Whenever a new Range Rover is brought out, news articles usually breathlessly report that Land Rover have conducted 'extensive testing' in the deserts of the UAE.
I've really no idea what those Land Rover engineers are actually doing, as the Range Rover, despite its many, many good points, is a car that has been hobbled for sand driving - it may be great in mud, water and on rocks, but it fails in the dunes.
Last weekend I got the chance to accompany a friend of ours, Mark Daffey, on a trip to the Empty Quarter to review a 2008 superchared Range Rover. Mark edits Portfolio, Emirates' business and first class magazine. It occasionally features a world leading columnist who also happens to be one of the most interesting bloggers writing today.
We went along in our Wrangler with Sharky, a friend from ME4x4, kindly offering to lead.
I was lucky enough to drive the Range Rover a fair bit.
First impressions were excellent - little's changed on the outside, beyond a new grid design for the front grill and gills. Our 2003 model's interior is beautiful and Land Rover have again left well alone - the addition of a simple cup holder to replace the Heath Robinson style holders of the earlier models, coupled with a few more air vents for quieter AC make a big difference. Getting in and out was easier as well - you have to be careful not to lean too hard on the plastic around the seat on the older model, but Land Rover appear to have positioned things better this time around. Some poor decisions still persist though - the plastic coating around the electric window controls and on the steering wheel appears unchanged. Look at any Range Rover over two years old and you'll see that this coating quickly starts to peel - not something you expect from a car this expensive. Look at a two year old Lexus 470 and I don't think you'll find anything peeling.
The new model sees the BMW 4.4 litre V8 replaced with a Jaguar based 4.2 litre V8. Our supercharged version has 400Bhp roaring under the bonnet. The ride that this delivers, coupled with the Rangie's air suspension, is incredible. This was the first time I've driven a car where flooring the accelerator actually pins you to the back of your seat. Doing this in a 2.5 tonne 4x4 on a rough track really is something else.
On tracks and gentle dunes, the Range Rover's ride quality is truly superb. Bumps are absorbed even at high speeds. I drove the car back down a track I had driven up in in the Wrangler, jolting and bumping along, deafened by AC fans at full blast and noise coming up through the floor. Driving back in the Range Rover was a revelation.
Sadly, when it got to real dune driving, the Range Rover was a colossal let down.
Much of the blame can be pinned on its low profile tyres. Sadly the dealer didn't swap them for higher profile tyres more suited to desert driving, which was a real shame. That said, although they look good, does the Range Rover really need such low profile tyres? 90% of owners will never go offroad, but part of the fun in owning a Range Rover is that you know that you could if you wanted to. Other comparable models - the new Lexus LX570 and even the three tonne Nissan Armada behemoth, for example - ship with tyres that look good but which are much more general purpose.
Whilst riding on gatch tracks and smooth sand was a pleasure, things went south when we tried something more challenging. Deflating the low profile tyres to 13psi didn't deliver a lot of extra grip, but things seemed ok at first. Turning sharply on dunes however filtered up awful grinding noises into the cabin that may have been caused the rims rubbing on the sand. Braking seemed to fail completely as well - touching the brakes at certain key moments felt like metal crushing metal. This may have been sand getting between the discs and brakes, but my Wrangler's front disc brakes have never made sounds like it.
Worse still was the fact that the car's electronics hobble it for this kind of terrain. Dune driving is not usually about approaching things slowly and surely - you need speed, torque and a driver in strict control of how to use it.
My 03 Ranger Rover has a five speed automatic gearbox, with high and low ratio and the ability to select gears 'tiptronic' style. The new model has inherited its offroad features from the LR3. There are various settings - sand, rocks, snow, etc. There's also a six speed automatic in addition, of course, to high and low range.
Mark wanted to get some shots of the car driving along a simple dune. I started off using the 'sand' setting, but had trouble with the gearbox changing up at crucial moments, losing me speed and momentum and forcing me to turn sharply back down a dune that I should easily have been able to cruise along the top of, albeit at a sharp angle.
To counter this, I decided to try low range and manually choose the gears. In the Wrangler, most of my desert driving's done in low range, using third fourth and fifth. The extra torque gives you the power you need without requiring the speed that high-range demands to keep momentum.
Sadly, the Range Rover's gearbox only lets you manually select gears up to third, effectively making it useless for most decent dune driving. This video shows the Wrangler negotiating a fantastic bowl in Sweihan. I'm in fourth and fifth in low range for most of it. Doing something like that in the Range Rover would require you to be in full automatic the whole time, something that would rob the driver of the control he'd need to do it safely.
Third gear was fine for the simple dune we were attacking. At first I was pretty pleased - control and power were put back in my hands. Unfortunately, I kept hitting the kickdown button when flooring the accelerator, which pushed me down into second gear. I don't know if all automatics still have kickdown working when you're in tiptronic mode, but it was a real pain. When you're bouncing around in the desert, you're not able to keep your foot hovering just at the right position to avoid changing down a gear by mistake.
Another piece of electronic wizardry robs the driver of control in the sand. The Range Rover's air suspension can be raised to increase clearance from just under 9 inches up to 11 inches, as well as drastically improving the car's approach and departure angle. Unfortunately, drive over 30 miles an hour and it automatically lowers itself. This is the last thing you want to happen, particularly with a front bumper whose design makes it a big sand scoop.
We drove over a small bump that really shouldn't have been an issue - it certainly wouldn't have been in a Land Cruiser - and caught the bottom of the bumper, cracking it slightly and ripping off the plastic trim that covers the wheel arch.
We decided to call it a day at this point to avoid further damage.
Every review I have read says that the Range Rover is not just a beautiful luxury car, but a very capable offroad vehicle as well, with electronics that really helps the driver. Granted, higher profile tyres would have made a real difference, but the other problems suggest that when Land Rover engineers are testing Range Rovers in Dubai, they're either sticking to the wadis, enjoying the fantastic empty motorways or just making sure the AC works properly. I might take mine to Fossil Rock, but the Wrangler will be tackling future sandy outings.
I did see a local gentleman driving down Beach Road the other day in a Range Rover with fully modified front and rear bumpers and full sand tyres. His changes, coupled with the car's luxury ride, must make it great fun on the dunes. I wonder what he did with the water bottle though? For some strange reason it's embedded into the bumper, making modifications hard.
I should add that the dune driving we did was actually back at our usual stomping ground, Area 53. This was because shortly after airing down...
...we only spent 5 minutes in the sands of Liwa before Sharky was incredibly unlucky and wedged his Discovery. The sun was high and there were no shadows to give away a small dip, which he plunged into sideways, pushing his bumper and winch up a few inches, squashing his radiator. He was easily pulled out...
...but it would have been unwise to continue. Sharky headed home and we drove to Area 53 to get some shots and camp.
To be honest, given the Range Rover's poor performance in the sand, it was probably a good thing.
You can see a video of the Range Rover on the sand track here and pulling out the Discovery here>.
All in all, a good day out, if a little accident prone. Sharky's stuck, the Range Rover's bumper - my Max Air pump also broke, as did Mark's glasses! Maybe it was just not meant to be.
I must say a big thank you to Nick for letting me 'have a go'. Nick is Mark's colleague and he'll be writing the article for Portfolio.
Nothing to break and the driver's in full control:
This is probably your most reliable form of desert transport, however: