2023 Range Rover Sport First Drive: Ostentation on the eve of electrification

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MADRID, Spain — The 2023 Range Rover Sport marks several firsts for Land Rover’s luxury-first sub-brand. It’s the first time the sportier take on Land Rover’s iconic luxury SUV is being offered with multiple hybrid powertrains and will become the first to be offered as a pure battery-electric. This generation also brings with it a shift from Land Rover’s tried-and-true (but simultaneously aged) 5.0-liter supercharged V8 to a twin-turbo V8 sourced from BMW. Not many cars are worth crossing an ocean just to test drive, but the new Range Rover Sport makes a convincing case.

So, what puts the “Sport” in Range Rover Sport? A few things, some sportier than others. The platform is shared, but they are separate models for reasons beyond marketing. The Sport is available only in a two-row configuration whereas The Range Rover offers regular wheelbase two-row and long-wheelbase three-row variants. The Sport’s design lives up to its name with a narrower grille and headlights, full-width taillight trim and more greatly pinched rear roofline that’s altogether less stately and more streamlined (pictured below left with The Range Rover below right). It also comes with a less-powerful base engine (more on that later). Most critically, it’s cheaper — by about $20,000. There aren’t any major mechanical differences to explain that, nor a radically different equipment list, but harder-to-quantify, attention-to-detail elements likely play a role. The Sport doesn’t get “the most powerful LED taillamps ever made,” for example.

2022 Land Rover Range Rover SV
2022 Land Rover Range Rover SV

Dimensions aren’t appreciably different, which means the Sport is pretty much the largest vehicle you can comfortably weave through the urban hedge maze that is Madrid. In this part of the world, the most substantial passenger car you’ll typically see on the road is something like a Toyota RAV4. I saw more pickups roaming the airfield when my 767 touched down at Barajas International than I would spot throughout the duration of the trip. Two lifted wheelers – a Nissan Patrol and an old Land Cruiser – were the only properly “big” SUVs on the road. The next runner-up? A lonely Porsche Cayenne Coupe.

At 80-plus inches wide, the Rover kisses paint on either side of these narrow business district lanes. For once, my upbringing in an old (by American standards) East Coast town pays dividends, and the Range Rover’s myriad electronic whiskers were surprisingly tolerant of my comfort with putting bits of the car just an inch or two from 400-year-old stonework. Nary a curb was kissed.

Slinking through these narrow alleyways-cum-boulevards in a thicc SUV with an even thiccer price tag (on 23-inch wheels, no less) could be nerve-wracking. Despite its relative size, though, it was easy to feel out the Range Rover’s corners. It drives a bit smaller than its size suggests — a characteristic further augmented by its rear-wheel steering. Pedestrians own these cobbled passageways, rarely looking up from their phones or away from their companions before stepping off the curb. We admittedly do far better than most at getting some of their attention, so if you want to make a scene in Madrid, just show up in a Range Rover.

The transition to farmland and industrial space happens abruptly. There’s no step down to the vast sprawl we’re used to outside American urban centers, just a snap cut from multistory commie-style blocks built atop single-story parking shelters to virtual emptiness. It’s dry — uncommonly so, locals and frequent visitors tell us. Our safety briefing included a note to avoid parking on or near patches of grass when venturing off the route in search of photo backdrops.

As the roads open and we put the last of the speed cameras behind us, the Range Rover greedily devours asphalt with a deep growl. We’re in the P530 First Edition, with its thumping, BMW-sourced V8 and dynamic-everything chassis. Despite its German heart, this is the most American of the three models we’re due to receive stateside. The twin-turbo 4.4-liter V8 makes 523 horsepower and 553 pound-feet of torque; Land Rover claims it will take the Sport to 60 in 4.3 seconds. Out here, that translates to “just in time to slow down for the next corner.” These roads aren’t bad; they’d just be better in a car half this size.

The V8 both sounds and feels just a tad coarse, likely to invoke the character of Range Rover’s now-departed supercharged 5.0-liter unit. But as befits its modern engineering, the big twin-turbo eight has a robust and flexible powerband, meaning that beneath that rough-and-tumble demeanor it feels very no-nonsense. The air suspension does a reasonable job at both extremes. Firm it up and the nose will tuck obediently into a corner, at least to a point. This is a 5,500-pound SUV, but if the “Sport” part matters more to you than the “Range Rover” part, this is the one you want.

The lanes in Spain may cause a wider SUV pain, but the asphalt itself is blissfully smooth. This spared the 23-inch wheels from putting a foot wrong and let the Range Rover Sport’s air suspension positively shine. Sure, this may have been easy mode for the big SUV but I’m still inclined to give it excellent marks for ride quality. I’m the sort of geek who’s happy with a set of 18-inchers so long as they’re wearing the right compound, but for big, heavy wheels wrapped in what amounts to a few layers of saran wrap, these aren’t half-bad.

Our morning stint ended at a cattle ranch near Vegas de Matute in the province of Segovia. This being a 4x4 event hosted by Land Rover, it wouldn’t do that we merely parked our SUVs and sat down to lunch. Instead, our approach took us through an abandoned mill race barely wide enough to accommodate the mirrors. This course was meant to show off the Sport’s off-road maneuverability and did so admirably. In max lift mode, the air suspension allows 11.1 inches of ground clearance; the resulting improvement in breakover angle was the real all-star here, keeping the Rover’s belly well clear of the scratchy bits lining the edges of the now-dry ditch. Terrain Response takes the guesswork out of choosing 4x4 modes; simply pick the conditions you’re facing (mud & ruts, in our case) and go. And go it did.

