The original Range Rover was born in the mind of Charles ‘Spen' King, Land Rover's formidable Chief Engineer of New Vehicles from 1959 to 1967. His ambition at the time was to "create something with better off-road ability than a Land Rover, but that would be an appreciably nicer vehicle on ordinary roads".
Function was more important than form. "We probably spent .001 per cent of our time on the appearance of the original," he once said. Certainly, there was neither the intent nor expectation of creating an icon, and yet that is what happened. With the launch of the first model in 1970, a legend was born.
As legends go, it was pretty utilitarian. Cloth seats, vinyl floors designed to be hosed out... the vehicle was meant for work on farms and building sites. The original expectation was that it would be bought by people who worked on the land, owners of construction companies, engineers, high-ranking military officers and those on call to remote locations - vets, surveyors and the emergency services.
In fact, almost from day one, there was a thriving secondary market for the new car simply because they couldn't build them fast enough. And it's not because they got their marketing wrong; the target group did indeed want the car. But because of the car's appeal, an entirely new market cutting across all demographics and sectors began to make a beeline to the showrooms eager to purchase the new bold, chunky car on the block. It was the first true SUV, though that phrase was coined only several years later.
Fast-forward 40 years
So what of today's car? More than four decades later, the Range Rover is a global status symbol, a premium luxury car that remains the last word in off-road performance, as fast on the road as a high-performance sports car, as cosseting as any prestigious saloon. It perhaps carries as much technology as a rocket, yet is as simple to drive as a supermini. Not only do you look good in a Range Rover, but as was the original intent, you also still look down on almost all the other drivers on the road - the elevated ‘command' driving position is as imperious as ever.
Today's car has evolved through a number of generations, and in the hands of various owners including BMW and Ford, with the most recent significant refresh being the 2010 model year update when the BMW-sourced engine was replaced with the latest 5.0 litre V8 from the Jaguar stable. This superb engine now provides performance and excitement across almost all of the high-end Land Rover and Jaguar models, and once driven, it is easy to see why. In normally aspirated form it produces a healthy 375bhp, but with a supercharger fitted, as here, that jumps to a formidable 510bhp.
The inside story
Cosmetically, updates were limited to subtle mouldings and the fitment of LED daytime running lights, new colours and trims. The interior upgrades were much more extensive, taking the already impressive accommodation ever closer to the feeling of being aboard a luxury yacht, with swathes of brushed steel, glossy wood and exquisitely sumptuous leather, all electrically adjustable of course. Even the back seats recline at the touch of a button.
Once you have clambered up on to that high seat, all-round visibility is superb, thanks to the large glass-house and low waistline. Your view forward is still framed by Spen King's original castellated bonnet, and though he wanted it to be made of aluminium, the technology available then meant it was only possible to press such a shape in steel, so steel it was.
That clamshell form endures as a design hallmark, as does the original ‘floating' roof. In fact, that was the result of another pragmatic fudge rather than a conscious design decision - the technology wasn't sufficiently advanced to achieve the desired finish for the pressings for the novel shape of the rear pillars so they were simply covered in vinyl. By such quirks are icons made.
A different drive
Press the ‘Start' button, (nothing so pedestrian as an ignition key here), watch as the rotary gear selector rises majestically to meet the palm of your hand, and twist to select ‘Drive'.
My first acquaintance with the Supercharged was not immediately positive - I found the ride fidgety, and the steering much more sensitive than I had expected, despite the unusually large steering wheel which might suggest otherwise. Partly this was due to previous experience of driving a Range Rover, in a different land and a different century. Then, the experience was akin to piloting a maritime barge; floor the throttle and it was as if you had signalled six bells on the telegraph.
Somewhere deep below in the bowels of the vehicle a distant rumbling could be detected, and some time after that, you could begin to detect a degree of forward motion. So too it was with the steering, where several turns of the large and thin-rimmed wheel would initiate a supertanker-like change of direction.
The current experience was vastly different. Throttle response is instant, at every engine speed and in any gear, thanks to that supercharger, sitting inaudibly in the middle of the engine's V, and providing turbo-like boost from zero revs. So too the steering, reacting at the speed of thought, and with almost as much input from me.
As I realised over the course of a weekend, the Supercharged actually only looks like a large and luxurious SUV. In reality, it is actually a small, high-performance sports car, and you can happily drive it as such.
That supercharged engine is a masterpiece, pumping out 510bhp and 625Nm of torque. In real terms, that means the 0-100kph sprint is dispatched in a shade over six seconds, and a top speed of 210kph is no disgrace for a near three-tonne garden shed with the aerodynamics of your average house brick. But it is in the real world that the performance most impresses.
Drive goes through a brand new six-speed ZF automatic gearbox to all four wheels, and it shifts quickly and smoothly at all times. Full bore acceleration is enough to pin you back in your seat all the way to the limit in sixth, and at more realistic speeds the amount of torque available at all times is enough to guarantee instantaneous acceleration. Once you become familiar with the weight and heft of the controls, the Supercharged is great fun to drive, so faithfully does it respond to your commands.
For me, the true nature of the Supercharged was summed up by a chance encounter on the road through Al Barsha. There, in front, was a very early four-door Range Rover, one of the early originals, painted a dark olive grey and running on similarly coloured three-spoke alloys. From behind, those wheels looked amazingly narrow, the whole car a much lighter, simpler affair than the version in which I sat. Yet when I pulled alongside, the driver and I swapped glances of recognition, each admiring the other's drive, and the thread of DNA that connected both vehicles was unmistakably clear.
This latest version of the Range Rover has clearly evolved a very long way from the simplicity of that original, but it has never lost sight of Spen King's original ambition. It is still peerless off-road, and remains an appreciably nicer vehicle on ordinary roads. One of the very finest of all, in fact.
The game has moved on, and it was the Range Rover that moved it.
Engine V8, 4,999cc, 32 valves, 4 OHC, supercharged
Power 510bhp from 6,000rpm, 625Nm torque from 2,550-5,500rpm
Transmission six-speed ZF Auto, RR optimised, locking central differential
Performance 0-100kph 6.1 seconds, 210kph top speed