Brave Pill isn’t a smug panel show, and you likely don’t come here for topical riffs on contemporary news. But sometimes events conspire to make our Saturday morning star seem alarmingly fashionable. Which is why I need to start by saying that plans to feature this winter friendly supercharged Range Rover Sport were advanced before JLR’s announcement the model has now a million Sports across two generations.
That is an impressive figure for any top-endy automotive dynasty, even more so considering the lukewarm critical reaction the Sport received when the idea was first announced. Because 17 years of hindsight have proved the Sport was one of those cars that came out well ahead of its time. Back in the earlyish noughties the notion of a performance SUV was still new and, for the most part, shocking. The BMW X5 had laid the groundwork for the idea – as to a lesser extent had the brawnier versions of the Mercedes ML and Lexus RX – but it took the arrival of the Porsche Cayenne to prove that this was a proper trend and not just a fad.
But while a sports car maker could create an SUV, the idea that an off-roader specialist could reach the same conclusion from the opposite direction seemed much less likely. I was in the audience when Land Rover showed the original Range Stormer concept at the 2004 Detroit Auto Show, and the reaction among hacks was much closer to derision than desire. Land Rover stood for wilderness prowess rather than tarmac finesse; the brand was about as sporty as a pudgy asthmatic dodging a PE lesson.
Yet we were wrong, and largely because the Range Stormer was so right. The concept was the work of Richard Woolley, undoubtedly one of the greatest car designers never to have seen his name in lights, and its much-copied combination of bluff panelwork and a lowered coupe-ish roofline was pretty much the zeitgeist for the coming age. The concept won plenty of fans both among potential buyers and within the company, and although work on a production version had already begun, it was soon being rushed forwards. This would have five doors rather than the Stormer’s two, a higher roofline and be called the Range Rover Sport.
This was a misnomer, in engineering terms at least. The existing L322 Range Rover sat on the bespoke platform which BMW had expensively engineered for it, but which what was now Ford-owned Land Rover couldn’t use for another model without gaining what would be very expensive permission. So although the Sport shared the Range Rover’s name it would be based on the underpinnings of the Discovery 3.
This was less than ideal, to put it mildly. The Disco had indeed been engineered around Land Rover’s core brief of boldly going, able to plug mud and tow the untowable better than almost anything else. To do this it used what was officially described as ‘semi monocoque’ construction, although ‘eff off’ would have summed it up just as well; its structure effectively combined a monobody with an integrated ladder chassis. Compared to the Discovery the Range Rover Sport was lower, shorter and lighter. But with a 2.4 tonne kerbweight in its lightest configuration it was still what the makers of fat pet memes would describe as an absolute chonker.
Of course, good chassis engineers can do a remarkably good job at disguising the mass of massive SUVs, and the L320 did indeed feel considerably more dynamic than its bigger sister. But basic Newtonian physics were more obvious in its lack of accelerative magic; when launched the 2.7-litre V6 diesel that made up the majority of UK sales took a decidedly unsporty 12 seconds to lumber from rest to 62mph. Anyone looking for actual performance would need one of the petrol V8s, either the naturally aspirated 296hp 4.4-litre version or the range-topping supercharged 4.2-litre which made 385hp.
So equipped, the brawniest L320 became respectably rapid by the standards of the time. It wasn’t a match for the Cayenne Turbo, but it was nearly as quick as the BMW X5 4.8iS. The Supercharger’s urge and the aural interest of its supercharger whine suited the car well, and the breadth of the available muscle made for effortless progress. Despite the marketing claims it never felt very fleet of foot in tighter stuff, but was a proper distance-muncher thanks to pliant air suspension, a brilliant driving position and supremely comfortable seats.
The upside of the heavyweight suspension components and Forth Bridge chassis was that the Sport also felt imperious off-road, tackling any flavour of wilderness with the same assurance as the Discovery or Range Rover, height adjustable suspension and a battery of clever traction boosting aids keeping it rolling through seemingly impossible terrain. The biggest complaint when it was launched was with the lack of quality of much of the plasticy cabin trim, this being dramatically improved with the 2009 facelift.
Being an early car our Pill gets the non-enhanced cabin, with the contrast in both colour and brightness between the audio system’s LCD display and the blocky sat nav screen above suggesting they were designed by different committees working in different continents. But such niggles, and more besides, are more than negated by a wallet twitching £6,990 price tag.
There can be no argument that this is a Pill that qualifies as being properly brave. A 132,000 mile odometer reading is adventurous for anything this potent, and doubly so for any Range Rover. While there is no mention in the advert text our Pill is also sporting an LPG conversion, with a filling port on the rear bumper and a combined switch/gauge next to the headlight switch. If this still functions it will help take some of the sting from the mid-teen MPG the Supercharger is likely to manage when running on petrol. A tuning company sticker on the rear window also indicates that it may have more than the factory output, or maybe just that it has been tuned to deal with the liquified gas diet. Window tints and non-original black 22-inch wheels are unlikely to get much love, although both are easily reversible.
The MOT history tells a tale that will likely be familiar to many owners of ageing Sports, with plentiful evidence of the big car’s enthusiasm for tyres and suspension components, plus a couple of advisories for non-structural corrosion in the past. Owners report that anti roll-bar bushes are pretty much service items on early Superchargers, the air suspension can throw up expensive faults and gearboxes rarely get to score the sort of innings that has the pavilion on its feet. On the plus side the petrol V8s are widely reckoned to be tougher than either V6 or V8 diesels. Which at least gives some tenuous grounds for arguing the case for a 17mpg Range Rover being – in relative terms – a sensible choice.
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