The launch of the new Range Rover Sport gets adventurous
I really don't want to be one of those motoring writers who announces a model was always below par just because something much better has come along to replace it.
But it must be said: after two days of driving in the United Kingdom, it's clear that the all-round excellence of the new Range Rover Sport really does make the previous version seem a bit half-hearted.
In some respects, the old car was a case of needs-must: a smaller Rangie was uncharted territory for Land Rover back in 2006, so it did what it could with the material available. That meant basing the Sport on the platform of the Land Rover Discovery.
While the original Range Rover Sport had cool retro looks and would go virtually anywhere, it weighed 2.6 tonnes and really felt it on the road. Not very sporty at all.
In excess of 400,000 sales worldwide have convinced Land Rover that this is a niche worth investing in, so it's spared little expense in developing the all-new Range Rover Sport.
For a start, it's the real thing: based on the platform of the full-size Range Rover and designed around the same basic principles, even if 75 per cent of parts are new. Up to 420kg has been engineered out of the car compared with the previous model, thanks mainly to all-aluminium construction.
The Sport has been engineered with on-road use in mind: on that much Land Rover is very clear. Less weight helps, of course; but the Sport is also available with all manner of driver-assistance technology, including automatic damping, an active rear differential and torque vectoring, which shifts power between the rear wheels to increase cornering speed and stability.
The Sport is still not as agile as a BMW X5 or Porsche Cayenne. But I don't think it was ever supposed to be, trading off some cornering ability for the ride comfort expected of a Range Rover. It's still genuinely engaging and certainly a level above the full-size Range Rover in terms of driver involvement. Several levels above the previous Sport.
The big Rangie still rules off-road, which is how it should be: it has an extra 25mm of wheel travel and will wade 50mm deeper than the Sport. But you'd have to be pretty brave and/or skilled to explore that advantage. The Sport is still an incredible machine in the rough, as we discovered at Land Rover's training grounds around Eastnor Castle, in the Malvern Hills.
The Sport uses a similar Terrain Response 2 control system to its big brother. You can leave the rotary controller in auto and let the car make the big decisions about how to calibrate the powertrain and suspension, or you can choose from specific settings: general, grass/gravel/snow, mud/ruts, sand and rock crawling. Land Rover claims the new Sport is substantially more capable off-road than the previous model.
We tested a new feature called Wade Sensing at Eastnor, which uses sensors in the door mirrors to detect the water height outside the car and present your current state of flotation on the car's information screen. It allows you to see at a glance how much of the car's 850mm wading capability you are using.
For all that off-road technology, Sport is still very sharp on-road. There's even a new setting on the Terrain Response controller of the more powerful Sport models: Dynamic, which puts the powertrain, suspension and chassis systems into max-attack mode for fast driving.
The Sport is still indecently luxurious inside - bespoke but picking up on the major styling themes of the full-size Range Rover. When breeding shows its class
The Sport can detect how much of the car's 850mm wading capability you are using.
Much more attention has gone into comfort and convenience for this model: the electric power steering has allowed a self-parking system, for example, which will get you into a space and guide you out.
The Sport is also the first Range Rover available with third-row seating. The so-called "5+2" option introduces a brace of seats in the back that can be raised or hidden at the touch of a button.
Sport has been introduced with minimal price increases in Europe and Australia: that's something Kiwi importer Motorcorp Distributors Limited (MDL) hopes to emulate, although final figures and local specification are still being decided ahead of an early-2014 launch. The current model ranges from $128,000 to $179,000.
Powertrain choices are also still to be decided, but MDL is keen on both the TDV6 and SDV6 3.0-litre diesels and of course the flagship 5.0-litre supercharged petrol V8, which has an incredible exhaust note and has now staked a claim as the fastest Range Rover yet made: 0-100km/h in 5.3 seconds.
By local launch time there will also be a 4.4-litre TDV8 diesel, which is also on the wish list. Not so the forthcoming diesel-hybrid, but that may change in time.
It goes without saying that both performance and economy are vastly improved across the range. The entry-level TDV6, for example, is two seconds quicker to 100km/h than the previous model but also consumes two litres less fuel per 100km.
I really don't want to be one of those motoring writers who goes on an overseas trip to drive a car and comes back raving about how good it is. But in this case I have no choice: the Sport combines everything you expect of a Range Rover - high style, rarefied luxury, ruggedness with excellent on-road dynamics - in one very complete package. It's the best thing Land Rover makes.
New slant on ride height
Not really a part of the ownership experience, to be honest: but a component of the media-launch programme for the new Sport was a quick drive through a hollowed-out jumbo jet at Kemble Airfield.
Land Rover had set up a series of ramps that allowed us to drive up into the rear of the aircraft, through the main passenger compartment (climbing over a couple of Defenders parked in awkward places), then up again into the first-class cabin and down through the nose.
Drive around the front and the second circuit involved an even steeper ramp into the side of the 747, up through the main hold (underneath the cars driving in first class above) and out the other side.
An incredible set-up and an experience the photographs don't really do justice to: driving up the ramps, you could see nothing but blue sky.
Inside the aircraft, the course was so tight that it would have been impossible to negotiate without the assistance of Land Rover instructors waving us through.
Mission accomplished, no damage. At least not that day.