Too Rugged for the City, Too Pretty for Off-Road
Sunday, November 9, 2008
If the Land Rover sitting in my driveway were a job applicant, it would remain unemployed. It's a full-size 2008 LR3 V-8 HSE sport-utility vehicle. It's over-qualified for any job I have to do, any trip I'm planning to make.
There was a time when that would not have bothered me. I lived for automotive excess. I believed that no car or truck could be over-engineered.
That was before fuel prices went whacko and bank credit disappeared -- back when there seemed to be some point to driving a top-end sport-utility vehicle in thick city traffic. But nowadays, motoring through the urban landscape in something like the LR3 V-8 HSE seems more over-the-top than anything else -- the equivalent of gearing up for an off-road safari in a shopping center parking lot. The equipment is nice. Its use in a daily commuting environment doesn't make sense.
It is a case of marketing gone awry, of a vehicle originally designed for one thing being sold and used as something else -- an off-road marauder posing as a luxury statement.
The first Land Rover was introduced in 1948 as a special-purpose vehicle designed to be used much in the manner of the famed U.S. military Jeep of World War II. It was utilitarian, not fancy. It thus became the transport of choice in Africa and other regions where super-rugged, versatile vehicles were in demand.
But the business case for such a vehicle in an increasingly urbane and urban world, which is where it tends to be affordable, is rather small, much as it is for America's Hummer, a Land Rover rival.
Both the Hummer -- the comparable Hummer H2 -- and the LR3 V-8 HSE are wonderfully competent in the rough. But neither makes much sense where they are commonly bought and used today -- in the wilds of urban and suburban communities in wealthy, developed nations.
Consider: After driving the LR3 V-8 HSE for a week, I found little reason to use any of its sophisticated technology, such as its terrain response system, which employs a dial to electronically adjust suspension and traction settings for different road surfaces and conditions -- grass, gravel, snow, mud, ruts, sand and rocks.
I started praying for snow, looking for grass and gravel surfaces, and hunting for rocky roads just to play with the terrain response system, which worked quite well. But viewed from another perspective, I wasted a lot of time and fuel searching for roads and driving surfaces that I normally would not have traveled -- certainly would not have looked for -- had I been behind the wheel of something other than a LR3 V-8 HSE.
But Land Rover's marketers contend that is the point. The LR3 V-8 HSE and other Land Rover vehicles are designed to encourage adventure, they say.
Certainly, a model such as the super-rugged, extremely utilitarian Land Rover Defender, currently not on sale in the United States, is expressly designed for rough trekking. But the models sold in this country, such as the LR3 V-8 HSE and its upper crust Range Rover siblings, are designed more for the idea of going off-road than they are for actually making the trip.
That is not to disparage their competence in an off-road environment. They are every bit as up-to-snuff as the Defender in that regimen. But U.S. models tend to be plush, tufted darlings dressed with pretty exterior paint that no one wants to scratch. No one wants to damage or ruin the fine woods, or the piano-black lacquer finishes of their interiors. The idea of plopping dirty or wet bottoms on one of their supple leather seats is abominable.
In short, the luxury LR3 V-8 HSE is perfectly capable of fording streams, crawling through mud, creeping down hills and climbing rocks. But who in his or her right mind would place it in that kind of jeopardy?
Thus, as constituted, it is the moral equivalent of a museum piece. It is a driveway prince, a garage queen, an over-competent, underused, motorized bauble. Add to that the vehicle's size, unnecessarily complicated navigation system and its appetite for premium gasoline -- 12 miles per gallon in the city, 17 mpg highway -- and you get what I got, a vehicle that spends more time in the driveway than it does on the road.
ON WHEELS WITH WARREN BROWN Listen from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesdays on WMET World Radio (1160 AM) or http:/