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Review: 2009 Land Rover LR2 HSE is naughty by nature

2009 Land Rover LR2 HSE – Click above for high-res image gallery

Land Rovers have always gone their own way – often literally. While off-roading demands a low center of gravity and muddy trails would seem to warrant hose-out interiors and body-on-frame-construction, the British automaker has long contented itself building tippy-looking unibody boxes with tall greenhouses and opulent cabins – the anti-Humvee, as it were. Further, in recent iterations, they've packed their products with immense electronic systems, air suspensions, dial-a-topography Terrain Response controllers, and so on... the very sort of complexity that ought to be enough to send English sports car enthusiasts running back to their therapists' offices.

And yet, the formula has always worked – vehicles like the Range Rover and Discovery (now LR3) have somehow managed to earn both Kalahari-traversing credentials and valet stand privileges. Other companies have attempted the leather-lined off-roader thing before (Lamborghini, Lexus, Hummer, Porsche, and LaForza come to mind), but while some have added the trappings of luxury to their SUVs, exactly no one has been as successful in marrying their vehicles to the notion of aristocracy – the sort of "Lord and Master of All That I Survey" quality that has remained Solihull's historic preserve. In short, Land Rovers have always been a gloriously and uniquely British contradiction on wheels – a fact that goes some way toward explaining why your author remains more than a little conflicted when it comes to this LR2.

Click through to the jump to find how it all shakes out.

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Photos copyright ©2009 Chris Paukert / Weblogs, Inc.

A Contrarian Spirit

Admittedly, with more and more buyers flocking to the softroader pool, it made a good degree of sense for Land Rover to take a second crack at the market – even after the lackluster Freelander failed to find Stateside homes. Still, despite the solid concept of bringing a dose of the company's values, styling and heritage to bear on the segment, there's no getting around that the genre's developing conventions are at odds with traditional Land Rover tenets – most of which the LR2 doggedly seeks to uphold. Allow us to explain.

These days, more and more such vehicles are coming to market with a lower ride height, minimal off-road ability, and wider, more voluptuous bodies that have the occupants sit lower in the chassis to subconsciously reinforce feelings of security and safety. Perhaps predictably, the LR2 hasn't even waited for the crossover handbook's ink to dry before throwing it out the window and into the mud.

On the styling front, our tester deployed a raft of premium touches – complex-element bi-Xenon adaptive headlamps (part of the $1,050 Lighting Package), clamshell hood, side vents, massive 19-inch alloys (in a new pattern for 2009), and in the case of our tester, impressively lustrous Rimini Red paint. Ultimately, however, the LR2's rectilinear stance and slab sides strike at least some of us as gussied-up paint-by-numbers SUV bodyshell – not a unique form. This author would argue that the LR2 looks smallish and a bit like a lux variant of a more prosaic vehicle (say, Ford Escape?), and its jutting Leno-like mandible of a front bumper does it no favors. Somehow, the LR2 ultimately fails to cash-in on the Sub-Zero minimalist aesthetic advanced by the Green Oval's other models. However, it does offer more traditionally rugged, upright SUV looks than its increasingly wagon-like foes – and that strikes us as a valuable (if niche) position worth saving.

Despite its somewhat gangly appearance, the LR2 is actually wider than its chief competitors (think: BMW X3, Audi Q5, Mercedes-Benz GLK, and Volvo XC60), yet it is also taller, has the shortest overall length and employs a markedly shorter wheelbase – all of which conspire to give it a comparatively tippy-toes look. This sensation is reinforced inside by the vehicle's dining room chair seating and low beltline. That "on, not in" feeling is pure Land Rover, though, and it's done for a reason – the formal driving position allows for a markedly better view of the vehicle's corners and immediate surroundings than any of its competitors – an important factor when tiptoeing around boulders and threading down narrow two-tracks. Sadly, unlike many Range Rover and Discovery owners we know, we have trouble envisioning the average LR2 driver subjecting their vehicle to much more than the occasional curb hop or gravel road, so this strategy may be of limited merit, – even if it is necessary to stay on [brand] message.

Bright, But Boring

With the exception of the annoyingly contrived starting process (insert oversized fob into hidden slot below gauge binnacle, push in until it clicks, then reach up to push the separate engine start/stop button), just about everything in the interior is on the up-and-up ergonomically, with large buttons, simple layouts, and good switchgear feel. Better yet, the low, elbow-on-the-sills beltline and matching décolleté instrument panel combine with the standard twin-element sunroof to flood the interior with sunlight, lending it an open and airy sensation. Despite the abbreviated overall length and the titchy wheelbase, there's plenty of room inside, again, thanks to the upright seating. And yet... the LR2's interior has a bit too much starch in its collar for our tastes.

The dashboard itself is a style-free zone, some plastics are substandard, and worse still, the center stack is badly dated, with a too-small yestertech navigation touchscreen (part of the $3,500 Technology Package) set distractingly low in the dash, to say nothing of the separate 320-watt Alpine audio controls that lurk even further down (and whose old-fashioned display is prone to washing out in the aforementioned floods of sunlight). Still, points must be awarded for the beautiful and aromatic almond leather/nutmeg carpet combination (also new for 2009), easy-to-read instruments, and heated windscreen (part of the $700 Cold Climate Package). And although we chide Land Rover for its aging in-dash technologies, we're quite pleased that they have yet to adopt an overly complex all-in-one GUI controller like their rivals at Audi, BMW and Benz.

Road Scholar? Well...

