Me and Mrs. Jones … and the Range Rover HSE
Finding oneself in a bit of a typical mountain town bind – Catherine Zeta-Jones has arrived at the airport, unannounced, and needs a ride, pronto – it becomes readily apparent that no vehicle other than the Range Rover HSE will really do the trick.
Forget the placid domesticity of a behemoth like the Excursion or a Denali: When Catherine throws open the heavy door and settles into the intoxicating leather largess of Land Rover’s flagship model, she’ll offer you a sweet smile and bid you to drive on.
Such daydreaming is entirely permissible while behind the wheel of what is arguably the most sophisticated, off-road-capable machine in the world. With a striking exterior that blends Range Rover’s traditionally angular lines with amped-up, almost “Judge Dredd”-worthy styling (accentuated, in the case of our test ride, by a glowing Java Black paint job), the HSE brings an unsurpassed level of elegance, gadgetry and touring smoothness to the increasingly ubiquitous world of SUVs.
And while odds suggest that only a minuscule percentage of HSE owners will ever dare stray off the world of pavement in their well-tempered beasts, should they do so, they’ll find themselves in charge of an admirably capable, agile off-road machine that climbs hills like a goat and sticks to ice-covered roads like an oversized magnet.
It’s really no wonder the HSE – entirely redesigned in recent years and produced in partnership with both Ford, Land Rover’s new owner, and BMW, its former Teutonic overlord – has earned an audience with the bling-bling hip-hop set.
Throw a set of $20,000 23-inch rims on the HSE as the rap stars do and you’ll only be making a minor cosmetic adjustment to the machine; really, it’s what’s inside that counts.
Gliding into the practical opulence of the HSE’s fully leather-appointed interior, you’ll find yourself at the virtual command center of an automobile that’s so state of the art that … well, you’ll actually have to read the owner’s manual to find out what so many of the knobs and dials do.
Trust me: I tried to fake it for a week and still hadn’t figured out a quarter of the HSE’s standard, driver-accessible functions, much less find a completely sweet spot in the 16-way, electrically adjustable heated seats.
For anyone whose previous experience with notoriously dodgy British electrical engineering includes the blown fuses and dim headlamps of an MG or Triumph, the HSE’s wealth of reliable technology makes it seem like a completely different species.
The motorized steering column whirs into position as you enter the Rover, delivering a heated steering wheel with a somewhat puzzling array of fingertip controls.
Beautifully accented in walnut and steel, the instrumentation is just a bit overwhelming, with individual driver/passenger/back seat heating controls, three separate digital and analog clocks and an integrated navigation/entertainment system that will definitely distract your attention from the road.
Teach your passenger to act as co-pilot and you’ll be treated to a wealth of information you’ll never be able to live without again. The HSE’s GPS guidance system will not only compute your time, distance and gas mileage to your destination, it’ll give you gentle, slightly all-knowing spoken driving directions in a posh British accent.
A crisp, admirably powerful 570-watt, six-CD, seven-speaker Harmon-Kardon Logic 7 Surround Sound system will keep things bumping and thumping – although it’s a little unclear why engineers felt it necessary to motorize the faceplate of the navigation screen to reveal nothing more than a cassette deck, especially when the CD changer lies hidden in the toaster oven-sized glove box.
Up front, the HSE’s 28,000 volt bi-xenon headlamps (with their own power washers) will give you a clear view of everything between here and Crested Butte; an electronically interlaced, internally heated windshield makes daytime viewing just a bit psychedelic but assures lightning-fast, frost-free mornings.
Roam off the blacktop and the HSE begins to show its comfortable versatility. Cruising along a gnarly, rutted, muddy stretch of county road between Sunlight Mountain and Carbondale, our black beauty absorbed potholes and soup-can sized stones without a blink.
A day earlier we’d chattered our teeth out on the same road in a high-riding 4×4 pickup; the HSE ate up off-road in a fashion that was spooky smooth.
Full-time four-wheel electronic traction and Range Rover’s power-shifting Dynamic Stability Control assured a consistent grip to the road, even when a snow storm drifted into town and turned the paved streets into a skating rink.
Mixed among its many cabin controls, the HSE’s fully-adjustable electronic air suspension proved quite practical. The system provides up to two inches of lift for off-road riding; at highway speeds the Rover drops nearly an inch to hug the road, and when stopped, it automatically lowers 1.6 inches to allow easier access for passengers.
Exit and entry might cause headaches for those of shorter stature: for someone in the 5″-11′ range, the HSE is fabulously easy to climb into, but shorter users will find themselves clambering into position.
While all that metal means wonderful stability, the HSE’s heavy haunches do place it in a somewhat precarious position, when it comes to performance.
Powered by a BMW-engineered, 282 horsepower aluminum V8, the 5,400 pound beast glides with a smoothness you’d associate with a limousine but starts and stops like a tank. The power for a fast take-off is there, provided you pound the gas pedal, but this baby’s built for a more steady climb to cruising speed – although it is cool to hear it roar like an Aston Martin when you put the pedal to the metal. Do so consistently and the vehicle really will live up to its low-end, 12 mile-per-gallon mileage rating (happily, a more acceptable 18.9 mpg was the norm in ordinary highway driving).
To maintain momentum on Vail Pass, you’ll need to throw the automatic Command Shift transmission into five-speed sport mode and notch it down a gear or two: at cruising velocity, you won’t notice you’re zipping along at 90 miles per hour until you see the blue and red lights behind you.
What’s more, remember to give yourself an extra half-block to bring it to a stop; it’s a heavy-braking machine, even with ventilated four-wheel disk brakes.
Despite its chunkiness, the HSE handles nimbly, with an admirably tight turning radius. Front and rear fog lamps will guide you into a parking spot with no problem; the chirping of the parking distance control system will guide you home without kissing bumpers.
Substantial, smooth and beautiful, Range Rover elegance and sophistication nearly justifies its lofty price tag. Catherine will be very impressed, indeed.
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