2006 Land Rover Range Rover Sport

2006 Land Rover Range Rover Sport 2006 Land Rover Range Rover Sport
First Drive Review

Down a Saharan camel trail just east of where maps of Morocco fade to blank, a trio of new Range Rover Sports chugs past a Berber family and their tent homestead. They're selling fossiles, the ubiquitous tourist trinket of Morocco from its Paleozoic past. The white foreigners wave back from behind glass in 72-degree leather-upholstered comfort. A half-mile later one of the Rovers slices a tire open on a rock. Whoops, time to meet the locals.

Land Rover has been inviting the press to off-the-map locations since Marlin Perkins had pink cheeks. For the launch of the 2006 Range Rover Sport [see sidebar], they booked Morocco. The former French protectorate, just eight miles south of Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar, rests on Africa's northwest lobe like an Islamic kufi.

After a catawampus landing at Casablanca's Mohamed V Airport that felt like bungee jumping in a canoe, our Range Rover Sport bolts across the coastal plains on a glass-smooth tollway that bisects a verdant patchwork of olive groves, date palms, and citrus farms. There's no sign of Bing or Bob, but every few miles bored cops wearing navy-blue tunics and white bandoleers hose the road with radar from their Jeep Wranglers. Traffic is sparse, thanks to tolls of $10 to $15. Near a cluster of parked trucks, drivers kneel on prayer mats facing Mecca, a ritual performed five times a day.

The sportiest of Rovers is a spacious luxury express that loves the Moroccan macadam. In the $69,750 supercharged model we're piloting, the blower makes a big shove on launch and whirs distantly at cruise as the miles slide by quickly and quietly. The chunky steering wheel and button-berserk dash remind you more of an ATM than of the Nürburgring, where Land Rover reportedly tuned the air-spring chassis, but reactive steering and a composed suspension mean the 5700-pound truck aims easily and is eager to turn. No plodding Yorkshire tractor this.

At the 900-year-old walled capital of Rabat, we turn right toward the sugar-frosted lumps of the Atlas Mountains and their Berber villages of huts built from mud, dung, and straw. Here the ocean wind is wrung dry of its moisture before plunging inland toward the Sahara. Larger towns often have a centuries-old ksar, an earthen fortress of inward-sloping ramparts and towers fringed with spade-shaped parapets.

It's snowing horizontally at the 4700-foot Paysage d'Ito, a scabrous black plateau of rock fields ringed by extinct volcanoes. A Range Rover with 20-inch summer tires suddenly seems loony as we slow to snail speed. Take the taller sidewalls (and better ride) of the nonsupercharged Sport's all-season 19-inchers, or take it real, real slow in snow. The nine-hour, 390-mile trek ends with us washing the dust down with Casablanca Lager at the Kasbah Xaluca Maadid, a hotel perched on the edge of the Saharan wastes that lacks only Gary Cooper in a kepi hat to perfect its likeness to a legionnaire fortress.

The next day we meet the Berber Brady Bunch on a popular 4x4 trail also used by the annual Paris-Dakar rally. The skewered tire hisses itself flat as the children come sprinting barefoot up the trail, the menfolk following on bicycles. Fossil touts are everywhere in Morocco, so the sales go slowly. Tire swapped, we mount up. The always-prepared Land Rover lads suddenly produce stuffed toy animals for the children. It's not a sale, but it's probably better than what they got from the last gringos through. We roll off leaving smiles and waves in our wake. Two miles later the Rover blows another tire.

"It's clear that with the Sport's wheels and tires we've turned a corner," admits Land Rover technical communications manager Roger Crathorne, as the convoy, second tire fixed, U-turns and heads for pavement. Crathorne wanted to show how the dashing Sport could master this Paris-Dakar trail as well as a hairpin switchback, but the sawtooth rocks and fragile tires have conspired against the plan. So we head for Merzouga and its roiling ocean of orange sand dunes. Through the shimmering heatwaves a camel train clops southward on an ancient salt trading route into central Africa. A signpost reads, "Timbuktu: 52 days."

Land Rover teaches a sand-driving technique that boils down to this: Don't make hard turns, don't hit the brakes, and for God's sake, don't lift off the gas. Adhere to these faithfully, and the Sport--its air suspension pumped up to teeter height and the Terrain Response turned to the sand setting, denoted by a cactus pictograph, which alters the throttle, shift, and traction-control settings for better traction--swishes from dune to dune on its wide tires. We spend a few hours plunging into vast bowls and crashing over crests in billowy explosions and then shake out the sand over the coiled 195 miles to Ouarzazate and its maze of back alleys, down which our evening's kasbah lies. The fading sun broils the clouds red.

It returns the following morning at 5:22 when the local muezzin calls the faithful to prayer through a minaret loudspeaker about 50 yards from our beds. All aboard the "Marrakesh Express," so sang Crosby, Stills & Nash, who probably all drive Range Rovers. We wind our way back into the Atlas range for the 125-mile drive, pausing to spare a dozen men and a cantankerous donkey from the job of pulling a dump truck out of the mud. Bemused by the scene of three new Range Rovers springing to their aid, the men say a quick merci and barakallahoufik, which appears to be Berber for both "thank you" and "don't touch my ass."

Every day Marrakech's broad avenues choke up with diesel taxis and suicidal moped riders coursing through poisonous blue air. We steer straight into the shadowy alleys of the medina, where the souk peddles handicrafts--pottery, carpets, filigreed brassware, wood carvings, hashish. For whatever currency you carry there's an extra-special price. Technically, it's illegal to drive in the medina, but the Land Rover men have found a snake charmer in the Djemma el Fna--Marrakech's main square, where naked commerce meets Cirque du Soleil--willing to contribute to the perfect photo op. Seems like anything goes in this square; the cops don't even blink at us. Oozing urban chic and commanding a price fit for an emir, this Range Rover still looks like it belongs here.