A couple of months ago I found myself near Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, standing in front of a high-end cheese shop where customers were lined up out the door. Cheese shop. Waiting. Out the door. It's fair to say the consumers in this part of the world are among the most discriminating and demanding ever to whip out a Louis Vuitton wallet.
And so I waited and started counting the Land Rovers and Range Rovers. In the space of 45 minutes (45 minutes for cheese? My parents would be so proud), I saw about 200 Range Rovers and Range Rover Sports, and an additional 30 or so LR3s. The irony is that these bucks-up mega-consumers - who would happily nuke a Starbucks if their doppio macchiato isn't steamed just so - willingly put up with the aggravation of owning a Land Rover product.
How dysfunctional is this relationship? In the 2006 J.D. Power Initial Quality Study (problems per 100 vehicles within 90 days of purchase), Land Rover registered a basement-dwelling 204. Porsche leads the industry with 91. The industry average is 124. The same goes for J.D. Power's most recent Vehicle Dependability Study, a three-year survey that has Land Rover at the bottom with 438 problems per 100 vehicles. Lexus leads that list with 91; the industry average is 227.
And yet, like an abused spouse, the Land Rover buyer keeps coming back. Land Rover has some of the highest owner retention rates in the industry - in the prestige SUV segment, almost double the industry average.
Why would people re-enlist for such heartache? Well, it's the difference between consumerism and connoisseurship. Consumerism is a mind-set that requires products to perform with appliance-like reliability - a transactional, fee-for-service dynamic - even at the expense of charm or interest. Connoisseurship requires the opposite, preferring charisma over the quiet and everlasting servility of, say, a Honda. Land Rovers are positively lousy with charm, not to mention having the aristocratic, landed-gentry vibe going on. A Range Rover Supercharged with navy upholstery and ivory piping is about the most delicious British thing this side of Colston Bassett Stilton.
When it comes to the new LR2 - the company's re-entry into the compact premium SUV segment, after the unloved Freelander went cheerio - the trick is pouring the brand's bewitching otherness into a smaller, and ideally less troublesome, container.
The LR2, which goes on sale in April, lands at a propitious time: Even though annual U.S. sales were up almost 10 percent in 2006, sales went soft at the end of the year, most likely because of fuel prices. The LR2 will give downsizers a place to go after they shed their Chelsea tractors.
Some nuts and bolts then: The LR2 - well equipped for its $34,700 base price and maxed out at $40,350 - competes with the BMW X3 and the Acura RDX in the premium compact SUV segment. All three are high-saddle, five-seat, five-door trucklets with roughly comparable cargo capacity, leg and headroom, though the LR2's lower sills and dash give it sightlines and airiness the others lack. Aesthetically, all three are highly expressive of their respective companies, which is to say brand enthusiasts will find plenty of reason to be loyal.
Land Rover's designers agonized over the LR2's exterior, trying to cue the vehicle's mix of on-road ability and off-road potential, an effort I think they got mostly right. The proportions are a little squarer and more geometric than the Freelander's, with the trademark clamshell hood, stepped roofline and canted hatch all drawn with a more upright pen. But befitting its greater appetite for asphalt, the LR2 has a broader and sportier stance on the road. The LR2's styling risks pastiche - here are the composite rocker panels and front fender gills from the RR Sport, there are the trillion-cut compound headlamps of the Range Rover, and over there are the body-colored C-pillars from the LR3 - but overall, it stitches together handsomely.
Much could be said of the LR2's interior, which features a slightly simplified version of the LR3's switchgear and console design. Leather and wood are standard, as is a major sunroof. Not as conspicuously technical as the Acura RDX interior nor as severe as the X3, the LR2 interior seems calibrated for outdoorsy types who might climb in apres-ski with snowy mitts. The big, rubbery knobs, switches and panel materials on the LR2 manage to feel rugged and premium at the same time.
Under the hood is a 3.2-liter, 230-hp inline six (shared with Ford corporate cousin Volvo) buttoned to a six-speed automatic with manual sequential and Sport mode. In my one-day, several-hundred-mile flog of the LR2, the six-speed's Sport mode was brilliant, holding gears around corners, climbing hills without gear-stuttering and then, when throttle demands slackened, dropping into a fuel-saving overdrive. Meanwhile, the aluminum, transversely mounted engine breathes through all manner of torque-broadening technology, including dual-profile camshafts (switching between a shallow lobe for low-demand driving and a steeper lobe for higher loads), variable-valve timing and a variable-volume intake plenum. The result: 80 percent of max torque is available from idle to the engine's 6,500 redline.
This torque spread, combined with the smarter-than-thou tranny, helps the LR2 notch quite respectable acceleration (0 to 60 mph in 8.4 seconds) and kick up its heels in the passing lane, despite a slightly ridiculous 4,255-pound curb weight. I'm horrified that a chassis-mounted winch kit isn't available. I sure would hate to try to push it out of the mud.
On the road, the LR2 is pretty nearly astonishing, answering the helm with direct, linear responses and surprisingly settled body motions, considering the suspension travel. For what is basically a front-drive vehicle, the LR2 enters corners well, gets planted and hangs on. The steering response is quick - 2.6 turns lock to lock - and the road feel fairly vivid. It's actually a hoot to drive. It's no particular trick to make one of these smaller SUVs corner properly.
As for the off-road capabilities of the LR2, I want more. After pounding around the sands at Pismo Beach, I have to acknowledge the LR2 has some off-road game. The company's Haldex multi-plate all-wheel drive system does indeed deliver torque to the rear axle as soon as the system senses slip at the front. I also have to give it to the All-Terrain Response system, which modulates the traction control, throttle response, stability and traction systems in a way that basically automates the responses of a skilled driver.
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