Were off-roading enthusiasts to create a Hall of Fame for rugged vehicles, they would surely make the World War II Jeep a first-round inductee. This abiding symbol of U.S. Army mobility did everything and went anywhere, carrying Patton, Eisenhower, and Hemingway, among others, to their respective appointments with history.
Of course the Land Rover would also be entitled to a place in the rough-and-ready Hall of Fame. Though brothers Maurice and Spencer Wilks—the part-time farmers and full-time auto executives who invented the Land Rover—actually modeled their mechanical creation on an early version of its cousin from across the pond, this more upscale emblem of wanderlust has retained its distinctly British character. Sometimes luxurious yet always capable, the Land Rover has served around the globe as ambulance, agricultural work truck, military transporter, and search-and-rescue vehicle. It has also performed the less arduous but considerably more glamorous job of squiring the members of various royal houses from point to point. Yet, whatever its duties and wherever it has gone, the Land Rover has sparked in motorists the spirit of adventure since its introduction in 1948.
This heritage was for 20 years, until 1999, embodied in the Camel Trophy, which was awarded to top Land Rover drivers who braved topographical tortures in Madagascar, Mongolia, the Amazon, New Guinea, and similarly remote regions. In 2003, Land Rover sponsored “Odyssey: Driving Around the World,” a fundraiser for multiple charities in which seven owners spent more than a year trekking across the globe in their Land Rovers, covering 41,000 miles through 26 countries.
Today the tradition continues with the Land Rover Experience (www.landroverexperience.com), a chain of more than 30 driving centers in Europe, the United States, Canada, Asia, and South Africa specializing in all-terrain jaunts. This service is headquartered on the grounds of Eastnor Castle, the home of Sarah and James Felton Somers Hervey-Bathurst in Herefordshire, England. For almost three decades, Land Rover has leased some 30 miles of trail on this private countryside as training-and-testing grounds on which drivers can climb, descend, slide, and spin. These same maneuvers can be executed at the other centers, two of which recently hosted a select group of automotive journalists who subjected Land Rover’s 2010 models to extreme terrains. In Spain, the drive took place along the bone-dry cliffs around the Les Comes estate, near Barcelona; in Scotland, the course followed the bonny banks and braes surrounding Floors Castle at Kelso.
This test-drive event marked the debut of a new Land Rover family. Land Rover’s 2010 lineup represents an almost total reinvention of the famed four-wheel-drive design. Although the 2010 Range Rover, Land Rover LR4, and peppy Range Rover Sport have the same storage-box looks, the models improve on the previous generation’s off-road competence and on-road performance thanks to a new engine that makes pretenders out of most other brands in the luxury SUV market. Developed by Land Rover and its sister company Jaguar, the 5-liter V-8 delivers 375 hp and 375 ft lbs of torque. In the 2010 Range Rover, the new, regular-breathing engine delivers only 25 hp less than that delivered by the old 4.2-liter supercharged version used in 2009 models. The supercharged 5.0 leaps to 510 hp, taking the high-profile, weighty Range Rover from zero to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds—2.2 seconds faster than its predecessor.
The 2010 Range Rover also has a new power train, a less fussy interior with improved wood finishes and leather, and a host of adaptive systems that automatically (and sometimes proactively) adjust ride height, suspension settings, damping, cruise control, braking, shifting, and even hill-descent speeds. The model’s instrument cluster is no longer a collection of dials and needles, but rather what Range Rover calls a thin-film transistor (TFT) screen: a mini-television screen that displays all instruments as virtual, back-projected images that do not fade in the sun’s glare.
Five cameras positioned strategically around the vehicle transmit close-ups of nearby trees, fence posts, embankments, and other potential hazards to the central TFT screen. A driver can use one or all of these roving eyes and can zoom in on a particular view. Unfortunately, the cameras offer no correctional advice, which we discovered while crossing a bridge of two parallel logs during a Scottish downpour. Happily, two assistants, a strap, and a winch eventually tugged us to safety and firm ground.
Range Rover pricing starts at $79,275 for the normally aspirated version and $95,125 for the supercharged model. A fully loaded version (including, among other features, a leather headliner, a rear-seat video system, a six-CD changer with remote and headphones, five exterior cameras, an HD radio, and a heated steering wheel) will list north of $110,000.
The $48,000 Land Rover LR4, successor to the LR3, is a smaller, lighter model that comes with the new, more powerful engine and a smooth six-speed ZF gearbox (no supercharged version is available). The LR4 affords a third row of seating to fit a total of seven passengers (the Range Rover seats five) and has more head and leg room, as well as more cargo space, than the more expensive Range Rover. Moreover, the LR4 incorporates Dynamic Stability Control, which works to prevent skids and spins; Terrain Response, a function that provides five manual settings designed to optimize suspension, power applications for surface conditions, and apply selective braking to maintain composure; and Hill Descent Control, which limits momentum on steep slopes.
The 2010 Range Rover Sport is based on the LR4 platform. Ranging in price from $60,000 to $74,850, this supercharged model was designed for sport-and-touring drivers rather than country squires and rain-forest explorers. “Choosing [between the LR4 and the Sport] depends on what you want to do with the car,” says Nick Rogers, a chief engineer of new vehicle architecture at Land Rover. “The LR4 will tow boats, a horse trailer, and accommodate seven passengers. With a Sport, your choice is driven by a different set of priorities. You may be a sporting type who [wants a]… supercharged derivative with true sports-car performance, plus off-road capability.”
Each of the large, luxurious 2010 vehicles represents an investment in the gospel, according to Maurice and Spencer Wilks. “[In owning a land Rover] one becomes part of the heritage of two brothers who saw a need for a working machine built on the concept of the original Jeep and decided to make it more comfortable, more capable,” says Phil Popham, managing director of Land Rover. “So they developed the  Series One, which was as comfortable as it was capable. In 1970, they created the Range Rover, a luxury off-road vehicle, which inspired a trend that took off from there.”
The test-drive event’s finale was off-road luxury at its best. A small banquet was held at Floors Castle, the 18th-century home of Sir Guy David Innes Ker, the l0th Duke and Earl of Roxburghe, set in the Cheviot Hills. Dinner with His Grace consisted of lobster, guinea hen, a ’98 La Petite Eglise Pomerol, and a spirited discussion of the future of the United States under Barack Obama. But to reach these civilized pleasures, our company, clad in black tie, had to climb into our vehicles at dusk and follow a rugged route before finally crossing the salmon-rich River Tweed, our eurybathic Range Rovers awash. Truly, ours was a Land Rover experience.
Land Rover, 800.346.3493, www.landrover.com