I like to think new cars represent progress. Faster, safer, smarter. More luxurious, more efficient, prettier. This is our reward, if we can afford it, for upgrading to a new model generation.
The latest Range Rover is a prime example. I’ve driven three of them since Land Rover overhauled its flagship in 2013. All were supercharged, pampering and gorgeous. I do not like SUVs, yet I completely understand why people gravitate to these thirsty, air-riding beasts. For decades, they were and are the most capable luxury cars on the planet.
I recently went off-roading with a convoy of 2014 Range Rovers on the Continental Divide in Colorado. But I wasn’t half as impressed with the new Range Rovers as I was with an immaculate 1990 model with 92,000 miles and original-spec tires. For street presence and 4×4 prowess, this is the best factory model you can get.
Rick Allen owns this Great Divide Expedition model, a specially outfitted Range Rover built for the most dramatic of press trips. Journalists with deluxe late-80s hairdos and thick mustaches took these vehicles on crumbling, narrow mining roads over 1,128 miles, some reaching as high as 13,000 feet. Seeing as Rovers of this age are often near or at a repair shop, I’m not sure if driving a 25-year old British car in the middle of nowhere is a sound idea. But Allen is a Land Rover mechanic at a dealer in Mount Vernon, Ohio, and his only problem is a leaking power steering fluid line, which he clamped with some hastily-fashioned retaining clips. Of course, the Rover continues to drip-drip, and Allen tops off the reservoir every few hours. Extra clips are on the dash, just in case.
The rest of his vehicle, with its roof carrier, floodlamps, and original body decals, hums like a champ. I’m in the front seat as we climb out of Silverton, a tiny town that appears abandoned save for some bars, ATV rentals, and a store advertising purses for concealed handguns. I’m munching on granola as we ascend from the town, and I apologize for the crumbs that will inevitably fall on his pristine leather seats.
I’m not driving his car. I don’t ask and he doesn’t ask me. We both know why: Allen just met me, his vehicle is a collector’s item, and I’m a journalist on rocky precipices with what I would call “experienced amateur” off-road skills. On the original 1989 trek which Allen himself joined, a journalist rolled one of the Rovers. No one wants that repeated in 2014.
On road, I can feel the Rover sway heavily around turns. At these altitudes, the 3.9-liter V8 is making far less than its original 178 hp, and the four-speed automatic is taxed and burdened to no end, radiator fans whirring like mad. This is how SUVs used to drive, and since I was born four years before this car was built, I don’t feel I missed out. But when we reach the trail, the ’90 Rover is in its element. The high seating position and huge glass all around give us tremendous visibility and an uncanny ability to point between rocks, edges, and other obstacles with laser-like precision. The long-travel steel springs and thick-sidewalled, 16-inch tires are so compliant and gentle. Torque is always on tap, and this vehicle’s other mods — disconnected sway bars, front and rear locking diffs — get us through easily. Allen has to mind his rear diff — it’s a live axle and slightly off-center, so he traces careful patterns around rocks that might poke it — but other than that, it looks incredibly easy to drive. There’s no electronic aids of any kind, just power windows. They work, too.
Back in the brand-new Range Rover, I can barely see the edge of the car and hesitate around tight turns. The added width and length are hindrances. The hill-descent control, which stabs the brakes to keep the car below a preset speed, is fussy to use. It’s either too slow or too quick. The 22-inch wheels send crashes and bangs into the cabin over bumps, even with the air suspension raised to its highest setting. In automatic mode in low range, the 8-speed transmission will hold first gear too long and then snap into second, which makes me hit the brakes to keep the speed in check. It’s a tremendously capable car and I’ve got the seat cooling my back and the leather-wrapped wheel warming my fingers, yet I want to get back in Allen’s car. Ordinarily, I’d never find the new Range Rover to be inconvenient as I’ve just described. I love these new Rovers.
But compared to its ancestor in the environment it came from, it’s not better. It’s just newer.