The car behind mine had run aground in a trough between two dunes, impeding the progress of our expensive little five-car convoy (part of a larger 15- or 20-car fleet).
We all stood outside to watch as the poor journalist was guided out of his predicament. I may have expressed dissatisfaction at the fact that the man’s gross ineptitude at simple off-road helmsmanship was costing us precious driving time.
I may have further bragged that I’ve done a bit of off-roading myself, and one will never catch me welded against the geography, immobile and unable to move, least of all in a Range Rover. What I am sure of is God heard me, and He gave me life long enough to make a fool of myself.
That long life was exactly 90 seconds. After the stuck fellow dislodged himself from the quagmire, we drove on, and I promptly beached my Autobiography atop the next dune, in the space of less than a minute.
Humility has never been brought upon my psyche with such force before. It was my turn to drop back, choose a new line and give the car the beans to crest the offending monolith. I wisely kept my mouth shut from that point forth.
This is not to say the 2013 Range Rover (internally known as the L405) has shortfalls. No, as with any machine that is almost attaining the apogee of its development, the weakest link in the man-machine interface is the human being in control of said machine. And what a machine the L405 is!
When asked what Jaguar Land Rover should do with the outgoing car, this is what the customers said:
Don’t change it, just make it better.
And JLR did.
One of the key changes was the introduction of the second generation terrain response system, the Terrain Response II (no fishy acronyms here, unlike the ironical stuff the Germans tend to come up with).
It is broadly similar to Terrain Response I, only this one responds better and greatly increases the vehicle’s off-road talents.
The ability to rush in where goats fear to tread has always been a standing characteristic of Range Rovers since inception, even though owners rarely exploit this.
There is still the rock crawl, sand, mud and snow, normal and whatever other setting was there before, but this time round there is also an Auto function, installed specifically for those who are flustered by off-road activities.
People like my fellow hack whose actions led to an interruption of the smooth flow of our convoy. And whose actions, by extension, led to my embarrassment atop a sand-dune in Lawrence of Arabia’s playground.
Speaking of which: that mishap was my fault, not the car’s. We were told to maintain momentum, try and stick to the beaten path and be gentle with the steering: don’t twirl the tiller like you are throwing together a cake mix by hand.
Unfortunately, all I heard was “maintain momentum”. That’s easy when you have 245bhp worth of turbocharged diesel power. This is what happened.
The car ahead of me took a sharp turn under power, spewing a 15-foot high rooster tail of tyre-excavated sand skywards. That tickled the little boy in me, and I proceeded to do the cha-cha, spraying my own sizeable blizzard of desert sand in my wake.
The car may have drifted a bit. I may have counter-steered into the drift, throwing up even more sand. I may have grinned stupidly and squirted more power to the wheels, while spinning the helm lock-to-lock. That is drifting.
Extending my new-found (lack of) wisdom, I may have spotted the crest of the sand dune coming up, and I may or may not have decided to give the cameraman something to bore people with at the pub later.
I decided to sail over the top of the dune sideways in spectacular fashion, in a blast of sand and growling diesel thrum, with substantial wheel-spin to boot, just to show how much of a maestro I thought I was.
This (lack of) wisdom may have led me off the beaten path, and that is where my difficulties arose.
My plan was 40 per cent successful, in that I did ascend the dune sideways, and in a cloud of sand. But I was off the compacted, pre-trodden trail, ploughing through virgin sand. Now, if you are throwing sand OUT of the ground, it only follows that you are digging yourself IN to the ground.
That never occurred to me. By the time I reached the zenith of the monolith, I was more than 15 feet off the track, lost almost all momentum and my heavy throttle foot was making sure I was sinking deeper and deeper into the quagmire at the rate of a foot a minute. I was well and truly stuck. Power off. Abashed grin. Wait for help.
The beauty of the off-road kit and terrain response software is that they make the Range Rover so easy to drive anywhere, and I mean anywhere.
