Wednesday September 13, 2017
By Richard Bosselman
THE morning’s road drive would have shown them as equals, ditto for the first part of the afternoon’s off-roading.
But then, deep in Riverhead Forest, we got to a clearing in which was positioned a set of ramps, parallel but one placed half a car’s length forward of the other.
Land Rover uses this area for off-roading client days. The ramps, we were told, are an ‘ultimate workout’ for the new Land Rover Discovery. The instructors had decided to keep them in situ to fulfil curiosity about whether the car we were driving could cope, too.
Low-range, a ladder frame chassis, a locking differential … the Disco has all of these. Not so the Velar. It’s built upon a car platform and relies on traction and slip control electronics to see it through.
Is that enough? Normally not: Nominally, since they share common car-derived underpinnings and mechanicals, the newest Range Rover belongs in the same crossover category as Jaguar’s F-Pace.
But, as well all know, things change whenever a Land Rover logo is attached. That green badge of courage seems to enable astounding abilities. So it goes with the Velar.
Slotted into its optimal ride height-raising and terrain-tackling off-road mode, the new Rangie aced a job I would never for a moment contemplate handing out to its Jaguar relation. It ascended, balanced with opposing wheels clawing air then delicately descended with all the confidence of an Olympic gymnast going for certain gold.
It’s unlikely owners will appreciate that it has this special talent – some might not ever engage the Terrain Response 2 setup at all - but that’s not the point. It’s a Land Rover. Accordingly, it has to be prepared to do what others in its class cannot.
An enhanced aptitude for outdoors’ survival isn’t the only ingredient that ensures the Velar also stands out from the chic category norm; even by premium player standards, it’s particularly plush, and, of course, it’s one heck of a looker, inside and out. In precis, then, it’s a cut above cars that are already cut above.
That shows in the price positioning as well. Jaguar Land Rover New Zealand product manager Michael Jones reckons the Velar and F-Pace will escape direct comparison because “Velar is positioned as a most capable SUV (whereas) the F-Pace is a practical sports car.”
Actually, I’d say there’s another reason, one measured in dollars.
The unavoidable outcome from restricting this market to highest-end drivetrain choices, a pair of 3.0-litre V6 engines - a 221kW and 700Nm twin turbo diesel or a 280kW/460Nm supercharged petrol – and also equipping with some functions (air suspension, head up display, large wheels) that are optional elsewhere is reflected not just in above-average panache but also price.
In starting at $134,900 and topping out at $157,850, with the SE ($141,900), R-Dynamic SE ($146,850) and HSE ($152,900) placing between those bookends, the Velar is $5000 to $10,000 more expensive than its F-Pace equivalent and also more expensive than three of the future premium German models that JLRNZ cited as potential rivals on our drive day.
Consider the Audi Q5, BMW X3/X4 and Mercedes GLC and sift those respective choices to just those of similar status, spec or sizzle and, by my reckoning, you’re left with the Audi SQ5, BMW X3/X4 in xDrive35d format and Mercedes AMG GLC43. Which respectively offer 260kW/500Nm, 230kW/630Nm and 270kW/520Nm and cost $121,900, $127,350/ $130,400 and $118,800.
And the fourth rival? That’s the Porsche Macan, which actually isn’t quite a complete equal on price, either, because it starts a little lower than Velar and doesn’t price quite as high in its relevant ($125,700 to $147,700) 3.0-litre versions.
I can see Macan and Velar facing off: But it’ll be a battle of style rather than outright sizzle.
Our wheeltime experience of Velar was limited to 90 minutes on the road, 90 minutes off it, spanning between an R-Dynamic petrol and HSE diesel, and sharing driving with a colleague. Not a long period, by any means, but enough to give an idea about how where it stands.
First point: Intention to enforce off-road excellence doesn’t comprise the on-seal aptitude. Quite the opposite. The Velar is not as outright sportscar-like as the Macan and F-Pace, but first impression suggests it’s the sportiest general issue Range Rover yet, with smarter dynamic aptitude at speed than the next-size up Sport.
