Essaouira airport is a dust spec on the landscape of Morocco, a country that has more than its share of them. The first thing the visitor notices in the tiny immigration hall is a montage of pictures — actor/director Orson Welles, and rockers Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. Each of the above visited this part of the world, left an indelible legacy and the memories are treasured by locals. Welles filmed much of Othello in the charming, quirky coastal town of Essaouira in 1952 and it’s said he met Winston Churchill in a bar there.
Hendrix and Morrison came to town to — er, do what rockers did a lot of back then. But they made such a big impression their pictures had to go up at the airport. It won’t surprise anyone that Bob Marley later found his way to Essaouira, and keeping things even-handed, Maria Callas was a regular too. From what wheels witnessed last week, there’ll be another picture up at the airport before too long — the all-new Range Rover. The impact of this vehicle on passers-by in Morocco was nothing short of staggering.
We kicked off the most broad-spectrum test drive imaginable at Essaouira, tearing up the dune banks before taking on the daunting Atlas Mountains via their highest trail, and relishing the open highways to Marrakech. On the open road, Roadhouse Blues has never sounded so good as 29 speakers were on hand to ensure we really got the message. I’m a fan of the summer game originally played by mad dogs and Englishmen in the mid-day sun. It has always been agreed that Ian Botham is the greatest all-rounder to come out of Britain. However, ‘Beefy’ has a rival nowadays as it’s hard to go past the latest Range as the world’s best all-round vehicle.
Land Rover design guru Gerry McGovern told us at a swanky dinner in Marrakech, “This is the vehicle that can take you to the opera or the Outback.” While the former is unlikely to be pencilled in my diary, the vehicle would certainly be preferred for the latter. However, while it may not go to the opera, the mighty 4X4’s first VIP drive was in London a few days before we got hold of it in Morocco when it ferried Daniel Craig to the London premiere of the new James Bond film Skyfall. It looked as comfy chauffeuring 007 to the Royal Albert Hall as it was when we gave the vehicle its head during some great mud-plugging, thanks to unseasonable downpours all over Morocco.
The dunking swamped the broadband network in numerous places, leaving many regions without internet… bliss! The Range Rover has always been a brute off the road, but the new version rules the tarmac as well, all the time keeping the driver and passengers in style and comfort. Designers crawled all over luxury limos like Bentleys, Rollers and Mercedes S-Classes to benchmark the glamour and sophistication never found in earlier Range models. The latest offering is a quality, streamlined-looking vehicle, but still instantly recognisable as a Range Rover, adhering to the brief to the designers and engineers: “improve it, but don’t change it.”
So fear not, it looks like a Range Rover; the main changes are under the skin. Tradition? You better believe it. The fourth-generation Range Rover comes 42 years after the first Range Rover was unveiled in 1970 and 64 years after the launch of the first Land Rover in 1948. An earlier Range Rover launch was to have been in Morocco, but for some reason didn’t happen, so the carmaker says our event was “unfinished business.” The latest vehicle, with its impressive overall design and top-gun acumen on and off-road is geared to attracting new buyers to the Range Rover owners’ fraternity.
The best part of 800,000 has been sold since the first one left the showroom floor and it’s difficult to see any disruption to the success story. But there is scope to broaden the customer base, according to the blueprint for this vehicle, and the new Range is pitched at the heart of cashed-up executive motoring. The exterior is fine and stays true to tradition although it looks Flex-ish and the lamps, particularly the taillights, resemble those of an Explorer. The exterior is more an evolution than ground-breaking while the joy is in the electronic wizardry and improved comfort.
The Range Rover’s on-road performance never matched its off-road supremacy. It used to be tough going around corners if you put your foot down and attempted to drive it like a sedan. The CO2 figures didn’t get you too many birthday cards from the green crew either, but those days are in the rear-view mirror. The new Range has agility and handling the equal to that of executive saloons. The steering turns on a dime, or dirham and the 5.0-litre V8 does the 0-100kph sprint in 5.4 seconds, which is up there with some sportscars.
