Familiarity has bred contempt for most of our technology. You are more likely to curse your smartphone when it's slow than to fall down in wonder every time it lets you update Facebook. However, as I raced the 2014 Range Rover Sport through a series of tight turns, then clawed up a steep dirt hill, I found it easier to assume that magic, instead of some brilliant engineering work, made this SUV so capable.
At the forefront of my mind I knew Land Rover's newest SUV relied on individual air suspension at each wheel, automatically locking differentials, and a network of sensors to tackle high-speed cornering and tough off-road obstacles. But I couldn't help a sense of awe as I gripped the wheel and felt how this 5,000-pound SUV dealt with wildly different driving conditions.
Somehow, the Range Rover Sport knew how much suspension articulation to allow, which wheels needed braking pressure and precisely how much, and when locking up the center or rear differential would be useful.
Bringing myself back down to earth, I know Land Rover engineers spent a lot of time testing their programs in real-world situations, driving the Range Rover Sport over a variety of obstacles at different traction levels, tweaking settings to provide the best possible handling. Somehow, I don't see smartphone makers exhibiting this level of quality assurance dedication.
Now, you may assume after looking at the Range Rover Sport's lush interior and corresponding price tag that it couldn't possibly have true off-road chops, but you would be wrong. At a Land Rover-sponsored event, I spent all morning driving the Range Rover Sport at speed on twisty mountain roads, then, using the same Michelin Latitude Sport R20 tires, drove up and down steep tracks covered in loose, sandy dirt. This seeming pretty boy could handle itself in a real fight.
For all its demonstrated capability, the 2014 Range Rover Sport is intended to be more street-oriented than its big brother, the Range Rover. The roof of the Sport is a couple of inches lower and its overall length comes in almost 6 inches shorter than the standard Range Rover. However, its reduced dimensions don't seem to hurt it much for off-road capability.
Looking at its construction and drivetrain options, there seems little difference between the Range Rover Sport and the full-size Range Rover. Both use aluminum monocoque bodies, helping to reduce weight compared to the previous generation of each. The Range Rover Sport I drove for this review came with a supercharged 5-liter V-8 engine, the same as in the Range Rover CNET reviewed previously. Both models come with an eight-speed automatic transmission, and can be had with a supercharged V-6 engine instead of the V-8.
The V-8 produces 510 horsepower and 461 pound-feet of torque, pushing the Range Rover Sport to 60 mph in under 5 seconds, according to Land Rover. I had previously driven the V-6 version, which had more than adequate power, but prefer the V-8 for its tremendous sound. Under acceleration, it lets loose a completely satisfying deep growl.
The price to pay for that V-8 fury comes in mediocre fuel economy. The Range Rover Sport's EPA numbers are 19 mpg on the highway and only 14 mpg in the city. After a week of driving the Range Rover Sport in the city, mountains, and on the freeway, its fuel economy came in at 17.2 mpg.
Slightly mitigating the V-8's thirsty nature, Land Rover implements an idle-stop feature in the Range Rover Sport. Whenever I stopped at a red light, the engine quietly shut down, resuming combustion as soon as I lifted off the brake pedal. Idle-stop is a feature often met with dislike from car enthusiasts, but I found it worked very smoothly in the Range Rover Sport. A button on the console let me turn the feature off, but I liked that my fuel economy wasn't suffering from long stoplights.
Beyond enjoying the pure power of this engine, its tuning made the Range Rover Sport very drivable in heavy traffic. It responded directly and evenly to my gas pedal input, with enough easy modulation that I could creep forward when I wanted, or get immediate thrust when I needed it.
Land Rover sources its transmissions from ZF, and this one shifted effortlessly and seamlessly. The drive selector on the console is purely electronic, and works similarly to those in BMW models. Hold the trigger down and pull it back for Drive and push a button on top for Park; push it to the side for the Sport and manual shift modes. In automatic mode I rarely felt the shifts, and when I actuated manual gear changes using the steering-wheel paddles there was only minor lag.
In Drive, the transmission used its eight gears to keep the engine humming along at a sedate 2,000rpm until I kicked down the gas pedal. Sport mode raised the revolutions up to a steady 3,500, holding a higher engine speed when I got into heavy gas and brake pedal work.
Electric power steering was tuned for a natural feel, although heft was only nominal. It didn't take much effort to turn the wheel at low or high speeds.
When your tires are bogged down in a foot of sand or mud, being able to turn the wheel easily is a boon. For such situations, the Range Rover Sport has its Terrain Response System, which includes a dial on the console letting the driver choose a program to match the terrain. A Land Rover representative told me, as I drove up and down dirt tracks with minimal traction, that the car would figure out which program it should use when Terrain Response was left in automatic, but its off-road systems would work faster if I had the right program already dialed in.