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2010 Range Rover: I'm besotted, but how long can the gas guzzler last?

October 02, 2009|DAN NEIL

MANCHESTER, VT. — Look, I'm not immune to the subtle charms of enormous. Barreling down the road in a Range Rover -- big as a barn and about as aerodynamic -- feels really good.

For years Rolls Royce has owned the term "waftability" to convey those cars' easy grace and pace. But just sit ye down in a 2010 Range Rover for a while. This thing will "waft" your fool head off.

Propelled by either of the two new 5.0-liter V8s available in the U.S. -- one naturally aspirated (375 hp) and one supercharged (510 hp) -- the Range Rover feels less like a truck and more like a four-stack ocean liner, all deep hull and mighty propellers churning in an ocean of endorphins. Less terrestrial than maritime, all gliding, frictionless serenity and near-silence, betraying no trace of the furious coal-shoveling going on below decks.

Yet while thus besotted, I was vexed with this thought: How long can it last?

Here's what we know so far about the Obama administration's path to raise fleet-wide Corporate Average Fuel Economy requirements to 35 mpg by 2016: not much.

But one thing is certain: Much stricter fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards in the U.S. are coming fast, and some manufacturers, by the very nature of their products, are hugely disadvantaged.

By my reckoning, the most vulnerable company on the product map is Land Rover.

The top-of-the-line Supercharged Range Rover gets 12 mpg city/18 mpg highway and has emissions of roughly 400 grams of carbon per mile (my estimate); none of the current lineup gets better than 22 mpg highway. Though we don't typically tar Land Rover with the same brush, its vehicles get roughly the same gas mileage as the Hummer, the bad boy of fuel efficiency.

Last week, Land Rover announced it would build a smaller SUV -- a baby Range Rover, if you will -- that will likely be powered by a V6 engine, for model year 2011. And it will probably get pretty decent mileage too, for a Rover. But such a vehicle has no chance of getting Land Rover to a 35-mpg fleet average, no matter how fuzzy the math.

What about the poster child of gas-hogdom, that killer of electric cars, GM? Because GM sells a broad range of cars -- some of which get exceptional fuel economy -- the little cars offset the big cars and trucks.

That's not the case with Land Rover.

By the same token, luxury marques such as Audi and Lexus find shelter under the averages of their parent companies (VW and Toyota).

Land Rover has no such umbrella.

Specialty brands such as Ferrari, Aston Martin and Lamborghini also get heinous fuel economy, but these companies will likely be protected by some low-volume variance of the rules.

Land Rover, though, sells about 60,000 vehicles a year.

Meanwhile, other manufacturers -- notably Mercedes-Benz and BMW -- pay millions of dollars in penalties each year for failing to meet CAFE standards. They regard it as the cost of doing business in the States. It seems problematic whether Jaguar/Land Rover's new owner -- the Indian conglomerate Tata -- will pay this multimillion-dollar vig on an operation that's already profit-challenged.

I'm not saying it's inevit- able, or likely, or even lamentable. But Land Rover could be the first marquee brand to fold up its tents and leave the U.S. market because of the jump in CAFE standards.

I raised this possibility to Land Rover execs at last week's press event and their looks of dismay could have been penned by Victor Hugo.

Personally, I'm not sure how to process this information. I expect, nay, demand better fuel economy for passenger vehicles. Our national security, our economy and our environment are all suffering mightily from our collective reliance on oil. So if Land Rover's days are numbered, so be it. Kanye will just have to find some other way to get to work.

Yet Land Rovers and Range Rovers do extraordinary things, and I like extraordinary.

The 2010 Range Rover is, basically, a limousine that can climb a tree. Because it offers, as they say, such a "breadth of capabilities," the Range Rover weighs a lot. A massive, beefy frame, agricultural axles, heavy-duty air suspension and wheels, mighty engines bristling with oil coolers, external oil sumps and waterproofed belt-drives, starters, air conditioning compressors, alternators -- all of this is what you need if you want to be the greatest off-road vehicle on the planet, which the Range Rover indisputably is.

Meanwhile, the 2010 model -- with a variety of minor cosmetic upgrades -- is further surfeited with pounds of luxury and technology, including upgraded switchgear (with "noble" finish aluminum), leather headliner, a very nifty thin-film transistor (TFT) instrument display, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring and a host of other switches, systems and continued-on-the-next-page devices.

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