Over and above the five settings for the terrain, there is a button that engages low range, and at the same time activates the Hill Descent Control. That HDC works a little too well: when instructed to drive down what looked like a vertical wall, the way to keep it working is to keep your feet off the pedals.
You need nerves of titanium to do that when all that fills the windscreen is the ground ahead and you can actually feel the rear tyres wiggling in the air. Did somebody just say head-over-heels somersault?
Aluminium was used extensively in the construction of the space-frame chassis, replacing steel in several areas. That and a new engine and transmission led to a net weight-loss of 420kg.
Yes, you read that right. The new car is almost half a tonne lighter than the previous one, and it shows, exactly where you would expect to feel the difference: when hooning through hairpins.
On The Road
The car’s pork reduction is a man’s weight short of half a tonne. The suspension components are not entirely dissimilar to those found in cars like the Audi R8, Ferrari 599 and lately the little Evoque (the magneto-rheological-iron-filing-in-oil-plus-electric-current mechanism), the difference being that unlike the super cars, the 2013 Autobiography uses cushions of air instead of coil springs. This sports car setup is manifest in bends.
In the pre-drive press briefing, we were shown a picture depicting the difference in handling between the outgoing L322 and the incoming L405.
That picture showed the L322 almost on its door handles as it took a sharp curve, while through the same bend, the L405 displayed only the most subtle of leans.
Unbeknownst to the providers of the Range Rover, I intended to get the L405 on its door handles as soon as I ecountered some corners. And there are corners aplenty in Morocco.
I don’t need to stress the fact that the car handles well: really well. Steering input is now relayed more sharply to the front axle, response is immediate, body roll is minimal, and grip is reassuring. In other words, it feels like a larger-than-normal hot hatch.
It is actually similar in handling to the Evoque (and feels more composed than the current Sport), save for the extra tonne in vehicle mass. Confidence (and speed) grows with each successive hairpin, sweeper and switchback, to the point that my co-driver announced he did not know about my future plans, but on his part he intended to see tomorrow; so could I please dial it back a little. I didn’t.
The only reason I didn’t push the car to the point of understeer (or oversteer) was that these turns formed a hill-climb section along the wall of a gorge within the Atlas mountains, and that gorge contained a river through which we had just driven (and here the L405 was exceptional too).
It was a 300-foot straight drop from the edge of the road back into the river from which we had just emerged. I also intended to see tomorrow.
About that river: most off-road cars require a snorkel if they are going to drive in deep water. The 2013 Range Rover does not, courtesy of what the engineers call Queen Mary ducts.
These are vents that ingest air from just below the clam-shell bonnet, through upward-facing plastic ducts into a labyrinth of passageways on the underside of the bonnet cover itself before terminating in the air-cleaner, which then feeds the intercoolers. Sounds fancy, huh? Also sounds familiar, right? It should.
I discussed the same innovation when I reviewed the Mahindra Genius… sorry, Genio… earlier in the year. It uses similar tech.
The thinking behind this is that even if water gets into the bonnet intakes, it is well nigh impossible for it to flow upwards into the underbonnet rat tunnels, and the little that does will be stymied by the numerous kinks, bends, curves and second upward flow into the air cleaner (the rat tunnels somehow bend downwards again, then up again).
I can testify right here right now that the boffinry works: we drove upriver, in water that was at headlamp-level most of time and which occasionally came over the bonnet, and the car didn’t drown.
There is more detailing, not all of it functional. The side blades that were on the L322’s front fender, aft of the wheel arch, have been maintained, the difference being they are now on the front door and serve no real purpose over and above aesthetics.
There is now a full-length sun-roof, Evoque-style, and both front and rear passengers can open the glass top for a neo-targa top experience. The split tail-gate (an enduring Range Rover legacy) is now powered. The car seats four.
There are 50 per cent fewer buttons in the centre console (a trick put to good use in the Rolls-Royce Phantom luxury waft-mobile). The seats have a massage function. There are 16 airbags. And the radio, my goodness, that radio!