Despite casting the smallest shadow among its peers, the unibody LR2 is actually the heftiest customer of the compact premium class, toting around some 4,250 pounds (competitors generally ring up in the 4,000-4,200 pound range), a number that doesn't bode well for the 3.2-liter inline-six, which only brings 230 horsepower (@ 6,300 rpm) to the party. That's substantially fewer ponies than the LR2's aforementioned adversaries, most of which corral upwards of 260 hp.

At least the Volvo-sourced 24-valver's 234 pound-feet of torque (@ 3200 rpm) is in the hunt, albeit a bit higher up in the revband, though we wish the kickdowns from the Aisin-Warner six-speed transmissions happened a bit more smoothly and quickly. The latter's sport mode helps somewhat, but blistering progress just isn't on the menu – our rear-end accelerometers peg 60 mph as well north of 9 seconds (LR claims 8.4 seconds, but we're not buying), while many of the LR2's tarmac-oriented classmates will do the deed in under 7 clicks (and most will make more attractive noises while doing so). Because drivers will often find themselves dipping deep into the 3.2's meager reserves, fuel economy fails to excite as well, with EPA figures of 15 mpg city and 22 highway (17 mpg combined), though we could only muster 15.2 per gallon of premium fuel in mostly highway driving.

Speaking of highway driving, you can expect lots of minor course-corrections on the superslab, especially when it's windy. The quick steering rack (2.6-turns lock-to-lock) feels at odds with the rest of the LR2's abilities, so as a consequence, it feels a bit wayward and unsettled – a sensation that's magnified by the tallish seating position. There's a good amount of pitch and yaw from the long-travel suspension as well, although confidence-inspiring, linear braking performance help assuage any dynamic fears.

The Dirty Iconoclast's Payoff

But hang on – things can't be all bad, can they? Hardly. While we didn't take our HSE off-roading during its week with us in Michigan, we must confess to having prior knowledge of the LR2's extensive off-road capabilities, having tested the model's pluck at Biltmore Estate's Land Rover Experience last year in Asheville, North Carolina. After traversing a muddy and slick forest and field course that included log bridges, side tilts, and teeth-gnashing, root strewn descents in the LR3 and big daddy Range Rover, we went back and did much of the course over again in the LR2, finding that it was more than up to the task.

In fact, things were much more exciting while off-roading in the baby Brit, largely because one didn't feel as invincible. Lacking a proper low-range, momentum conservation became of paramount concern, making judicious two-footed juggling of the brake and throttle pedals increasingly important. With 8.3 inches of ground clearance (markedly less than the other air-suspended LRs, yet greater than any of its competitors), we had to pay close attention, but the LR2's nippy best-in-class turning circle helped us negotiate narrow trails and tight tree stands that would hang-up larger vehicles, and the vehicle's unusually erect driving position and excellent sightlines paid big dividends here, as did the long-travel suspension, which helped minimize head-toss and general skittishness that firmer road-oriented setups generally bring. Even the tight wheelbase helps with breakover angle.

With its Terrain Response Control (Driver-selectable modes: General/Snow/Sand/Mud & Ruts) and Hill Descent Control keeping an eye on everything from the four-wheel ventilated disc brakes (12.5-inch units in front, 12.0-inch out back) to our throttle position and the Haldex all-wheel drive system's machinations, our LR2 scrambled up, over, and down obstacles that would've left its contemporaries quite literally gutted. Along the way, we heard lots of skid-plate scraping and some distressingly loud noises emanating from the HDC, but the LR2 prevailed unscathed in enough tough situations that its rivals look terrified of drizzle by comparison. If you live in a particularly hostile climate, this performance alone may be all the justification you need to pay a visit your local Land Rover Center.

A Question of Value(s)

To be fair, the LR2 isn't exactly a new vehicle. While it has only been on the U.S. market since 2007, it went on sale earlier in Europe, and the GLK, Q5, are all more recent efforts, not to mention larger, more overtly road-focused outliers like the Lexus RX350 and Infiniti EX35. Critically, at a base price of $36,100 ($35,375 MSRP + $775 in destination charges), the LR2 undercuts many of its rivals, particularly when one visits the frankly extortionate option lists on some of its German rivals. Our full-house tester was $41,400 all-in, and a comparable X3 would run upwards of $48,000, although the Bimmer's superior maintenance program and resale value blunt the value disparity.

For its part, Land Rover has just unveiled its massively updated 2010 Range Rover, Range Rover Sport, and LR3 lines, all models that have, to one extent or another, historically shared some of the LR2's deficiencies (elderly interiors, underwhelming power). While we have yet to drive these new models, what we have seen suggests that Land Rover is serious about rectifying the bald spots in their product line. We hope that the LR2 is afforded the same treatment – and soon.

But enough with the conditionalizing. In the end, the LR2 is a willfully different product, and it is likely to stay that way, if only because it must. In order to stay true to Land Rover's core values and brand essence, the LR2 had to prioritize off-road ability, segment expectations be damned. Call our tester a tenuous balancing act, call it inherently conflicted, call it a singularly unique constellation of skills, call it what you will – the ramifications of this vehicle's design brief, both positive and negative, are felt in virtually every aspect of its being. Whether Land Rover's engineers have made the right decisions in shaping the LR2 is a question of the buyer's priorities. But one thing is for sure: If we ever had any doubts that the LR2 is a proper Range Rover, well, those days are gone.

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Photos copyright ©2009 Chris Paukert / Weblogs, Inc.

Land Rover LR2 Information

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