By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 15, 2009
The traditional concept of luxury is being reworked under Land Rover's new owner, Tata Motors Limited, India's biggest manufacturer of trucks and passenger cars.
Tata is deemphasizing the notion of luxury as extravagance for the sake of status in favor of the idea that luxury reflects superior functionality and enduring value.
It is a change in emphasis mandated by the dismal economic conditions in the United States and Western Europe as well as by Tata's long-range plans to increase sales of Land Rover vehicles in emerging markets such as China, South America, Africa and India.
In the mature and troubled U.S. market, people nowadays aren't coming into showrooms in search of motorized baubles, cars and trucks that provide little more than illusions of prestige, said Finbar McFall, vice president of marketing for Land Rover North America.
Consumers still capable of affording something such as this week's test vehicle, the 2009 Land Rover Range Rover Sport HSE, want to be assured that they're getting more, McFall said.
Land Rover's current marketing aim, thus, "is to inspire confidence and remind consumers why a Land Rover isn't just a desirable choice but also an intelligent choice -- a safe, smart and sensible choice."
In his corporate statement, McFall noticeably avoided describing the gasoline-powered Land Rover models sold in this country as fuel-efficient choices. It is an understandable omission.
The 2009 Range Rover Sport HSE gets a deplorable 12 miles per gallon in the city and 18 miles per gallon on the highway -- a combined 15 miles per gallon -- requiring premium unleaded gasoline.
Even at today's prices -- a national average of $2.18 a gallon, according to the Energy Information Administration -- the current U.S. version of the mid-size Range Rover Sport HSE consumes enough fuel to drive a middle- to upper-income owner to the poor house.
If Tata really wants to make a good impression with this model, it should ship over a more fuel-efficient diesel version. Current diesel prices in the United States are roughly equivalent to what is being charged for premium gas, according to the EIA. But diesel power in internal combustion engines is 30 to 35 percent more fuel-efficient than gasoline. Lots of middle- to upper-income buyers would be willing to live with that.
Such a rapprochement is made more likely by how easy, enjoyable and useful it is to live with most of what is the Range Rover Sport HSE.
This is a four-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicle that seems to defy gravity. It weighs a hefty 5,468 pounds, which is no small factor in its egregious fuel consumption. Yet, it is an especially nimble driver -- a utility vehicle, also known as a "truck," that lives up to the "sports" part of its name.
Off-road performance in the Range Rover HSE inspires a kind of fearlessness. (Just check your fuel gauge before you set out.)
I have been asked in my Real Wheels online chat on Fridays to choose a utility vehicle for beach driving. The Range Rover Sport HSE, or the Land Rover LR3 from which it is derived, easily would be among my first choices (assuming, of course, that the beach allows off-road driving).
Both the Range Rover Sport HSE and LR3 have onboard, automatic terrain-setting systems. Turn a dial. Choose a setting for pavement, rocky terrain, sand or gravel. The vehicle makes numerous appropriate adjustments (suspension setting, braking, handling, acceleration control) in response. You are set to go with confidence.
On-road travel is fast, wonderfully stable and comfortable. But again, remember that the more enthusiasm with which you push that accelerator pedal, the more you are contributing to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries through gasoline consumption in the United States.
The Range Rover Sport HSE comes with a 300-horsepower V-8 engine capable of producing 315 foot-pounds of torque. It can move and apparently can continue moving for many years. That partly is where both its practicality and value come in. R.L. Polk vehicle registration data show that 75 percent of all Land Rover vehicles sold in this country since Land Rover's 1989 introduction in the United States remain on the road.
That longevity might be a testament to the fact that most Americans who buy Land Rover vehicles use them to tour the parking lots and garages of strip-mall shopping complexes. Still, that's an impressive number.