Twenty nine speakers, they said. Twenty nine speakers we put into the car, and if you don’t believe us, count ‘em.
If you can’t count that far, then just listen. Surround sound, with intensity and quality to shame the most decorated of Nairobi’s finest matatus, and that was a third of the total capacity (at Volume 7, one has to shout, at 10, conversation is impossible. The dial goes all the way up to 30. I don’t know what for).
There is more Rolls-Royce-esque obsession with details. The wood in the dash is now symmetrical (as it is in the Phantom), and the leather comes from Scotland (only).
The stitching in the seats is worthy of a plastic surgeon, and in one of the cars, the raised centre console stretches to the back, forming a tray for the two rear seat passengers to rest their wealthy elbows on.
Within this cabinet lies cubby space, and in that cubby space are two remote controls for the DVD screens on the back of the front head-rests. The remotes themselves have screens too. I don’t know what to say.
McGovern and The Amazing Technicolor Paintwork and Body Design
This is one of the few cars that look exactly as the do in the pre-release photos, no matter the prevailing lighting conditions.
Some say that it looks like a man’s Evoque (the baby Range, it is now accepted, is a smidgen on the girly side). Others say that those lamps look awfully familiar, and the deja vu is not a very classy one (Ford Explorer).
What we all agree is that the design evolution of the Range Rover has culminated in something epic. Just look at the pictures. Look at ‘em, and tell me you don’t like what you see.
That is the handiwork of one Gerry McGovern, the fellow who also did the Evoque (forget Mrs Beckham, she thinks “clamshell bonnet” is a type of headscarf. Maybe).
We got a chance to meet him (McGovern, not Beckham) and pick his brains at a pre-drive cocktail, and two things became immediately clear, one: he is not big on social dos, and two: he is damn proud of his five-year sweat.
I would be too, if Sheikh Mohamed from somewhere in the oily Middle Eastern desert throws a cheque (or more commonly, cold hard cash) at me to acquire one of my creations even before it hits the shelves.
What I did not like about this car
1. The… uhmmm… price: My reviews are known for fault-finding, and this one is no exception. The car is too expensive.
Prices have not been cast in stone yet, but we heard words like 120,000 Euros abroad, and something to the tune of Sh20 million locally. Once they get here we will confirm.
Secondly, we in the Sub-Saharan market will be denied two engine options (see side-bar) We only get forced induction powerplants, and huge ones at that. The more appropriate smaller diesel and NA petrol have been placed out of reach.
2. The gearbox: The 8-speed gearbox is a wonder in the petrol engine, but I find it superfluous in the diesel version. The engine already has enough torque, and it uses a torque converter with the ZF autobox, with automatic (and quite intelligent) lock-up control. What are the eight gears for?
3. Noisy massage parlour: The massage function is very noisy. From the sidebar, you can see how quiet the Range Rover is inside. The seat massage buzzes noisily, easily betraying your (lewd?) actions to fellow passengers. It is also an irritating noise. Not loud, but it grates on the nerves a bit.
4. Too many electronics: And we know how that usually works out in cars. Yes, we encountered gremlins on Day 2. After the river crossing, and a small hooning session on gravel roads, we arrived at the next checkpoint with the instrument panel blinking “Error: Suspension Fault — Vehicle Dynamics Control” in a red font that was unnerving.
Yeah, a looming suspension failure, no vehicle dynamics control and we are charging hard and fast through the sinuous byways that go up into the Atlas: with a mountainside on your left and a sheer drop on your right. Buzzkill.
Interestingly, the car only needed a pit-stop (like its drivers). Turn it off, have some Moroccan tea, call for a mechanic, crank it up before the mech arrives on scene and voila! Everything is fine.
The car handles ok, and it has stopped complaining. Drive on. I am not sure I want a car guessing when self-diagnosing, especially if I have just parted with 20 million shekels for it. Either that, or I am wrong: the 2013 Range Rover Autobiography is a car that can repair itself.