Britain's Land Rover-Leyland International, maker of one of the world's most coveted four-wheel-drive vehicles, has chosen a Washington suburb as the site for its U.S. sales headquarters.

The U.S. operation, Range Rover of North America Inc., is setting up offices in Lanham.

The development means that Land Rover-Leyland, through its new American subsidiary, is the first auto maker to establish its U.S. sales base in the Washington metropolitan area. In terms of jobs, however, it means little. At most, RRNA is expected to employ 80 people at its headquarters. The company will have a 60-member national dealership network.

Unit sales will be minuscule in comparison with those of even small divisions of most auto manufacturers. RRNA expects to sell 3,000 of its luxury Range Rover models in 1987, its first year of operation. The company expects sales to move up to about 5,000 units annually in succeeding years.

The Range Rover vehicles will be priced at about $30,000.

The Land Rover and Range Rover nameplates are legend in the worldwide, four-wheel drive vehicle industry. The Rover models, often featured in "safari" movies, are the longtime favorites of adventurers requiring rugged, durable, off-road transportation.

General Motors Corp., anxious to improve its own image in the luxury sports-utility segment, attempted to buy Land Rover-Leyland. But negotiations for the proposed takeover broke off in March, after the British government insisted that 51 percent of the Land Rover unit, itself a subsidiary of British Leyland PLC, be left in British hands.

Land Rover-Leyland wants to use that reputation to lock up an up-for-grabs niche in the burgeoning U.S. four-wheel-drive market -- the super-luxury segment.

"We are not a package goods company," said Charles R. Hughes, RRNA president. "We're looking to provide the market with a top-end product that it currently does not have."

The Washington area is "an ideal spot" from which to launch such an effort because of its "highly favorable" logistics and demographics, Hughes said.

The area's three airports -- Baltimore Washington International, Washington National and Dulles International -- provide ideal access to air transportation for the shipment of parts and other support materials, Hughes said. Lanham is also only 35 miles from the Port of Baltimore, where the Land Rover vehicles will be landed, he said.