Away from the tarmac, the Range struts its stuff with an array of amazing off-road technology. You can set the second-generation Terrain Response central rotary dial to automatically adapt to the type of surface on which you are driving — or manually override it to one of the five settings: general driving; grass, gravel and snow; mud and ruts; sand and ‘rock crawl’. Basically, the new model’s systems can sense the ground conditions and make adjustments automatically without any intervention from the driver. This means the most demanding off-roading can be handled and enjoyed by mere mortals.
Alex Heslop, Range Rover chief programme engineer, says the automatic mode has “moved the game on.” “Even non-expert drivers will be able to benefit from the system’s full capabilities, confident that the vehicle is configured in the best possible way for each moment of their journey, however tough the conditions.” And it can swim an even-deeper 900mm thanks to special channels under the bonnet, so you will be more comfortable on the road behind Ibn Battuta Mall when the local flooding happens in the area. Punters have a choice of two petrol engines (5.0-litre 370bhp V8 and 503bhp Supercharged V8), paired with an eight-speed auto.
The drive in Morocco threw up searing desert, rocks, flowing river beds, frightening, but spectacular mountain passes and potholes that would have done Vietnam’s tunnel rats proud. The big lump bested them all without breaking sweat. It was all part of an epic drive that would have endeared the vehicle to Bond and no one was left either shaken or stirred. The Range is tasteful and luxurious, but tough as an old boot underneath. On the road it presented a quiet, refined drive and was tight around corners without any of that dodgy feel from many other 4X4s.
Many major improvements stem from the vehicle having been on a healthy diet. The Range Rover is the first SUV to be made all of lightweight aluminium, another technological innovation, cutting its weight by 420kg. It makes the vehicle more agile and also the most aerodynamic Range Rover ever. Fuel economy is boosted and pollution levels reduced. But the weight loss is felt by the improved handling, overall lighter ‘feel’, general ride comfort and far better pick-up during the acceleration. The outgoing model was quick but in a Jonah Lomu way. Your tester is a gentleman of height and girth.
An extra 40mm in length has allowed Range Rover to add 118mm more legroom in the rear, along with electric reclining seats. This is most welcome as rear legroom has long been a gripe concerning earlier models. Fuel consumption and pollution are further reduced due to the latest ‘stop-start’ technology which, cuts out the engine when it is idling. And there’s more eco-friendliness on the way as the line-up will soon be joined by the first-ever mega-green diesel-electric hybrid Range Rover. I’m an unabashed fan of uncluttered dashboards and the number of dials and switches has been reduced by 50 per cent to give it a cleaner look and make it easier to find your way around.
It begs the question why there were so many before, but it also shows that the automaker has been listening to customers. If you’re keeping a boat at Dubai Marina you’ll be pleased to know the Range Rover boasts towing weight of 3.5 tonnes. A dud air-con is the kiss of death in the Gulf but this one is a gem. It was tested at up to 50°C in the UAE, we were informed. The wedge will be serious if you want this vehicle so we might not see a great deal of these luxury off-roaders being driven from the UAE to Oman for a weekend’s blitz of the rock-faces, dunes and wadis.
For many, the only damage to the Range is likely to be when the paintwork gets scratched by some drongo in the car park at Spinneys. There’s something posh and cool about being at the wheel of a Range Rover and it stems from sitting high and being master of all you survey. A Range Rover is obviously about prestige and the loyal customers in the Gulf will write out a cheque for the model, irrespective of whether there are many improvements, such as it does, it’s lighter, more environmentally friendly, fuel efficient and so on. But many of the potential buyers at the top end of the executive motoring segment will like the sound of all that.
One thing is for sure, the criticism of the vehicle once slammed by some as a
gas-guzzling ‘Chelsea tractor’, is a thing of the past. Now all we need is for the picture to go up on the wall at the airport at Essaouira — that’s when you’ve really made it.