With the proliferation of new models, specs and engines, plus the inevitable Defender frenzy, it's difficult to keep track of the latest Land Rover range. But who can blame them for fast-tracking everything? The world loves the SUV, and Land Rover is perhaps the world's most famous purveyor of luxury 4x4s, off-roaders and most other things that venture away from the beaten track. The pent up demand for its product was such that the July just gone was the best month for Land Rover sales. Ever. However, despite that positivity and a groundswell of enthusiasm around the new Defender, there's no getting around the fact that the Range Rover and Range Rover Sport are a bit long in the tooth; their respective launch dates of 2012 and 2013 would feel a long time ago in any era, leave alone one where line-ups are seemingly renewed on an almost annual basis.
To see the cars both through to their respective replacements, Land Rover has introduced a new mild hybrid, straight-six diesel engine to both Range Rover and Sport. The full story is here, but the basics are a 3.0-litre diesel with a 48v MHEV system, 300hp or 350hp, 479lb ft or 516lb ft, improved performance over the V8 diesel it replaces and greater efficiency than the old V6. The car we tested was the D350 Sport in HST trim.
With similar technology having already proven itself fairly emphatically in cars like the Audi SQ7, it should come as little surprise that the 48v system alongside the exhaust turbocharger works wonders. Even though response is stymied somewhat by sluggish step-off from the automatic (blame WLTP; it's certainly not a Land Rover specific problem) there's no questioning the additional urge that exists below 2,000rpm and which wasn't there in such abundance previously. It would be a stretch to call the Sport urgent - because this new diesel is still shifting more than two and a quarter tonnes - yet it is discernibly more willing than any previous unit fitted to this car. The inertia and initial sluggishness still so often associated with diesel power has been near enough expunged.
Furthermore, with a maximum of 516lb ft on offer and the switch to a straight-six configuration, the D350 is a smooth and fairly effortless performer. Speed is accrued in a refined, almost discreet fashion, even if there's not quite the push in the chest that would leave you stunned by what the speedo displays. With neither a paucity nor a surfeit of grunt, the performance is probably what ought to be termed 'more than adequate'; certainly once moving the automatic is much more obliging companion, and the Sport cruises with all the authority and grace we've come to expect. You would easily, comfortably and happily drive it until a whole tank of diesel ran dry.
Especially so if the route featured roads other than the motorway. Old though it may be and familiar though it undoubtedly is, the Range Rover Sport remains a really pleasant driving device. The key, as it always has been, is not in trying to contrive a sense of augmented agility or racy responses, but in delivering an authentic and rewarding ride and handling balance. Of course there's technology at work, from electric power steering to Terrain Response to the adaptive dampers, yet the key is that they never detract from the experience. The car always retains a fluency to its ride, a consistency to its steering response and an appropriateness to its character, which is evinced in an endlessly likeable way. Perhaps 'Dynamic' mode overeggs the pudding a little (the car a bit too tense than ideal) but left to its own devices - or perhaps with the powertrain sharpened in a sportier setting - the D350 is a lovely car with which to consume the best A and B roads the Cotswolds have to offer. It's almost like they were designed to be driven here...
It's all very satisfying, and installing any new engine to the benefit of an older model is always a laudable achievement. Nevertheless, elsewhere there's no denying the areas where the Range Rover Sport is lagging behind the best. And given 'the best' includes cars that cost a lot less than the £85k D350 HST, the flaws become an even tougher pill to swallow.
Directly after the new Defender and its Pivi Pro infotainment, the system which remains in the Sport can't really cut it. It's slower to respond and not as well integrated. When competing with what that the Germans have to offer, it feels like a notable demerit. The materials and design remain more than likeable - it's still a lovely place to pass the time - but there are only so many times that CarPlay can crash or the screen fail to recognise a command that can be excused by the feel of the leather.
Perhaps the most noticeable flaw - if this sort of criticism can ever be classed as such - is that while it's suitably plush and very amenable, the HST doesn't summon up the sort of performance we now associate with a flagship diesel engine. Or rather, it doesn't deliver a level of enthusiasm that befits a car costing quite so much. Yes, that's a sign of the world we live in (one where 350hp and 516lb ft of torque can only be called adequate) but it doesn't stop it being true. And while the immediacy conferred on the Range Rover Sport by the very clever new Ingenium unit will surely be brisk enough for most, there's no escaping the fact that its rivals not only offer more power for less money, but also from newer SUVs.
The Mercedes GLE 400d misses out on the compressor technology, yet it still packs 516lb ft from a 3.0-litre straight-six diesel, and it costs from £64,355 - or £20k less than the HST. A BMW X5 M50d boasts an enormous 400hp and 560lb ft, meaning it can reach 62mph a second and a half faster than the Sport, while also starting at more than £10k less. Heck, those after the king of electric compressor diesel SUVs should look no further than the Audi SQ7 TDI; out of production it may now be, but 435hp and 664lb ft are monstrous figures; its £72k list price in 2017 was rapidly inflated by options, but that sort of money now secures one of the last ones made before a petrol engine returned.
Of course nobody knows better than Land Rover just how competitive every single segment of the SUV world is. It has often succeeded despite charging a notable premium, and its recent results suggest the strategy is doing it no harm now. In the D350 it has delivered to the Range Rover Sport the best diesel engine it has ever featured, and there is little doubt that its smooth and commanding presence is a nice fit for the car's gratifying way of doing things. It is a worthy upgrade for the faithful. But the unavoidable truth is that several close rivals offer substantially more power for significantly less outlay - and from newer models, too. Land Rover will need yet more breakneck change if it wants to convince everyone that its prominence is still worth every penny.
SPECIFICATION | RANGE ROVER SPORT D350 HST
Engine: 2,997cc, straight-six diesel (with electric compressor)
Transmission: 8-speed auto, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 350@4,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 516@1,500-3,000rpm
0-62mph: 6.9 seconds
Top speed: 140mph
Weight: 2,278kg (EU, with driver)
MPG: 31.2 (WLTP combined TEL)
CO2: 238g/km (WLTP combined TEL)
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