The handling aspect particularly impresses; on roads that were always wet, it demonstrated excellent grip and a high degree of incisiveness.
It handles especially flatly in Dynamic mode, but is also surprisingly neat and tidy in the noticeably more compliant Comfort mode too. While the electrically-assisted steering isn’t quite as communicative as I’d want and it’s prone to a bit of body roll, it consistently delivers a highly confident feel.
Better still, it remains a highly compliant one, too. Range Rover ride quality is the stuff of legend, yet the smaller or stiffer they get, the more fidgety they seem to come with. Until now. Even though the Velars we drove were on 19- and 20-inch wheels shod with low-profile rubber they soaked up the bumps with big rig ease.
The air springs obviously influence the latter, but maybe it’s a weight thing too. Despite the extensive use of aluminium, Velar is no particular lightweight: The petrol clocks 1884kg and the diesel is 65kg heavier still. And that’s in their lightest formats. The versions we have are extra well-equipped, so patently heft more. Hence why Velars are slower to 100kmh, and thirstier, than their F-Pace equivalents.
Even so, it’s no slug. These engines perform sterling service in the considerably larger and heftier Discovery and Range Rover Sport, so this new role must still seem like light duty.
The petrol engine is impressive for acceleration and its refinement, but thanks to oodles of low-down torque the diesel unsurprisingly feels more muscular and flexible, both on road and off it, and its languid, smooth attitude just suits the SUV style.
All of the above might not matter a jot to those who will be lining up to buy into the 150 Velars promised New Zealand this year. Early adopters will want this car simply because it is such a striking sight.
Range Rover under Gerry McGovern’s watch has produced some incredibly handsome product, but this is something else again; it’s easy to say that this is concept car-like in presentation, but truth is there are some design studies that don’t reach as far as what Land Rover has brought into production. Also, the story goes that McGovern and Co. didn’t even bother building a concept car, instead, going straight from clay model to series production.
Those who have experienced Land Rover’s patchy past record for quality might wonder if it has been too brave. In particular, there’ll be many a silent prayer that the door handles that self-recess to be flush with the bodywork never fail (the maker assures they have been exhaustively tested and will remain reliable when coated in 4mm of sheet ice).
Yet you have to admire the brand’s thinking; in a sector packed with style, they’ve acknowledged that only especially adventurous advante garde can achieve real cut-through and reacted accordingly. In photographs it looks simply stunning, but in the metal, it’s all the more powerful, like nothing else and such a head turner it should carry a medical warning about dislocation risk. It’s great to know, too, that the handsome face you see here will transfer to all future Range Rovers.
The car’s shape is right for its size. But those actual dimensions are bigger than they seem.
In a purely physical sense, it's far closer to the Sport, an impression further enhanced when the Velar is in its off-road configuration, which not only puts more air under the platform but also somehow makes it seem a bit chunkier and more imposing.
At the same token, it is at its most sophisticated best when at utter repose; with the air suspension slackened to the point where the wheels seem to almost meld into bodywork, it seems as much artwork as automobile.
It’s easy to become captivated by the fine touches - burnished copper detailing on the side strakes, bonnet vents and front bumper blades – but what impresses all the more is how ingredients that speak to the brand DNA (the continuous beltline, floating roof) merge so well with features new to the family, such as the super-slim matrix-laser LED headlamps.
As astoundingly as the car looks from the outside, it’s the interior that really sets it apart from everything else.
Range Rover cabins are nice places to be, but this one is just amazing. As an all-out homage to minimalism, it’s a beautifully finished and highly detailed reach into a future that no other Range Rover has yet to experience.
How will brand faithful feel about the dramatically reductive approach to design that eradicates the usual car clutter and orthodox switchgear and instead enforces almost total reliance on haptic touch screen prompts, mainly via the ‘Touch Pro Duo’ - two state-of-the-art 10-inch touchscreens?
