorer, Best Family SUV; Volvo CX90, Best Luxury SUV; and Jeep Grand Cherokee, Best Off-Road SUV.

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).

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