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2010 Land Rover LR4: Beneath this Starbucks shuttle, off-road chops shine

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  March 4, 2010 03:16 PM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)

On the Equinox Resort's private trails, the LR4 retains its plush comfort, even on three wheels.

Except for connecting their Blackberry phones, most Land Rover owners have no clue how their expensive SUVs work. They know their Rovers are special. Why else is there a dial thingy with snowflakes and cactuses right above the shifter, cool rocker switches with truck drawings, and an LCD screensaver of some sort (or is it a game?) with 3D graphics of gyrating tires? Whatever that stuff can do, it means other premium SUVs probably can't.

Since the media frenzy over global warming, you might believe Americans have repented for their unhealthy fetish for big vehicles, especially for ones that can't even crack 11 miles per gallon on our weeklong test drive. Yet, as buyers of thirsty, full-size SUVs have shifted to thirsty, full-size crossovers, Land Rover's prestige factor — despite the company's bottom-of-the-barrel J.D. Power rating — still carries enormous weight. In the case of the 2010 LR4 we drove, that prestige is a crushing 5,617 pounds.

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Moving that weight with much greater ferocity than the outgoing, nearly identical LR3 is a new aluminum 5.0-liter V-8 engine churning out 375 horsepower, 10 shy of the same engine in the Jaguar XK. The engine doesn't have to work as hard through the smooth 6-speed automatic as the old 4.4 liter unit did. Its quicker response matches the more accurate steering and recalibrated air suspension, which keeps the body level with surprisingly little pitch and brake dive.

But you're not left thinking this is a lithe vehicle. You're a bus driver. Climb up to the driver's perch, complete with adjustable arm rest, and the LR4's square frame, tall windshield, upright dashboard, and flat, protruding hood impart the same invincibility that MBTA drivers brandish. Hop out and sometimes, depending on the incline, the LR4 will hiss as it levels each of its springs. You can also flip a switch to lower the truck two inches. Flip it two notches the other way and you'll be up another 4 inches. Or use the key fob and watch this mechanical dance outside. You'll never again be bored waiting for someone.

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We take a downhill drop in the winch-equipped 2009 LR3.

But the best childish fun you can have with the LR4 is on the worst terrain, where no owner of a $55,000 car is likely to tread. It helps to start out with an expert guide and an actual understanding of all those nifty 4x4 graphics and buttons. That's why the sprawling Equinox Resort in Manchester, Vt., has its very own Land Rover school, designed for off-road newbies like myself, only much richer.

It took a few weeks to book a reservation at the Equinox, and until then, I had to resist jumping the LR4 over city curbs and crawling over the C-line tracks by my apartment. Finally, 3½ hours northwest of Boston, I'm sloshing up a muddy side road that three minutes later becomes a snow-covered trail. A warning sign says the town isn't responsible for clearing or maintaining the road, even though they've labeled it a "public highway." It's Vermont's way of keeping us "flatlanders" with good-for-nothing BMW X5s out of their playgrounds.

I'm in a 2009 LR3 — and drove the Equinox's private course earlier in an LR3 — because today it's the only Land Rover with a winch, in case I do something stupid.

Which to my amazement, I don't. My instructor Rick cinches chains onto all four tires before we crash through the unplowed, 2-foot-high crust ahead, marked with the recent tread of a few unsuccessful drivers. I charge with two hands firmly on the wheel, the front tires bite the mush, and I apply a slight correction to keep the back going straight. Boom. Done.

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Land Rover instructor Rick Serraro does chain duty before we tread into thick snow.


The chains stay off most of the day, and because I've progressed to amateur level, Rick lets me try the non-winched LR4. Oddly enough, I'm told to keep the big knob out of the snowflake position and into "mud and ruts" mode. Each setting varies throttle response, gear shifts, suspension, and traction control sensitivity to the desired surface. This is point-and-click four-wheel-drive at its finest.

The LCD display shows each tire compressing and rebounding and notes when the center and rear differentials lock up to provide greater traction. It's more fun for the front passenger than useful for the driver, since I'm too busy to look at it. That's because I'm sliding sideways and backward down an icy hill. "When in doubt, throttle it out," Rick says, and on the second attempt I power up with no trouble.

It's the same going down. Lots of SUVs have a feature called Hill Descent Control (HDC), which pulses the brakes to maintain a steady speed on steep grades. Proper off-road technique on a downhill dictates first gear and low range, and I find the LR3 and LR4 creep more controllably without HDC, which tends to cause herky-jerky movements.

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"Stay in the middle of the road," Rick says on this muddy trail. And we did, instead of sliding off into a tree.

For a mere fraction of the cost, serious off-road drivers do all this in old, jacked-up Jeep CJs without any electronic aids. Yet afterward they're cold, bruised, aching, and can't hear anything on the highway ride back home. In the LR4, the stress and noise of terrible roads never come inside. You just keep tearing away at the heated steering wheel and enjoy the soft-touch center stack that does away with the LR3's confusing plastic trap of cheap-looking controls.

So what if LR4 owners never drive the way I did? They'll like the three sunroofs, three-zone climate control, and two rows of flat-folding back seats. They'll like how the LR4 is cheaper and bigger than the Range Rover Sport, which is more popular because it says "Range Rover" on the hood. Yet the little Range Rover, just like the LR4, is festooned with Land Rover badges, so go figure.

Long-term reliability, as evidenced by an electrical gremlin that kept forcing a back window down when we wanted it up, is still an unsettling question for Land Rover. We had the exact same problem in a 2010 Jaguar XF, one of its corporate cousins.

Unless the four-wheel-drive fails on the way to Starbucks, I'm betting the LR4 won't have trouble making friends.

A version of this article appeared in print on Saturday, Feb. 28 on page J1 of The Boston Sunday Globe.

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The LR4 has four-wheel independent suspension yet allows some extreme wheel articulation.


2010 Land Rover LR4 HSE

THE BASICS
Price, base/as tested (with destination): $48,100 / $54,760
Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 12 city/17 highway
Fuel economy, Globe observed: 10.8 mpg over 106 mi
Drivetrain: 5.0-liter V-8, electronically controlled four-wheel-drive, 6-speed automatic transmission
Body: 5-door, 7-passenger SUV

THE SPECIFICS
Horsepower: 375 @ 6,500 rpm
Torque: 375 ft.-lbs @ 3,500 rpm
Overall length: 190.1 inches
Wheelbase: 113.6 inches
Height: 76.3 inches (standard height)
Width: 85.7 inches (with mirrors)
Curb weight: 5,617 pounds.

THE GOOD
Rich interior, snotty appearance, incredible off-road capability for such a heavy vehicle

THE BAD
Horrendous fuel economy, aging navigation system

THE BOTTOM LINE
Still the ultimate SUV status symbol, for those willing to pay the cost of ownership

ALSO CONSIDER
BMW X5 xDrive48i, Mercedes-Benz ML550, Audi Q7, Porsche Cayenne S, Range Rover Sport

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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