IAIN ROBERTSON

Prior to the public introduction of the all new Range Rover P400e hybrid at Geneva, reports Iain Robertson, the luxury car manufacturer headed to China to tackle one of its most amazing natural phenomena, the Heaven’s Gate arch on Tianmen Road.

Rub your eyes, because it is sometimes hard to believe that in 1970, had you invested in a brand-new Range Rover (and quite a few did), you would have received change from a £2,000 payment…admittedly, not much coinage, but change all the same. Of course, change was the precursor, because that original three-door car, despite its BLMC problems, was a clean canvas for a sector of the new car market that would explode in coming years. Designed by Spen King, the West Midlands, British-built Range Rover was a radical trendsetter.

The engineering and styling nous that would turn an agricultural machine into a super-luxury land yacht was probably not even a perception at the time but by employing long-travel coil springs to either end of its front and rear beam axles and a self-levelling (by Boge) damper for the rear and installing the former Buick 3.5-litre V8 petrol engine for its potency was seminal stuff. No other carmaker had ever been so daring. No other carmaker could have presaged the immense success that Range Rover would enjoy on its way to establishing iconic status.

The aftermarket responded. Fairey developed an overdrive (electrically engaged fifth gear) for the standard four-speed manual transmission and, within a few years, a five-door variant had been introduced, complete with factory installed five-speed gearbox and even an automatic option. With every generation, the changes improved the car, from rubber flooring to plush carpets, washable plastic seat coverings to pliant leather and hard plastic trim to Nappa hide, wood and alloy. The technology, while retaining the core aspects, would also encompass up-to-date improvements. What had been the vehicle of choice for the wealthy farmer was turned gradually into the chief executive’s preferred transport, or the car beloved by royalty and the glitterati, with inevitable price increases but always incorporating the ultimate go-anywhere 4×4 system.

In its earliest forms, it had been used, partly for product development, as the ideal adventure vehicle to cross the Panamanian jungle’s uncrossable Darien Gap. More recently, Range Rovers have been employed on record-breaking climbs such as Pike’s Peak, in Colorado, or monster descents like the 2,170m Inferno downhill ski course in Murren, Switzerland, as well as the ‘Empty Quarter’ desert on the Arabian Peninsula. China’s tortuous, mountainous Dragon Road and the 999, 45-degree steps to Heaven’s Gate is the most recent challenge.

Closer to home, Land Rover has been forced into developing increasingly frugal power units, in order to meet ever-tightening environmental rules. Without them, the company would not stand a snowball’s chance of survival. The development of its Ingenium petrol engine that displaces a mere 2.0-litres and four cylinders may seem slightly innocuous after a bellowing V8 (in up to 5.0-litre form) but it is an engine not lacking in punch, producing up to an impressive 296bhp. However, linked to a 113bhp electric engine, complete with below-boot battery pack and plug-in technology, a combined power output of 400bhp and 458lbs ft of torque ensures that the Sport model is not short of beans.

The production car delivers a fascinating balance of on-road grunt, with off-road competence, in a package of unerring sportiness that defies most top-heavy preconceptions of the archetypal 4×4. Its steering responses are enhanced to cope with the overall size and inherent strength of the vehicle. Yet, its aluminium body and substructure ensure that excess baggage is not part of the remit. A continual round of gentle modifications has softened and made the edges of its styling more curvaceous but, thanks to the technology on-board, it still tips the scales at an immodest 2.5-tonnes.

Yet, there is minimal negative spin-off. The P400e PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle) model whisks from 0-60mph to complete the benchmark in a mere 6.4 seconds, before topping out at an impressive 137mph. Rated as a 101mpg machine, emitting a mere 64g/km CO2 and driving through an eight-speed automatic transmission, its raison d’etre as a taxation-friendly business vehicle is abundantly clear. When you reflect on those figures, which are almost shocking and certainly game-changing for a large-class luxury car of 5.2m in length and 2.2m width, its market positioning is obvious.

However, it is no less than awesomely beautiful inside, draped in high-grade leather and the aforementioned plethora of material finishes, a new twin-screen centre console display (as features in the Velar model) and the addition of an ‘EV’ button are among a raft of subtle improvements that raise the car’s game once again. It will travel for around 31 miles on battery power alone, which is useful for satisfying the zero emissions demands of a growing number of city centres, but the electric engine also provides vital punch from start-up to maximum velocity that ensures the Range Rover Sport can maintain station with other high-end luxury sportsters.

Dialling-in different suspension characteristics is important for a multi-functional machine like the RR Sport and with enhanced Comfort and Dynamic settings available, the ride quality (which always remains sublimely compliant) can meet a driver’s needs to perfection, whether cruising at motorway speeds, or tooling around the back doubles, such as the twisting concrete and patchy tarmac surfaces of the Dragon Road in China. Grip has seldom been an issue for Range Rover and the Sport clings like a leech onto give and take surfaces.

Not all models feature the powered, heated centre armrest and footrest, let alone the massage settings that greet back seat occupants in the bespoke Autobiography versions of the P400e but, then, you can expect opulence in a car that can cost well in excess of £105,000, although the SVR service offered by Land Rover can take that figure into the stratosphere. The rest of the PHEV line-up starts at a more affordable £86,965. Okay. It is expensive but its key rivals all play in the same territory, although, in reality, most examples will be leased and Pound-notes will seldom change hands. However, the standard specification is hardly at poverty levels and there are innumerable toys for additional entertainment purposes. You will want for little in a Range Rover P400e.

As to the Chinese stunt, which is important to a company that counts the market as immensely important in volume sales terms, the 11.3-mile Dragon Road winds perilously to a car park at the foot of the natural rock formation and the P400e was more than man enough for the task of escalating its hairpins and broken surfaces. Climbing the 999 stone steps to the rock cavity was more of a challenge but well within the chassis capabilities of the car.

Conclusion:   Hybrids and PHEVs are essential to the modern motorcar mix and the Range Rover P400e proves that eco-concerns can be responded to even in the upper echelons of the car scene. Range Rover is the most successful brand of the JLR set-up with Land Rover and Jaguar, with world-wide sales representation.