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Off-roading for dummies

Land Rover's LR3 does the thinking so you can drive almost anywhere. (Abuse at your own risk.)

September 08, 2004|DAN NEIL

Wick, Scotland — If you want to flog a new Ferrari, you head for the cedar-ribbed roads of Tuscany. If you want to air out a new Porsche 911, you make for the separate reality of Germany's autobahn, where knuckles are pale and right thighs ache and the Black Forest rushes past at 300 feet per second.

The latest minivan? The jungles of Tarzana.

An all-new Land Rover calls for something even more exotic -- not a road at all, but the absence of road. Here in the wild vacancies of northern Scotland, less is moor.

This ancient, roaming terrain is a bonny challenge to any 4x4: black-green slate as slick as a dragon's mossy scales; lochs rimmed with polished boulders; rivers hip-deep and cold; and, most unexpectedly, white sand on the North Sea shore, as fast and deep and sugary as a Bahamian beach.

It's an excellent locale for the press introduction of the Land Rover LR3, a seven-seat, full-size SUV that contains the biggest advance in off-roading technology in a decade: the Terrain Response system.

With a large rotary knob in the LR3's central console, Terrain Response can be set to one of five 4X4 modes: normal; snow-grass-gravel; mud and ruts; sand; and rock crawl (note the similarity to Scottish cuisine).

These modes correspond to pre-programmed settings in the vehicle's computer, affecting the locking center and rear differentials; the four-wheel traction, stability and anti-lock brake systems; throttle response and gear shift points; suspension height, hill descent control, and other parameters. These logarithms were derived from studying terrain characteristics -- the frictional coefficient of wet grass, for instance -- but in a larger sense they represent the accumulated groupthink of Land Rover's half-century of off-road driving experience.

The effect is to digitally supply off-road chops that would otherwise take years to develop. It makes off-roading a no-brainer. We will return to the question of how important that is.

For example, in rock-crawl mode, the vehicle rises 2 inches on its air-spring suspension for greater ground clearance and improved approach and departure angles. The powertrain engages the low-speed transfer case, which multiplies torque at the wheels, the better to pull the vehicle over obstacles. Rock-crawl mode also locks the center and rear differential, so that all the wheels have virtually the same power routed through them -- important because, over large rocks, one or more of the vehicle's tires may not be in contact with the ground. The system also retards throttle response to avoid sudden surges of power in conditions that call for more delicacy and balance than force.

And to make it all clear to you, the LR3 features an animated display (in the navigation panel) illustrating the status of the powertrain: which diffs are locked and for how long, as well as steering angles, suspension height, wheel slippage, traction, ABS pulsing and other data.

In ordinary SUVs, such as the highly capable Toyota Land Cruiser, the driver needs to know when and where to lock the rear and center diffs, and must learn by long and sometimes bitter experience how to modulate the throttle and brakes to pick through obstacles. With the Land Rover, most of the expert-system work has been done for you.

The LR3 is the first all-new vehicle from Land Rover since Ford purchased the company in 1999. It replaces the Discovery, a dogged but dated 4x4 that continues to sell well in the States, despite its reputation for dodgy reliability and its relatively cramped quarters. What the Discovery has going for it is its gallant British styling, lovely interior and case-hardened chassis.

The LR3 is bigger -- 14 inches longer in wheelbase and 5 inches more overall length, slightly wider and a wee bit lower. The extra distance between front and rear allows for the addition of a proper third row of seats, easily accessible behind the second-row tilt-and-tumble seats.

The rear two seats fold flat into the cargo floor, as do the second-row seats (a 35-30-35 bench arrangement). Stow all the seats in the floor and you create a cavernous 90 cubic feet of cargo space, more than a Chevy Tahoe.

You might suspect that this family friendly configuration -- and the available embarrassment of cup holders, auxiliary sound outlets and controls, cubbies, secondary air vents, rear skylights, and a central console drink cooler -- is an effort to pander to American SUV buyers, for whom off-road means drive-in theater. And you would be right. The LR3 will be the company's core product in years to come, and its ladder-frame/unit-body construction will supply the bones for the next four Land Rover products, including the coming-soon Range Rover Sport. It has to be a hit in the U.S.

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