Like any fringe product that eventually gains mass market acceptance, SUVs have steadily strayed from their origins as truck-based brutes into the kinder, gentler, soft-roaders we all know and love. The mid-size luxury SUV segment is a great example of this phenomenon – BMW’s X5 shares its underpinnings with the highly regarded BMW 5-Series sports sedan, and vehicles like the Audi Q7 provide unsurpassed levels of luxury and style.
|1. Base models start at $48,500. Our test model stickered for $57,665.
2. Third row is standard on our HSE Lux tester.
3. A 370-hp 5.0L V8 comes standard.
4. The LR4 is a proper off-roader, with locking differentials, an air suspension, Hill Descent Control and Terrain Management. Even if you never get muddy, it’s nice knowing it’s there.
Nobody seems to have gotten the memo at Land Rover though. Despite being the ne plus ultra of four-wheel-drive status symbols, their entire lineup, save for the LR2 crossover, still uses a truck-style ladder-frame chassis layout that allows their vehicles to venture off-road, far from the organic grocery store or pet daycare.
Those of us with any sort of cognitive abilities know that people buy a Land Rover for the same reason they buy a Rolex Submariner diving watch – they may never dive 330 feet into the ocean, but the fact that you can (and that you paid a lot of money for that possibility) means a lot.
Having already tried the top dog Range Rover Supercharged, we turned our attention to the often-overlooked LR4, a vehicle that doesn’t have the same cachet as the Range Rover, but wins out on price and practicality.
POWERFUL BUT THIRSTY
The LR4 traces its roots back to the Discovery, which was introduced in the early 1990’s as a “down-market” Land Rover product that was more lifestyle accessory than serious off-roader. While the original car had some stone-age V8 engines derived from old Buick motors, the LR4 has come a long way in nearly 20 years. Power is supplied by a 5.0L V8 making 370 horsepower and 376 lb-ft of torque, with power reaching the pavement via a 6-speed automatic. The Jaguar-derived V8 is a 180-degree turn from the old Rover V8 engines of yesteryear, pulling smoothly to redline with a hearty growl. We saw about 15 mpg in mixed driving, proof that all this grunt is nice, but comes at a cost.
COMFORTABLE, BUT AWFULLY TIPPY
The hot-rod motor may be a plus, but the driving dynamics of the tall, boxy truck (which weighs in at nearly three tonnes) makes for Jell-O-like handling, even while changing lanes at freeway speeds. Nobody could ever say that the ride is anything but comfortable, thanks to a trick air suspension setup, but the plush ride made for some scary lateral transitions when cruising on the highway. When traveling in a straight line, the LR4 is a nice place to be.
Soft is the operative word here, since everything about the LR4 is plush – from the ride quality to the cabin materials. As you motor down the road in the LR4, you are swaddled in the same buttery soft leather and plastics as the Range Rover, with everything feeling very familiar to those who have driven Land Rover’s top-dog SUV. The driving position, steering wheel, HVAC system and multi-media unit are all shared with the Range Rover. The LR4 lacks some of the extra pizzazz of the Range Rover’s cabin, like the chocolate-brown/white-piping leather seats, but everything else is more than up to par with the competition. Unfortunately, this also means the same old-school touch screen navigation unit, which is far from intuitive, and has an iPod unit that only true software geeks would dare navigate.
UTILITY: IT’S GOT THE OFF-ROAD GOODS, PLUS A THIRD ROW
Unlike its German competitors, the LR4 has a neat third-row system that allows the two rear seats to fold flat in the floor when not in use, allowing for massive cargo carrying capacity thanks to the LR4’s large trunk area and tall roof. We used the LR4 to help a friend move apartments on one occasion, and one trip with both rows of rear seats folded down was enough to carry his (rather substantial) personal effects. Without a payload, we returned the third-row seats to the upright position and put the back row to work. Passengers reported sufficient room in the back, although the design of the seats themselves looks more like an afterthought than a proper bench.
Land Rover also touts its advanced 4-wheel drive system, including Hill Descent Control, Terrain Response (which allows the system to be adjusted for driving on snow, sand, pavement or other surfaces) and a locking center differential. Of course, we didn’t use any of these once, since our urban summer conditions for the car were the opposite of the Land Rover off-roading ethos, but all the same represent a more accurate portrayal of the kinds of conditions that most LR4s will see.
The LR4 occupies a strange place in the segment, and we can’t help but be charmed by its quirky, British nature, the lovely interior materials and the cloud-like ride quality. On the other hand, rivals like the BMW X5, Audi Q7 and Mercedes-Benz ML-Class are far more in line with what most people want, and if more utility is desired, something like a Volkswagen Touraeg has the off-roading chops as well as the requisite luxury (if not the badge).
We don’t want to ward you off from looking at the LR4, since it’s certainly worthy of your time and attention. If you want a real 4×4 off-roader with all the toys of a luxury car, then you could scarcely do better. But like any specialty product, the LR4 is designed in a very specific way, to appeal to a very specific customer. For the majority of the population, something more conventional, like a Range Rover Sport, or even the upcoming car-based Evoque will be just the ticket.