1996 Range Rover HSE

I was standing at the pit wall, observing an AJAC car-of-the-year test team put the "prestige" class through its paces on Shannonville's demanding Fabi circuit.

What a treat to watch big luxury cars like the BMW 750iL, Lexus LS400, and Mercedes E320 swoosh around like racers with the sound turned off.

But those worthies had none of the Range Rover 4.0 SE's impact as it whaled, excuse me, wailed past. Seemingly twice as large as its competitors, the classy sport-ute was swooshing with the rest of them, diving into corners and clipping apexes with an aplomb that belied its bulk.

Test team member and incoming AJAC president Joe Knycha told me later: "It was like hot-lapping a two-storey building."

After 3200 km of confident motoring in a 4.0 SE on Britain's tricky roadways last spring, I was well aware of the Rover's talents, but I admit to being impressed.

What, then, am I to think of the 1996 4.6 HSE, a 4×4 off-roader sport-ute with the emphasis on pavement sport, a Range Rover modified for improved performance and handling?

For sure it is an astute marketing ploy. Today's luxury-class buyer expects a high level of vehicle dynamics and many seek out a "sporty" feel and image.

Exclusivity is also a lure, guaranteed in the 4.6 HSE by sheer lack of availability. Land Rover Canada was able to pry only 48 away from the parent company for '96 and they were sold before hitting our shores. There will be larger numbers next year, but company officials can't yet be specific.

Price also narrows the field — 10 grand more than the 4.0 at a thumping $89,900. (You figure out the tax, I'm afraid of hurting myself.)

Available only in Beluga Black and Rioja Red, the limited production model is instantly discriminable by its bold 18-inch alloy wheels wrapped with extreme low profile 255/55HR18 Pirelli Scorpion II tires. So shod, the 4.6 sorta looks like a boyracer modified Honda.

Ten additional millimetres of stroke increase the aluminum V8's displacement from 3950 cc to 4554. Power rises to 225 h.p., up 35 h.p. over the 4.0's 190, and the torque rating of 280 poundfeet represents an increase of 44. Although the peak points for horsepower (4750 r.p.m.) and torque (3000 r.p.m.) are unchanged, the 4.6's output delivery curve has been tuned to provide a stronger midrange and sharper response throughout.

Two transmission-operating modes allow the four-speed automatic to keep up with the sportier engine. The normal mode is adaptive, taking note of the driver's style and committing it to a computer memory. The computer then delivers downshift and upshift points in keeping with the pilot's level of enthusiasm.

If you want the tranny locked in on the most aggressive pattern — high r.p.m. upshifts, with downshifts kicking in with a minimal request from your throttle foot — push a button for the sport mode.

The suspension required only minor tweaks consisting of stiffer shocks and a firmer preload programmed into the air springs' computer control system. No changes were made to the steering gear or to the alignment settings.

Most of the sporty feel and grip comes from those outrageous tires. At present, the H-rated Scorpion II is exclusive to the 4.6 HSE in North America. The mud-and-snow treaded, all-season tire is part of Pirelli's radical new line of speed-rated high performance light truck radials that we will eventually see in Series I, II, and III — all targeted at raising the handling performance standards for vehicles in the burgeoning personal truck market.

The only other Pirelli tires to wear the Scorpion name were the wild donuts custom-crafted for the Lamborghini LM002 rubber with attitude.

That attitude is immediately recognizable on the 4.6 HSE as increased steering effort at low speeds compared to the 4.0. The heavier steering is a hallmark of wide, sticky tires with unyielding sidewalls. Once the tires are rolling, however, the steering wheel frees up and the effect disappears.

Similarly, the firm shocks make their presence felt on sharp bumps at low speeds. Unyielding sidewalls, plus resistant damping provide instant bump-to-butt communication.

But all of this is of no concern to the driver versed in the stern ways of performance. It will be familiar to those who regularly find themselves behind the wheel of a Mercedes or BMW.

Evaluating this unique bolide at speed was a creative challenge. The best scenario might have been a return visit to Shannonville with both models, but our early winter made that impractical.

Getting back to basics, I established that the 4.6 will accelerate to 100 km/h in a tick less than nine seconds, about two seconds quicker than the 4.0. An impromptu slalom in a deserted parking lot was good fun, and it told me that the big machine did not have any dirty habits even when thrown at a turn.

Still frustrated, however, I decided to test the agile Range Rover in its natural habitat. After punching up the sport mode, we went out to play in the traffic.

Setting a course that would take the 4.6 through the 401 War Zone, down the 427, across the Gardiner, up University, over to the DVP, up to the 401 and back west again, I vowed to do it as quickly, and safely, as my skills and the Rover's would allow. Oh yeah, I chose a Friday, at lunch hour.

While negotiating the curve that bends the 401 and 427 at what I thought was warp speed, we were passed on the inside by, what else, a fat-tired boyracer Civic CRX. As he blitzed in and out taking risks that should carry a jail term, I decided to keep him in my sights but with safe, responsible, think-ahead moves. We beat him to the QEW.

University Avenue presented a real test — traffic clogged as usual, and lunch time brings out a high concentration of taxis. No. 1 law of downtown driving: "Don't aggravate cabbies." So, again, think ahead, use the spirited acceleration to gain an edge, but try not to be conspicuous.

You might think conspicuousness would be a problem in a big, shiny black carriage worth one-tenth of a million. Nope, the only folks that noticed were the ones in the expensive overcoats and $100 haircuts. Just as Land Rover intended.

Nevertheless, for the true enthusiast, performance need only be noticed by the person behind the wheel. I noticed, completing the rest of the trip back to the west end with little incident, but swooshing all the way.

Cam McRae, who writes on light trucks and vans, prepared his assessment based on week-long driving experiences in a vehicle supplied by the manufacturer or importer.

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