05 February 2024
How does the latest and most sophisticated Range Rover Sport stack up on a wet, 300-mile lap of North Yorkshire? Martin Domoney climbs aboard a D350 Autobiography to find out
The Range Rover Sport has come an awful long way since it was introduced as a fresh model to the line-up back in 2005. I remember being at the dealership I was working at, walking around one of the first cars off the transporter, gawping at the pumped-out wheelarches, aggressive perforated grille, cool multi-spoke 20-inch alloys and black badges of the supercharged model. The first-generation L320 was Land Rover’s first foray into a high-performance SUV – a tighter, tauter, more compact version of its full-size Range Rover stablemate that put pure luxury aside for a more involved drive and youthful image.
Sport’s ride is firm, despite relatively generous sidewalls on its 22in alloy rims
That memory is fresh in my mind as I walk up to the Firenze Red Sport you see here. First introduced in 2022, this third-generation car has really grown up – it’s a far cry from the squarer, more brutish debut model and is even sleeker than the second-gen L494 that enjoyed a near decade-long production run, boasting impressive sales figures. But, with the current Evoque having grown since its infancy and the introduction of Velar in 2018 to sit between the two, this latest offering is having to work harder than ever to justify its position, and its price.
Approaching the driver’s door and plipping the unlock button on the fob, flush-fit door handles glide out to greet you. That’s new. And fancy pop-out door handles are just the tip of the iceberg. A lazy facelift this Sport isn’t – it’s all brand-new, bursting with tech and improvements over the old one, including sharing underpinnings with the latest full-fat Range Rover. This brings with it optional four-wheel steering, surely one of the most significant features in a vehicle of this size, especially one that with many owners will no doubt do its fair share of urban driving.
Most of the Sport’s set-up controls are via the central (huge) touchscreen
Settling into the driver’s seat and pulling the door shut, I’m distracted by the soft-close hum before being quickly reminded of the sheer darkness that greets you inside the cabins of modern Land Rovers, especially when trimmed in black like this one. Even the automatically-opening panoramic roof blind does little to let light in on a day as overcast as this, but thankfully the large (13.1-inch) centre touchscreen and instrument cluster brighten things up considerably. A quick scroll through the options to pair my phone and check out the Terrain Response screen later, I depress the brake, jab the start button and pull the stubby gear selector back to engage drive. Yorkshire, here we come.
Even at speed the Sport is hushed and refined; it’s also very stable and planted
Cutting through B-roads to join the A1, the Sport very much feels its size, but not its weight. It’s a wide car, as is every model in the current range, and you do have to be mindful of placement on narrower, hedge-lined roads, but the mix of keen but not overly-harsh damping, and that rear-wheel steering chipping in on tighter curves, gives the Sport an agile edge. It rides exceptionally well for a car on 22-inch wheels, though the larger arches allow slightly taller Pirellis, which no doubt help cushion things before the four air springs and shocks take over. If you really want to give the chassis a challenge, 23-inch rims are an option.
Being a mild hybrid (MHEV), there’s no plugging in for this version. What you get is a battery and electric assist motor system that’s recharged regeneratively every time you lay off the throttle, or get on the brakes. The assist motor backs up the twin-turbo straight-six diesel when pottering about at low speed, and when you push the accelerator towards the plush carpet mats to usher the Sport off a slip-road, as I do to head north. With 350bhp on tap, the Sport really does get up to the legal limit effortlessly, and there’s very little thrashiness or coarseness from the diesel at any speed. In fact, one of the things that’s truly striking about the L461 is how incredibly good the noise, vibration and harshness management is. Refinement was clearly high on the list of priorities, and boy, did JLR get it right – the cabin is practically silent at cruising speeds, helped no doubt by clever noise-cancelling headrests. Yep, really.
Electronics let you keep an eye on diff lock status and suspension travel
The touchscreen is your main hub for controlling everything from air con to audio to driving modes and the massaging front seats, which I must admit I first laughed off as a bit of a gimmick, but are actually a real benefit on a long journey. In fact, even when you haven’t got the seats in massage mode, they’re incredibly comfortable and offer almost limitless adjustment, but rear legroom could be better when they’re set for taller drivers, given the size of the car. As you’d expect, USB-C charging ports and 12v power supplies are plentiful, and there’s a wireless charging platform beneath the touchscreen to keep your phone topped up.
As with everything, the more you use the screen the easier to negotiate it becomes, and scrolling left to right through home menu options becomes second nature. Great though the touchscreen and steering wheel controls are, I applaud the Sport’s designers for retaining a manual audio volume knob on the centre console that falls to hand easily, and twin rotary dials for the climate control and sumptuous heated and cooled seats. It’s nice to retain at least a couple of analogue controls in an otherwise very minimalist cabin.