Sure, this thing can wheel; but even with its multitude of cameras, the guides on hand to direct us through the trickier bits were the only true guarantee that we didn’t mar the Sport’s pretty red finish. And despite its performance in this highly controlled scenario, this combination of 23-inch wheels and rubber band tires would be the first to go if anything like this might be a regular encounter. Two members of our party ended up with punctures while traversing a relatively mild stretch of gravel road.

With the V8 behind us, it was time to sample the rest of Range Rover’s powertrain lineup. This is where things get a bit weird, as the new Sport comes in several variants that the United States won’t get. Working down from the V8-powered P530, the American lineup will consist of the plug-in P440e Autobiography, followed by the mild-hybrid P400 SE Dynamic and P360 SE. These model numbers are more intuitive than they appear at first blush. Ignore the “P,” it’s just for decoration. The numbers roughly denote power output (there are some unit conversion issues here but trust the system) and if there’s an “e” afterwards, that means it’s a PHEV. Simple enough, right?

Let’s move next to the P440e. It makes 434 horsepower and 457 pound-feet of torque care of a turbocharged inline-six paired to a 105-kilowatt electric motor. With its 31.8-kilowatt-hour battery, Land Rover estimates the plug-in Sport will be able to go 48 miles on electricity only. Final EPA figures are still pending, but if it gets close to that, that’s a huge number for any plug-in hybrid. It’ll also get to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds. This is the detuned version of the 503-horosepower P510e that will be sold elsewhere. That version’s power advantage comes from a more aggressive engine program for the turbo-six; the motor and battery pack are identical.

We got to test the P440e in a standard Range Rover (not a Sport, in other words), but for the purposes of feeling out the powertrain, there’s virtually no difference. Powertrain-for-powertrain, the engineers on hand told us the difference between the standard Range Rover and the Sport is only 80 pounds and considering that both are knocking on the 6,000-pound mark, the weight of a child is negligible at best.

You read that correctly. While the V8 is plenty porky at 5,500 pounds, the PHEV checks in at just under 5,900. But PHEVs have the magic bullet for neutralizing curb weight at launch: torque. It doesn’t rip the way the V8 does, nor does it sound nearly as aggressive. In fact, the PHEV feels perfectly at home in the standard Range Rover, where luxury is the name of the game. It’s quiet and unintrusive, to the point where it can be difficult to tell whether the gas engine is running at all. If you’re not looking at the tach, you might miss the transition entirely.

2023 Land Rover Ranger Rover Sport
2023 Land Rover Ranger Rover Sport

The PHEV offers three modes: an electric-car simulator, a standard hybrid mode and a battery saver mode intended to keep the plug-in electric range topped off in anticipation of pure electric operation. This is particularly handy here in Europe, where many larger urban centers charge fees for ICE-powered cars or exclude them completely. If you enter a destination within the restricted part of a city, Range Rover’s navigation software will automatically instruct the hybrid system to conserve enough juice to cover that final stretch without using gas.

You can switch between these modes on your own too if you’re so inclined, as we were. The pure electric mode won’t completely shut the engine out, but so long as don’t shove your right foot down too far or run out of juice, it’ll do its best imitation of a standard EV. The gas engine would kick in under heavy acceleration, but even then, it remained blessedly silent. Since the P440e is our top-end PHEV, we’ll get this one in Range Rover’s Autobiography trim, meaning it will include all the bells and whistles. We especially appreciate the refrigerated center console (cold water in the arid heat of central Spain? Yes, please) and the Meridian 3D surround system is an absolute delight that left us wishing we had higher-quality audio files to throw at it.

The next rung down is the P400 SE Dynamic. While this is the second-most-basic model we’ll see in the States, it was the only mild-hybrid powertrain available to sample; the base-spec P360 sat this one out. Admittedly, the differences are relatively minor. The P400 SE makes 395 hp and 406 lb-ft from its 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six (vs. 355 hp and 369 lb-ft in the P360 SE). This is also the lightest variant in the lineup, weighing just a hair over 5,000 pounds.

The burbly V8 and quick-but-quiet P440e are hard acts to follow, so it’s no surprise that the P400 felt a bit pedestrian by comparison. Even without the torque of a V8 or electric motor, though, it gets on down the road plenty well. It sounds good, too, as short of the V8, the P400 was best-sounding of the models we sampled. We’re guessing JLR’s engineers had to throw a bit more NVH reduction at the PHEV to round off its sharper burrs. The I-6, meanwhile, gets by relatively unmuffled.

This will likely be the last generation of Range Rovers to offer a powertrain lineup that leans so heavily on internal combustion. An all-electric variant is heading to market based on this platform and is expected to land next year. If the plug-in hybrid is any indication, Range Rover is more than ready to hit the ground running with a silent, luxurious cruiser. In the meantime, those who want attention any way they can get it can still take advantage of the loud-by-every-measure P530 V8. Plenty already have; the company’s allocation of 2023 First Edition models is long since spoken for.

But with nearly 50 miles of all-electric range and a cabin serene enough to make even an all-electric powertrain seem right at home, the P440e is the sweet spot in the lineup. The only strike against it? The P510e exists. But since Land Rover hasn’t seen fit to send that one our way, we’ll have to make do with what we’re offered. It’s plenty.

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