First exposure suggested this leap into a sci-fi future is not as daunting as it might first appear. Yes, for a moment it is a sensory overload – the environment in general is totally Ranger Rover yet for all that familiarity everything is patently different. You take a moment to wonder where all the usual car stuff went.
But it’s a bit like learning a new smartphone; you first get to grips with the basics of operability and from thereon it’s just a matter of broadening your working knowledge at whatever pace you use. It surely says much about the solid intuitiveness of what Land Rover has presented here that we never once had to search out the handbook. Assuming it even has one: Maybe that’s now an electronic file, too.
You still steer with a wheel, brake and accelerate with pedals but almost everything else has been combined into those two touch-screen glass panels. The top screen looks like the one in the Discovery, but has power operation so it tilts toward the driver when the car is started. The bottom screen is a sleek black piece of glass that flows down the centre console. It controls basic functions like climate and seat controls, while the top screen does everything else.
The computing power is obviously awesome. That the screens’ initial start-up takes a good 30 seconds suggests there’s clearly a huge amount of processing going on.
Perhaps it’s not quite bug-free: A reboot was required to get a sub-menu to shut down (our host admitted he’d never ‘seen that happen before’). Also, even though Land Rover reckons the in-house app suite it has created is quite smart, I think it has missed a beat by not implementing Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Word from overseas is that these could well be coming next year.
Still, it’s exceptionally cool and quite clever, not least because functions can be swiped from one screen to the other. The tactility is impressive and it doesn’t take too much head-scratching to become used to the main controllers, a pair of rotary dials that are effectively multi-functional portals to a wide host of functions.
Our limited exposure hardly touched the full gambit of the operability by any means. But I found it a cinch to change drive modes – both the off-road Terrain Response and the Dynamic settings for on-road driving – make and receive a phone call, play a podcast, operate the satnav and sort the seat heating and air conditioning. But it feels like there's just no end to the systems' flexibility.
Since the NZ spec also provide a head up display as standard – which in addition to the usual functions can show steering angle and more when off-roading - and most versions have a 12.3-inch TFT instrument screen, in lieu of standard analogue dials, and be linked up to a smartphone app that enables the car to self-start and warm up or cool down (while remaining locked and unable to be driven until the keyholder gets in), and it’s as future-now as anything can be.
Another ergonomic like: That the window switches are near the door pulls. Practice on other modern Land Rovers is to put them on the door cappings, a more awkward location.
The Velar differs from current product in another way, though, in that it hasn’t the usual high-set command driving position, and neither is it as roomy as the larger product. Head and legroom in the back is fair at best; likewise though they claim the 634-litre boot is class-leading, you’ll still think it a bit restricted in capacity.
There's no getting away from the fact that the Velar is expensive. The reason why it costs more than an F-Pace became understandable as the day rolled on; even though they share so much, the Velar is more luxurious and better equipped. Still, just because the wider opposition is also selling for less, it would be imprudent to think it was necessarily cheaper.
The standard spec is fulsome. Standard fit on the base S includes items like a tow bar (2500kg braked weight), leather trim, powered and heated seats, Activity key, LED headlights, 19-inch rims, powered tailgate, navigation, and sonar both ends. The R-Dynamic package brings so much more. Larger satin dark grey alloy wheels, tread plates, leather steering wheel with chrome bezel, unique front and rear bumper with integrated exhaust finishers, satin chrome gearshift paddles, shadow aluminium trim finisher, bright metal pedals, ebony headlining, gloss black mirrors and front fog lights.
That’s a lot, but there’s good reason why Velar prices are preceded by the word ‘from’. JLR options are famously diverse and with Velar comes a bundle of wallet-punishing accessories to win your attention.
Jones professed ignorance when asked how much one could ultimately spend on speccing, but from a cursory scan of the add-ons it seems likely an unrestrained attack could take the spend to a level of spend that could otherwise tick off a full-sized Range Rover.
So, it’s a rich picking in every sense. But potentially a hugely rewarding one, too.