One of my philosophies of driving has long been, “Where the pavement ends, the fun begins.”That’s because off-road exploring is one of my favorite activities, and I’ve enjoyed the sport on mountains, deserts and beaches over much of the United States, Mexico and Canada – and even abroad.Among my favorite vehicles to take on these expeditions have always been those made by Land Rover, a British brand born of that country’s need to access its once-huge empire, which spanned several continents.And while the best of the Land Rover vehicles, the luxurious Range Rover, has perhaps the most-sophisticated and capable off-road driving system on the market, you’d probably be more likely to find these vehicles at the country club rather than in the country.That’s because Range Rover prices start at $82,650 (plus $895 freight) for the supercharged 2014 V-6 base model simply called Range Rover, and go as high as $184,105 for the top-of-the-line supercharged V-8 Autobiography Black LWB (long wheelbase) model.Yes, they’re expensive. But you can get lower-priced Land Rover vehicles with very capable off-road four-wheel-drive systems, too, beginning with the Land Rover LR2 for $36,600, and the LR4 for $49,700. Those prices are well in line with many of today’s crossover utility vehicles – even non-luxury brands.There are even two lower-priced Range Rover-branded vehicles: the two- or four-door Evoque, starting at $41,100; and the Range Rover Sport, at $62,600.If you’re intent on having the best, though, and you can afford it, the models called simply Range Rover might be the ones for you.These are stunning vehicles, but don’t let their good looks fool you. As refined and uptown as the Range Rover is, this is still a vehicle that can take you just about anywhere you could want to go.At a delivered price of $92,855, our Range Rover HSE tester might seem to most consumers to be too fancy for serious off-road use. We understand that, and even though we took our test vehicle on some well-maintained unpaved national and state park roads, we stopped short of anything more rugged that might have scratched the flawless premium paint job or put dents into the underbody skid plates.Under the hood of the base Range Rover – and our HSE tester – comes a supercharged 3.0-liter V-6 engine rated at 340 horsepower and 332 foot-pounds of torque. The V-8 models come with a supercharged 5.0-liter engine, rated at 510 horsepower and 461 foot-pounds of torque.All models come with an eight-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters on the steering wheel. Fulltime four-wheel drive with low-range gearing is standard on all models, which turns all of these vehicles into off-road beasts.The newest generation of the Range Rover, with all-aluminum construction, made its debut last year as a 2013 model, but with a normally aspirated 5.0-liter V-8 as the base engine. It produced 375 horsepower and 375 foot-pounds of torque, and had EPA ratings of 14 mpg city/20 highway.But for 2014, the base V-8 has been dropped in favor of the V-6, whose fuel-economy numbers are much better: 17 city/23 highway. The switch was made because many consumers these days, even in this price class, are looking for more-fuel-efficient vehicles.On the highway, the Range Rover is one of the most-refined vehicles you’ll ever experience. They are built for comfort, and can accommodate up to five people. (The Range Rover Sport is available with seven-passenger seating, as is the LR4).Top speeds are 130 mph for the V-6 models, and 140 for the V-8s, but just because Land Rover electronically limits them. Turned loose, they would go much faster.In my weeklong test drive of the Range Rover HSE, even though I never truly challenged the vehicle on serious off-road trails, it did show me how capable, convenient and comfortable it is for routine everyday driving and weekend jaunts.The supercharged V-6 seemed even more powerful than last year’s normally aspirated V-8, and it wasted no time getting the heavy Range Rover moving. It also offered impressive bursts of power for passing and accelerating up hills.With last year’s redesign, the Range Rover is all new. The exterior is lower and more-carlike, and it has an aluminum unibody chassis that weighs 700 pounds less than its steel predecessor. Even with the stylish makeover, the vehicle is still instantly recognizable as a Range Rover – there was no radical restyling.We previously tested the new Range Rover on some quite-rugged national forest trails in northern Arizona, where the vehicle proved its off-road prowess. It easily climbed steep and slippery slopes and slogged through mud, deep sand and even some snow, all while riding on street tires.When driving off road in the Range Rover, the new terrain-response system does most of the work, automatically choosing the proper driving mode. The driver can choose the mode manually, though, among such settings as Mud/Ruts, Grass/Gravel/Snow, Sand, Rock Crawl, and General.The luxury of the Range Rover is on par with that of some of the world’s most-expensive sedans, such as the high-end Mercedes-Benz S-Class models and even pricier cars such as the Rolls Royce and Bentley.While standard seating in the Range Rover is for five, there is an optional “executive” two-passenger rear seat that cuts the total to four.This gives the vehicle a limousine-like experience for those riding in the rear, with reclining captain’s chairs that offer both massage and heat. Land Rover calls it “the ultimate in personalized rear-seat luxury.” To make the vehicle quieter, there is acoustic lamination for the windshield and door glass.Our tester had the five-passenger seating, though, which worked well for us while shuttling kids and grandkids around. Premium leather for the interior comes from Scotland, and wood for the cabin trim from “sustainable forests,” Land Rover says.The HSE’s cabin is roomier than before, with an increase of 4.7 inches in rear-seat legroom. The standard models are 196.6 inches long, while the new long-wheelbase models, introduced for 2014, are 204.7 inches long, giving them nearly eight inches more rear legroom than the regular version.An aluminum suspension system was designed to give the vehicle more stability and better handling. It no longer has the top-heavy feel of the previous models, something off-road users will appreciate.The Range Rover’s air-suspension system helps give additional stability during cornering, and allows the vehicle to raise itself up to an additional 5.8 inches off road to clear obstacles. It lowers about two inches from normal highway height to allow for easier entry and exit.Range Rovers can wade through water up to 35.4 inches deep, and have a maximum of 11.7 inches of ground clearance. We took ours on a dirt road that ran through a creek in a national forest, but it was just a few inches deep.Available are some awesome entertainment systems from Meridian, a noted British audio specialist. The top system offers 29 speakers and 1,700 watts of power, and costs $4,450 extra. The base system has 325 watts, while the midlevel system ($1,850) cranks out 825 watts and has 12 speakers; it was included on our tester.Eight different alloy wheels are offered, in 19-, 20-, 21- and 22-inch sizes. Optional is a full-size panoramic sunroof, and side steps that deploy electrically. The rear hatch is now also electrically operated, and can be opened with the remote control for the door locks. The smart-key system allows for pushbutton start and stop of the engine. There are 37 exterior colors available, and 17 interior color themes. The Autobiography models offer 22 exclusive body colors.The HSE package, which adds $5,000 to the base Range Rover price, brings such extras as 12-way power front seats, perforated Oxford leather seats (heated front and rear), Grand Black Lacquer interior wood trim, the 20-inch alloy wheels, panoramic sunroof, fog lights and power-folding/self-dimming outside mirrors.Our tester also came with the Vision Assist Pack ($1,650), which brought the Terrain Response 2 system, an around-view camera system, blind-spot monitor, reverse traffic detection and adaptive headlights. We also had the Soft Door Close system ($600).
The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1994. Contact him at email@example.com.