Tailgate opening is, of course, electric
Pulling up for a coffee stop, I pop the Sport’s electrically-actuated tailgate for a better look at the boot space. The floor is fairly high, as there’s a space-saver beneath, but the loadspace is huge, boasting over a square metre of unhindered space, and plenty of height. The pop-up divider is a nice touch, and stops items sliding around too much – nothing worse than getting a mucky stripe on the front of your jeans from the bumper when leaning into the boot to retrieve things. This Sport also has the added bonus of electrically-folding rear benches; simply push and hold the button in the boot and the back seats tumble and stow to boost the load area even more.
For a car its size and weight, the Sport can be hustled down the lanes at some pace
Suitably refreshed, it’s time to test the Sport on some more interesting roads. Ribbons of tarmac snake over the moors, and this is where the L461 comes into its own. Even in drizzly rain the Pirellis have no problem finding grip, and as I blast the insides of the wheelarches with wet grit and feel the elevation changes in my stomach, my confidence grows. It’s a car that could probably get you into quite a lot of trouble, not through outright speed, but by a surefooted security that comes from the excellent damping and steering ratio and the knowledge that should you overdo it, there’s a raft of driver aids to come to your rescue before anything really bad happens. What’s disconcerting is knowing that no matter how many impressive-sounding acronyms the Sport is equipped with to keep you out of ditches, 350bhp and a not-inconsiderable mass still need to conform to the laws of physics.
Things get better still when you select Dynamic mode. Throttle inputs are sharpened, damping is firmed and the interior comes alive with red accents. The only thing taking the edge off this particular Sport during more spirited driving is the engine note – you’re still well aware that it’s a diesel, despite the faux engine noise being pumped into the cabin. I’d love to try a petrol hybrid or better still, the V8. Really though, I’m being fussy. It’s a car you probably won’t drive everywhere like a loon – in fact, the sheer refinement and serenity of the cabin almost discourages tomfoolery – but it’s nice to know it can still raise your pulse when you want it to.
Electronics also let you keep an eye on diff lock status and suspension travel
Out of Dynamic mode, it’s time to test the Sport’s mettle when it’s got mud and gravel under the tyres, rather than bitumen. As with the other bigger models in the range, the D350 is equipped with Terrain Response II, which consists of six settings – General Driving, Rock Crawl, Grass/Gravel/Snow, Mud & Ruts, Sand and Auto. Being realistic, buyers of the Sport are most likely going to be navigating a muddy field entrance or rutted track rather than taking on more extreme terrain, so I choose the Auto setting to see how well the suspension and traction control adapts to the slippery rock and washed-out gravel tracks of North Yorkshire.
There are occasions when the generous maximum ground clearance is handy
Cameras let you ‘see’ through the bonnet at what the front wheels are doing off-road
The ride is somewhat firmer than expected with the suspension raised, but as I snake the tyres around potential tyre-poppers – using the ‘invisible bonnet’ camera view to place the wheels – the combination of active front and rear differentials and quick-witted traction control make progress easy and drama-free. This particular Sport isn’t subject to the £440 two-speed transfer ’box option, so only has high-range, though the excellent eight-cog auto makes low-speed work effortless and I’d be surprised if many Sport buyers spec proper low-range. Even encountering rain-swollen fords the Sport doesn’t bat an eyelid, and nor should it; as the water laps at the front splitter, we’re nowhere close to testing the generous 900mm wading depth.
Yorkshire fords don’t put the Sport’s 90cm wading depth to any great challenge
I’m surprised by how helpful the added rear-wheel steering is, and how regularly the benefit is felt. Encountering a narrow village street blocked by a stricken delivery lorry, I’m able to pivot the Sport around between curbs with minimal shuffling, thanks to the back wheels shaving off all-important turning radius. Obviously, it’s still no black cab, but given the Sport’s near five-metre length, the extra steering and fantastic 360-degree camera make tight manoeuvres and sneaking into parking spaces far less painful.
Even motorway miles are a pleasure
As the heavens open and heavy raindrops splatter on the glass roof, it’s time to head back home. With music selected, cruise control set and the massage seat working away, I point the Sport’s sleek nose south and start chipping away at the miles on the nav. In many other cars the drive home from a good day out can be the bittersweet end, but the Sport doesn’t make you feel that way. It’s a true grand tourer in every sense, but one that couples the ability to dispatch long distance journeys with the off-tarmac prowess that is expected of any vehicle bearing the Land Rover badge. If you can afford an upmarket SUV and like the more grown-up looks of the latest generation Range Rover Sport, there’s very little to dislike about it as an accomplished luxury all-rounder – the only thing you’ll need to decide is if you want your exhaust note in Dynamic mode to be synthetic by choosing a diesel, or whether you’d prefer the more organic sound of a hotter petrol version…
Range Rover Sport (L461) D350 Autobiography
• Ingenium 3.0-litre six-cylinder MHEV
• ZF eight-speed automatic
• Single-speed transfer ’box
• Max power: 350bhp
• Max torque: 516lb-ft
• Top speed: 145mph
• 0-60mph: 5.6 seconds
• WLTP fuel consumption: 36.7mpg
• Displayed fuel consumption as tested: 34.9mpg
• Turning circle: 10.95m
• Max towing capacity: 3500kg
Price: £100,790 (as tested)
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